Among Wagner’s regularly performed operas, Tannhäuser is the second (following The Flying Dutchman), but at the end of his life the composer told his wife he still owed the world a definitive version. Since its premiere at Dresden in 1845 there were numerous alterations, and what is usually called the Dresden version was published in 1860. The following year Wagner made alterations for its performance (in French) in Paris, incorporating an extended bacchanal in the Venusberg. The score was never published at the time but revisions of it, performed under Wagner’s supervision in Vienna in 1875, formed what is now known as the Paris version. This is essentially what the Royal Opera now performs, with the Venusberg represented by six male dancers in black tie, and six females in long dresses, presided over by Venus herself.
This is the second revival of Tim Albery’s 2010 production, which portrays the entrance to the Venusberg as an on-stage replica of the Royal Opera’s proscenium arch, complete with ROH curtains. In Act 2 it lies decayed and dismembered, a metaphor for Tannhäuser’s rejection of sexual delights and his attempt to achieve redemption by making a pilgrimage to Rome.
In Act 3 only a scrap remains of the arch, joining rear to front of a blank stage. The pilgrims return from Rome at stage rear, and the faithful Elisabeth searches for her beloved Tannhäuser. He is not among them, having been rejected by the Pope, and Elisabeth prays to the Virgin Mary that her own death might save him. Finally, as he reappears, having given up hope, his friend Wolfram urges him not to return to Venus, who reappears in a long black dress on the last scrap of the arch. Wolfram sadly explains Elisabeth’s sacrifice, Tannhäuser begins to understand the nature of true love and rejects Venus. The proscenium arch reappears, and as it lifts, the stage fills with a massive chorus, headed by children, coming forward for a thundering resolution of divine mercy.
As with the previous revival the cast was very well chosen. The important role of Wolfram von Eschenbach, a famous poet in medieval German literature, had been taken by Christian Gerhaher in the original production, and its revival. This time it was the excellent Gerald Finley, who gave the role superb depth and calmness. Elisabeth was powerfully and eloquently sung by Lise Davidsen, while Venus was the Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, who once was a Young Artist at the ROH before going on to sing the role at Bayreuth. In a superb cast, Stefan Vinke unfortunately had to walk the title role due to throat issues, but the young Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst bravely stood in for him, singing from the side of the stage. Among other roles, Finnish bass Mika Kares as Elisabeth’s uncle, the Landgraf, sang with huge sympathy, and Sarah Dufresne made a striking impression as the Young Shepherd in Act 1.
Under the baton of Sebastian Weigle, this proved to be a terrific performance, after a slightly hesitant start. The final chorus, in particular, was sheer magic.
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