Tim Albery’s 2010 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is now back at Covent Garden for its second revival, and remains a flawed piece of theatre that only fitfully illuminates the opera’s complexities. Wagner examines the conflict between sexuality and spirituality in the soul of an artist, presenting them as being at once polarised and mutually dependent by deploying contrasting developments of the same thematic material for each. Albery, however, muddles matters by adding too many glosses about the relationship between art and reality and the role of the artist in times of political turmoil.
His Venusberg is a place of illusion, escape and irresponsibility, purposefully if unconvincingly modelled on the Opera House itself, where the curtains part to reveal Ekaterina Gubanova’s cabaret diva Venus presiding over a tawdry table dancing show. Taking his cue, meanwhile, from the Landgrave’s remark about artistic renewal after military conflict, Albery has the song competition take place in a bombed-out war zone inhabited by armed thugs, where the remains of the Venusberg are visible amid the rubble. There’s little sense of a society governed by religious values and consequently no real indication as to why Tannhäuser’s behaviour provokes such outrage. As a dramatic totality, I’m afraid, it doesn’t satisfactorily cohere.
Musically, it’s uneven, too, for which some of the responsibility rests with conductor Sebastian Weigle, usually an impressive Wagnerian, though here he took time establishing adequate dramatic momentum: the first act was unaccountably sluggish, the great Venus/Tannhäuser confrontation notably lacking fire. Stefan Vinke, meanwhile, cast as Tannhäuser, was indisposed on opening night, acting the role while Norbert Ernst sang from the side of the stage with a metallic tone but plenty of staying power and expressive verbal shading: his Rome Narrative was keenly intense.
As Elisabeth, Lise Davidsen gave us a gleaming Dich, Teure Halle and proved sensationally good later on when she took on the Landgrave’s men in order to save Tannhäuser’s life and soul. Gerald Finley, meanwhile, made a truly great Wolfram, incomparably sung, and acted with breathtaking subtlety. Gubanova sounded glamorously sensual, though Venus ideally needs a fractionally warmer lower register than she possesses. Mika Kares was the dark-voiced Landgrave, while among the smaller roles Egor Zhuravskii’s imperious, lyrical Walther particularly stood out. The Royal Opera chorus were superb here, too, singing with wonderful fervour and beautiful control.
• Tannhäuser is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 February.