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Review: TANNHÄUSER, Royal Opera House

Review: TANNHÄUSER, Royal Opera House

Stirring performances anchor aesthetically jumbled production

Review: TANNHÄUSER, Royal Opera House "What is the nature of true love?" One of many questions about life and art coiled at the heart of Tannhäuser's being that is left loitering in Tim Albery's production. In his defence, Wagner infamously reworked the opera throughout his life (we see the Vienna version from 1875). Three weeks before he died, his wife Cosima noted that Richard "says he still owes the world Tannhäuser."

Pregnant with many concepts that Wagner would revisit in his later works, Tannhäuser follows the eponymous Minnesinger (a sort of medieval German lyrical poet) who after indulging in a sensuous life with the goddess of love herself Venus in her grotto, turns his back on her to return to his home in the Wartburg. Plagued by guilt by choosing hedonism over austere Christian morality, all is thrown into disarray when he encounters true love in the form of Elisabeth. But his licentious past has stained his soul and his history is not so easily relinquished.

The production's focal point is the contrast between Venus' hot-blooded world of sensuous pleasure and the cold grey of Wartburg. It sounds good on paper, but its execution is somewhat cumbersome, an aesthetic cocktail of abstract ambiguity and realism is difficult to digest. It is lopsided towards the latter: Venus' grotto, symbolic of moral decadence and hedonistic excess, is framed by a facsimile of the Royal Opera House's Proscenium arch and curtain. Is it a cheeky swipe at the opera going audience? Tannhäuser himself skulks around in a tux, not unlike some audience members, although his becomes increasingly soiled as the opera unfolds.

Acts two and three are dark, dreary, and war torn. It's somewhere between Mad Max and Waiting for Godot as Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, and the other Minnesingers are clad in leather boots, trench coats and wield World War two era guns. They clamber over smashed concrete debris as if it were the remains of the Battle of Stalingrad. Look closer and you'll spot that it's the ruins of Venus' Proscenium arch. It wants to evoke the romantic sublime, Caspar David Friedrich's The Abbey in the Oakwood comes to mind as a visual reference, but something is lost along the way and the opera's moral maze remains labyrinthine.

Powerful performances anchor the revival. Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen's Elizabeth is mesmerising, a gleaming beacon of light in Elizabeth's world dark grey. She is graceful and fluid, but courageous and robustly full-bodied as she defends stirringly Tannhäuser's immorality in the second act with tender passion.

Stefan Vinke, who returns to the role after illness, takes a valiant stab at returning the titular role. Expectedly shaky in the first act, he soldiers on. As he warms up he rediscovers his stride which he will no doubt continue to maintain. He is aided by Sebastian Weigle's gentle yet dynamic conducting and a talented supporting cast who bring much needed colour to this production's drab world of Wartburg.

Tannhäuser plays at the Royal Opera House until 16 February

Photo Credit: Clive Barda

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