Opera. A genre that in contemporary society many view as restricted for musical experts and the elite upper classes. However, The Royal Opera’s current reimagining of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1875 version) is a prime example of how opera can be accessible to a wider audience through emotional intensity and aesthetic considerations.
The opening scene of Tannhäuser is set in ‘The Venusberg’ (the goddess Venus’ erotic lair which is also referred to by pious mortals as hell). In contrast to many operas offputtingly gaudy sets, the stage here is bare and simple, which is refreshing, however one can’t help thinking that the vast expanse of space requires greater composition. This requirement for spatial architecture is addressed in the form of a performance by a cast of twelve dancers who portray the energetic sprites of Venus choreographed by acclaimed contemporary Choreographer, Jasmin Vardimon. Whilst Vardimon’s movement direction seems familiar to those in the audience acquainted with her previous work, the dancers perform sensual and vivacious sequences contributing a new visual dimension to the operatic experience. One only wishes that their roles were not restricted to the first scene.
It is amidst this erotic frenzy we are first introduced to the eponymous protagonist, Tannhäuser and his immortal lover, Venus. Tannhäuser expresses his desire to leave Venus’ chamber of delights to pursue his own mortality. Venus, sung by the stunning Sophie Koch, is distraught at this request, and compels him to stay, yet finally banishes him prophesizing that he will never find peace in the world of men. Koch’s performance as Venus is extremely impressive as she captures the goddess’s multifaceted character, simultaneously displaying her irrational power and a stereotypical feminine vulnerability.
Whilst Tannhäuser boasts standout solo performances from many cast members, the success of this opera lies in the ensemble sections. In Act Two, Tannhäuser has returned to the Wartburg palace in the mortal world, and competes in a song contest judged by his previous lover Elisabeth. The stage is filled with the chorus of The Royal Opera, whose spectacular accumulative sound permeates the Opera House with a sense of gravity and celebration. The power of this ensemble is amplified by the aesthetic beauty of the candles they hold, forming a mass of light on stage which is then arranged at the front of the stage. Emma Bell’s performance as Elisabeth mirrors that of Koch’s. She simultaneously presents dissonant characteristics, appearing devout and pure, yet later exerting her power over the assembly of men who wish to kill Tannhäuser, (when they learn of his debauchery with Venus) convincing them instead to send him on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness for his sins.
Tannhäuser concludes much as it began, with a bare stage – this time bleakly covered in snow evoking an austere sense of damnation. This atmosphere aptly echoes Tannhäuser’s return and despairing proclamation that he was not pardoned on his pilgrimage to Rome, and will be damned for all eternity. It is in this scene that Peter Seiffert really comes into his role as Tannhäuser, pairing the anguish in his voice with a hopeless physicality, pacing the stage and lying upon the ground in despair.
Tannhäuser is an intensely passionate performance that showcases a variety of musically and dramatically talented performers, who embody through music and movement the whole spectrum of human emotion. It cleverly explores a variety of themes including morality, love and sexuality, forgiveness and the role of women, however it is also a purely spectacular auditory experience, conducted and presided over by Hartmut Haenchen, who leads the prestigious Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with powerful dynamism.
Tannhäuser is playing the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until 15 May 2016. For more information see Royal Opera House website.
Photo: Clive Barda