German director Kirsten Harms’ production of Tannhäuser at Deutsche Oper Berlin dates from 2008 and is abstract and modern, with historical and religious symbols. Some ideas are effective and inspiring, while others are distracting and superfluous. Large screens in the back and sides bracketed the stage, and a platform that moved up and down made for efficient introduction and movements of performers and props. It is even conceivable that the whole opera was here staged as the hero’s imaginative trip in his pursuit of love and lust, given the dream-like (and sometimes nightmarish) quality of staging. Act 3 took place in what appeared to be a hospital lined with beds, and the hero did not so much die as collapsed in Elisabeth’s arms in confusion at the end.

Having the same singer take on both Venus and Elisabeth is not uncommon, but in this production the two were depicted as one and the same woman, dressed in white. While Venus had long flowing blond hair, Elisabeth wore chaste blond braids around her head. Elisabeth was busy braiding her hair in the early part of Act 2, as she encountered Tannhäuser after his return; Wolfram helped to untie her hair as Elisabeth was transformed back to Venus in Act 3.  The Venus/Elisabeth character was not a straightforward one of black/white, sensuality/purity. She was more conflicted in the brutal male world that treated women as objects to be exploited or worshipped, two manifestations of a continuum of being female.

The overture began with an armored figure descending from the ceiling into a pool of bare breasted women blowing bubbles. Tannhäuser appeared from the bottom of the pool, as Venus presented herself on a raised bench facing him as if she was on a pedestal. The pilgrims were sinners burning in hellish red flames and descending into the abyss rather than departing for Rome.

The entrance of the guests in Act 2 was well executed with the guests dressed in colorful medieval costume complete, with Tannhäuser and his fellow knights wearing armor. As Tannhäuser’s disruptive singing and ranting escalated, the platform rose up tall over him, the knights crushing him until Elisabeth’s intervention. The act ended with the rousing chorus towering over the stage and audience and numerous knights hanging from the ceiling. 

The third act was the least effective with beds for chorus members dressed in white hospital robes taking up most of the stage. Elisabeth was present through the overture, with Wolfram in the back, biding his time. As Elisabeth wandered around the beds seeking Tannhäuser, Wolfram began to chase her. The two ended up singing their respective arias hunched on the side of the front stage, which was a missing opportunity to showcase the beauty and purity of their arias. Or was it intentional? Did the director want us to realize that platonic love was an imaginary hallucination not deserving of special staging?  

The musical performance got off to a bit of a slow start in Act 1 as the two leads searched their way. Andeas Schager’s large clarion tenor was at times a bit too sonorous and his singing lacked nuance as Tannhäuser expressed his conflict between Venus’ sensual world and the ordinary world of his fellow humans. For Emma Bell, the high tessitura of Venus’ music proved a challenge early on. The chorus of pilgrims had some uncoordinated moments. Matters improved with the strong vocal performance of Albert Pesendorfer as the Landgraf. His tall stature and imposing bass was a rock of the evening, although his Landgraf was one-dimensional and unsympathetic, with nothing but brutality towards Elisabeth and Tannhäuser. Pesendorfer’s even and mellow dark voice was a delight to the ears.

Both Schager and Bell settled into their roles by Act 2, and from there on their performance was thrilling and magical. Bell’s entrance aria was sung with restrained but gleaming beauty, and her duet with Schager showed off their glorious top. Schager acted the part of a rebellious and self-absorbed knight with natural abandon, and in his arrogance towards his friends and his remorse towards Elisabeth, he showed off not only his bright and penetrating tenor but also his more subtle and expressive flourishes.

Despite the interference of hospital beds, the third act was the musical highlight with Schager’s Roman Narrative, Bell’s plea to the Virgin, and Markus Brück’s eloquent aria of the Evening Star. The chorus was a  strong ingredient to the success of a rousing evening. Conductor Michael Boder led a straightforward but effective reading of the Dresden version of the score with strong performance from the strings and woodwinds.