Wagner was a not just a composer. He was also a political activist and a prolific writer, producing not only his own libretti, but also several volumes worth of essays and three autobiographies. One of his most famous essays, Opera and Drama, written in 1851, promotes the concept of musical and dramatic unity in the new genre of the “music drama”, where neither one compromises the other. The ideas in this essay correspond quite closely to the idea of leitmotif (musical fragments associated to particular characters, places or objects), a concept which he first described in 1877. However, even in Tannhäuser, one of his earlier so-called “romantic operas”, the beginnings of this leitmotif technique can be recognised, which makes second and third hearings incredibly rewarding.

© Matthias Creutziger
© Matthias Creutziger

The production by Peter Konwitschny at Dresden’s Semperoper dates back to 1997, making it relatively old for an opera production, and though I sense this may be its last revival, it is still modern and engaging. The opening scene in the Venusberg is not one of the most debauched I’ve encountered, with a chorus of green, red-dressed women using and abusing male puppets of various sizes, but it sends a pretty clear message of Christian morality: men are weakened if they succumb to their sexual urges or the seductions of evil (here even green and witch-like) women, a message which is central to this opera. Michelle Breedt sang an impressive Venus, with incredibly clear diction (necessary in this production, which sadly lacked surtitles) and Frank van Akten’s Tannhäuser was strident and powerful in the opening scene, with a wide range of vocal colours, always adapted appropriately to his character’s current mood.

The scenes surrounding the great song contest are somewhat more sober than the Venusberg, but there is some (rather unsubtle) imagery here too, with the swords held by the minnesingers doubling as crosses, objects simultaneously of peace and violence, again linking to the idea of Christian morality but here somewhat more critically. The German bass Tilmann Rönnebeck was a most commanding Hermann, with a wonderfully rich lower register, but it was really Christoph Pohl as Wolfram who stole the show. Pohl is a permanent member of the Semperoper’s ensemble and the applause he received shows how much his home audience loves him and it’s easy to see (and hear) why. With such a rich voice and commanding stage presence he really was the star of the evening.

Though more often seen in Italian repertoire, Marjorie Owens, another star of the Semperoper’s ensemble, gave a great performance of Elisabeth’s opening aria “Dich teure Halle” but in the second act, van Akten sadly showed some signs of fatigue. Tannhäuser is a demanding role to sing, especially so with only two days to prepare (van Akten was covering for an indisposed colleague) and this did show somewhat here. However, it was nonetheless impressive how he didn’t let it affect his stage presence and acting, which helped to cover the few vocal deficiencies. And perhaps more importantly he was back on form for the “Romerzählung”, his long third act monologue, which was one of the most moving and dramatic I’ve heard. Though often staged with a lot of motion on stage, here it was done as a more classic monologue, but was still thoroughly engaging and beautifully sung.

The Dresden Staatskapelle are really at home in this repertoire and played superbly under the baton of Constantin Trinks. Their rich, well-blended playing really worked wonders with Wagner’s music, making the somewhat dense orchestration into a warm, organic sound, although there were some balance issues with the orchestra somewhat overpowering the singers at times.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable production and performance, and one I can definitely recommend.