At the heart of Tannhäuser is the hero's struggle between spirituality and sensuality. Tim Albery's 2010 production, receiving its first revival at Covent Garden, establishes this conflict within a stylish opening 20 minutes, but thereafter things become rather bland. Tannhäuser is something of a problematic opera. It was a great hit with Victorian audiences, thanks to Wagner's tuneful score, but there are acres of dull writing and Albery's staging does little to alleviate the tedium, despite a couple of very fine performances to raise interest levels.

Venusberg Dancers © ROH | Clive Barda
Venusberg Dancers
© ROH | Clive Barda

During the overture, the curtain rises on a familiar scene – a replica of the Royal Opera House's gilded proscenium arch and plush velvet curtains, in front of which the singer Tannhäuser sits as a spectator. The curtains part and the Thuringian princess Elisabeth briefly appears as a saintly vision – the woman Tannhäuser abandoned. His new lover, Venus, then slinks into view – a prima donna taking her curtain call – and beckons her consort through the red velvet. A series of Tannhäuser doubles are then teased and tempted by a bevy of dancers. Jasmin Vardimon's frenzied choreography of the Venusberg Bacchanale has couples sexily writhing and cavorting, hurling themselves across a long revolving table. It's hardly orgiastic, but it makes for a striking opening.

Thereafter, Albery's production is unobtrusive, but bland. When Tannhäuser expresses his desire to leave, Venus unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him into staying, before stroppily vowing that he will return to her when he finds no peace with men. The proscenium arch rises and Albery leaves us with an austere bare stage... and it's downhill from there. If Venusberg represents decadence, then Albery turns everything on its head and has Wartburg a place of decay. The Landgrave of Thuringia, who welcomes Tannhäuser's return, is a local warlord with Kalashnikov-toting henchmen. They speak of art, but their “hallowed hall” of Act II is a war-ravaged theatre, strewn with rubble, eroded even further in Act III to post-apocalyptic levels. The song contest to decipher the essence of love – a sort of Wartburg's Got Talent – disintegrates into bickering when Tannhäuser praises physical desire, revealing he has been in Venusberg.

<i>Tannhäuser</i> Act II © ROH | Clive Barda
Tannhäuser Act II
© ROH | Clive Barda

Tannhäuser is packed off to Rome with a band of pilgrims to seek forgiveness from the Pope, returning unsuccessfully in Act III whereupon he seeks out Venus again. Only Wolfram's cry of Elisabeth's name stops him in his tracks and he begs, with his dying words, for her to pray for him. Reports of green shoots sprouting from the Pope's staff (a sign of forgiveness) are represented by Albery as the shepherd boy replacing a dead tree with a new sapling, which he plants, settling to watch its growth from the same chair Tannhäuser watched the Venusberg entertainment from in Act I: a symbol of hope for the future.

Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram) © ROH | Clive Barda
Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram)
© ROH | Clive Barda

What strange power does Tannhäuser have that he draws both Venus and Elisabeth to him? As a character, he has few attractive qualities. Elisabeth would be far better off with rival singer Wolfram von Eschinbach, especially when he's sung by Christian Gerhaher. With a lieder singer's care for diction and word-pointing, Gerhaher pushed the bounds of inaudibility at times, but his honeyed singing and silky legato lines in his Hymn to the Evening Star were ravishing. It's quite a small baritone and, at times, he drains all colour from some notes, but he's a fascinating artist. Wolfram's farewell to Elisabeth, his love unreciprocated, was most moving. Emma Bell's Elisabeth was the evening's other highlight, displaying warm, rounded tone colours, sensitively acted, and offering up a beautiful prayer.

Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser) and Sophie Koch (Venus) © ROH | Clive Barda
Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser) and Sophie Koch (Venus)
© ROH | Clive Barda

As Tannhäuser, Peter Seiffert's constricted tenor sounded especially tight, his voice nearly giving out in the Rome Narration and occasionally straying flat. Seiffert's singing lacks subtlety, but he put in an heroic effort, even if he was outsung by Wolfram. Sophie Koch's Venus lacked voluptuous tone and she isn't really sultry enough for the role. Stephen Milling was a black-voiced Landgrave, while Ed Lyon's mellifluous Walther von der Vogelweide stood out among the minor characters. The debit side included a woolly sounding Biterolf.

I enjoyed the conducting greatly. Hartmut Haenchen favoured flowing tempi, a fleet-footed Tannhäuser winging his way to Rome, drawing committed playing from the orchestra. The introduction to Act II bubbled with excitement and Merlot-soft clarinets and bassoons soothed tenderly in Elisabeth's prayer. The ROH Chorus hymned gloriously. If you can forgive the bland production and indifferent singing of the title role, there is still plenty to enjoy in this revival.