2625-1453115161-tannhausersqLast night my husband Charles and I attended the latest Royal Opera House production of “Tannhäuser.” Now we all know the overture…Ta da da da da da da dadada da duh…..etc.

As the curtain rose, we see seated on the stage a rather heavy-set man, peering at an inner curtain very much like the ROH curtains on the larger stage. We knew by this signal that it was a play within a play. And thus began a very uneven production of a great, but seldom performed opera in London. The overture takes fifteen minutes, during which we witnessed a flurry of dancers throwing off their clothes in a violent orgy. From a choreographic point of view it was repetitive. Just how many head tossings and leg splits do we need to get the message that we are witnessing very vigorous grumpy pumpy in multiples?

Then we got to the main story…Peter Seiffert singing Tannhäuser very much not in voice and with an Elvis hairdo, and hardly able to meander around the stage. His character has tired of his life of pleasure and excess with Venus and is about to sign off on the relationship. Venus begs him not to leave her and warns him that life in the real world, aka our world, will be pain and suffering, and the rest of the opera makes good on that promise.

Wagner was very consumed with the sensual, the sexual and the spiritual, and used the theme of Good Girl/Bad Girl/Confused Girl in any number of his operas (Venus and Kundry from “Parsifal” are literally one and the same character). Elisabeth the Saintly girl is very much a 19th-century Romantic idea, and could be interchangeable with Gounod’s Marguerite in “Faust,” except that Elisabeth never takes a false step, never has sex, doesn’t have a baby or kill it. She is saintly. She is good, and she simply cannot put up with the idea that Tannhäuser went missing in action for years whilst playing around with Venus. Tannhäuser, having returned to his home town in Wartburg, sings, in a contest, his exquisite paean to love’s essential sexual nature. The crowds are shocked. Elisabeth has a meltdown, and Tannhäuser is shown out of town, with the injunction that unless he atones and seeks pardon from the Pope, he will not be welcome back.

By this time Elisabeth, sung by Emma Bell, has expressed herself beautifully and pathetically as a suffering betrayed angel. Most of her role occurs either on her knees or lying down under a cloak. The French couple to my right expressed the thought that ROH production was done rather cheaply because there were literally, except for a few papier-mâché broken columns and a wrecked proscenium arch, no stage props, or for that matter any lighting.

Tannhäuser is a broken man when he returns from Rome (and his voice broke several times as well), after the Pope has refused him absolution as his sins are too great. Elisabeth offers up her life to the Queen of Heaven to save him from eternal damnation. Venus appears again. She is willing to have Tannhäuser back, permanently, no questions asked. But then a miracle happens. The Pope’s staff sprouts green leaves (the Pope’s last words were, “there is as little chance for you to get to heaven as for my staff to sprout green leaves”), and Tannhäuser (though collapsed in a heap) is saved. Cue for heavenly music. The attractive Italian woman sitting behind us was apoplectic and communicated her extreme distaste vociferously. And so, in full agreement with her, if the 1875 version of Tannhäuser is one of your favorites, do not book this particular production.

If we were to come away with any serious message at all it is the following: Do artists find their true voice through sensual excess (sex, drugs, license and crime)? Is there a broader and deeper spiritual dimension to the creative process? Is excess the road to revelation? Perhaps not. In this case the opera did not make things any clearer.

Kaaren Hale



One Response to “Tannhäuser”

  1. Fun review. But, ah, the music! What do you want — verisimilitude? The last Tannhauser we saw, in Paris started with a nude Venus. The Pilgrims’ Chorus in the movie “Meeting Venus” still brings tears to my eyes.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.