The lack of shock value in Calixto Bieito’s interpretation of Wagner's Tannhäuser premiering at the Vlaamse Opera in Ghent could almost be seen as a disappointment. All the more surprising then was the romantic intimacy created in this superlatively sung production. The passionate chemistry between Andreas Schager’s Tannhäuser and Annette Dasch’s deeply vulnerable Elisabeth stole my heart and elevated the basic staging to an unforgettable experience. Dmitri Jurowski conducted Wagner’s score in all its sumptuousness, sustaining an impressive balance between the roaring engine of the Flemish Opera Symphony Orchestra and voices on stage, including the terrific choir.

Act I opened with giant tree branches swaying from rotating beams. Bieito creates a Venusberg with simple naturalism: a dancing forest, where Tannhäuser dwells with Venus. As the Overture commenced, the acoustics of this opera house impressed immediately – the music envelops the listener completely. Perhaps it was also the compactness of the theatre, but a constant sense of immediacy connected the singers to the audience. With captivating clarity offstage, the Flanders Opera Choir generated hopeful sentiment as they sang “Nacht euch dem Strande”.

Then with “Dir tone Lob!” Schager owned the role of Tannhäuser. His crystal clear diction and natural phrasing evoked striking empathy for the character, making the surtitles (only in Dutch) nearly irrelevant. Schager captivated as his humble demeanour led to an approachable version of Wagner's mythical character. His indifferent appearance in sweatpants and a hoodie added to the down-to-earth interpretation.

Ausrine Stundyte, dressed in a black negligé, sang the role of Venus passionately, although her diction was indecipherable at times. While Bieito could have come up with plenty of grotesqueries around Venusberg, he settled for surprising tenderness, albeit slightly bizarre when Venus straddles and carresses green-foliaged tree branches as if in an orgy with nature.

Bieito’s provocative nature emerged when Tannhäuser gropes beneath Venus’s attire, as Stundyte reached the high notes of “Zieh hin, Wahnsinniger!”... almost a bit too funny for the moment. Tannhäuser’s reintroduction to his fellow singers at the end of Act I resulted in a mildly bewildering scene where a modest blood ritual and some over-the-top horseplay amongst the Minnesingers provoked Bieito’s trademark unsettling ambience.

In Act II, both in their individual arias and in their duet “Gepriesen sei die Stunde”, Dasch and Schager kicked it up a notch. Dasch gave it her all in “Dich teure Halle” producing her highlight of the evening. Warm, vulnerable, and authentic, in her blue nightgown with red curls spiralling. Dasch portrays Elisabeth as highly sexual, though utterly repressed as she waits for Tannhäuser return. White columns cage her in the rigid, geometrical world of Wartburg. In what may have been the only moment of overacting Bieito included, Elisabeth is forcibly restrained by the singers as she pines for the nearby Tannhäuser, resulting in a slightly discomfiting moment.

According to Bieito, this last act depicts a post-apocalyptical world. In this inhumane world, nature has outlasted civilization. Dirt and branches have overgrown Wartburg’s white columns. Elizabeth has gone mad, eating dirt. Dasch added a feral quality, eyes looking utterly possessed. Very engrossing! Is Bieito suggesting repression leads to insanity? In the supportive cast, Daniel Schmutzhard wowed as Wolfram with “O du mein holder Abendstern”, while Adam Smith as Walther was another marvellous voice. Both character’s came across cocksure and convincingly menacing.

With enormous momentum, Jurowksi moved through Wagner’s lush score. Fierce brass enriched the lush texture of strings with a golden glow. Wagner sounded intoxicating, albeit a bit foggy in a few passages. Together with the choir in “Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Hail!” Jurowski produced a perfect climax, offering resounding depth in an exhilarating catharsis.

A co-production with La Fenice di Venezia, Teatro Carlo Felice Genova and Konzert Theater Bern, Bieito created a modest production but with a superlative cast, resulting in a deeply moving and musically resonating Tannhäuser, brilliantly sung, surprisingly intimate and vulnerable, all with thought-provoking themes.