Kay Voges' daring new Tannhäuser with Dortmund Opera makes for a fascinating and often shocking production, brilliantly embellished by high quality singing and orchestral playing. This is Voges' first opera, having previously directed for the theatre extensively. He brings a strong sense of drama to the plot, and while his interpretation occasionally leaves unanswered questions, he makes a number of very interesting points in his modern day transposition.

Daniel Brenna (Tannhäuser) © Thomas M. Jauk / Stage Picture
Daniel Brenna (Tannhäuser)
© Thomas M. Jauk / Stage Picture

Tannhäuser appears throughout in simple white clothes with a crown of thorns, and is never far from a large cross formed of television screens. In his programme note Voges points out that Tannhäuser is not Christ, or vice versa, but that the two are mirror images of each other. That said, this Tannhäuser/Christ is a man with basic human passions and weaknesses. It sets up an interesting paradox at the end of the opera: who is the redeemer, and who is being redeemed? The roles of Venus and Elisabeth are less clear than their traditional representations of passionate and pure love, too. In the overture we are quickly presented with a film of Venus and Tannhäuser's pleasure-driven lives. After hurtling through the former's Fallopian tubes during one of the more dashing passages of music, we see their newborn baby. The baby soon dies, however, alienating the lovers from each other. Tannhäuser finds comfort in beer and television while Venus tends to a 1950s kitchen and seeks attention from him. All of this before a word is sung!

The cast did an admirable job of handling their singing duties alongside such involved acting throughout the opera. Daniel Brenna as the title character got better and better in each act, in a remarkable display of stamina. Covered in blood by the final scene, his torment was of the highest intensity when he attached himself to the cross at the news of his redemption. Christiane Kohl as Elisabeth was similarly impressive, maintaining a beautiful tone and projecting well to the last. She was the basis of the most effective film projection of the evening, a prolonged image of her kneeling in prayer in Act 3. Venus (Hermine May) did a good job of conveying Voges' vision of a harshly-treated, relatively ordinary woman. In her return in the opera's final scene, she brought tremendous anguish and power to her cry of "Weh, mir veloren!". Similarly imposing was the Landgrave played by Christian Sist, who showed great physical and musical presence in leading the other male principals, whose rock star characterisations carried more than a whiff of testosterone. Walther and Wolfram both sang with good tone quality. The latter (Gerardo Garciacano) gave a good song to the evening star in Act 2, and Morgan Moody's Biterolf was superbly enraged at Tannhäuser's hymn to sensual love. The large chorus were particularly superb. They sang with excellent depth of sound and clear diction in the grand choruses of Act 2 and the final scene, making for some memorable moments such as the entry of the guests for the Singerkrieg.

The production never took itself too seriously: this particular scene was backed by some bizarrely entertaining film, including clips of Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus superimposed on the Dortmund opera house. During the trumpet fanfares, two lines of cartoon figures, drawn in Terry Gilliam/Monty Python style, played their trumpets whilst bent double, facing backwards between their legs. Conductor Gabriel Feltz led the orchestra and cast with calm authority and clarity, achieving thrilling and moving results at various points. The pace slackened somewhat in the early parts of Act 3, but the broader dramatic sweep was well handled, neatly highlighting the key scenes. The orchestra received the loudest cheer of the evening, and it was richly deserved. There was excellent transparency in the complex string passages and the band of offstage horns played with great skill and vivacity at the end of Act 1.

This was a constantly fascinating and stimulating production. Daniel Roskamp's inventive sets and Michael Siebetock-Serafimowitsch's costumes contributed significantly to this, subtly adding to the overall effects without cluttering the stage. Even if some of the directorial ideas were not entirely clear, they were highly thought-provoking, and I will look forward to his second opera.