Theater Freiburg's Tannhäuser begins with a vision of our hero's (almost) end: on his knees, Tannhäuser (Marius Vlad) desperately begs the Pope for forgiveness of his sins, while the Pope angrily and violently casts him aside. Wagner's overture, full of erotic charge and dramatic surge, makes the perfect backdrop to this battle of wills, conveyed solely through acting and gesture. As grey doors slam behind the inflexible Pope, Tannhäuser's utter despair, and consequent masochistic determination to devote himself utterly to sin, spreads gradually across his face. Crowds of religious devotees process onto the stage, which we begin to realise is a church, ecstatically praying and beating their breasts in an orgy of supplication which focuses on the gruesomely sensual aspects of organised religion, locating the forbidden, sinful Venusberg as a state of mind at the heart of the Church that purports to reject it. But amongst these frantic prayers and fervid rites, some worshippers already hold staffs which sprout fresh, green leaves: incontrovertible, living proof of Tannhäuser's assured redemption. Authority may have said no to Tannhäuser – God has just said yes.

Theater Freiburg's <i>Tannhäuser</i> © Maurice Korbel | Theater Freiburg
Theater Freiburg's Tannhäuser
© Maurice Korbel | Theater Freiburg

Nevertheless, Tannhäuser is trapped in this moment; and, in Eva-Maria Höckmayr's vision, he remains trapped in his nightmarish psychic pilgrimage, like the Flying Dutchman on his endless ocean, until the end of his opera. Acts I and II, therefore, become flashbacks, with two Tannhäusers on stage: one, the Tannhäuser participating in the action at the time, who sings the role; the second, our later Tannhäuser, remembering and bewailing his actions and words, expressed through gesture by a skilled actor (Edward Martens), in a separation reminiscent of the two phases of Captain Vere in Britten's Billy Budd, but staged simultaneously. Though the Tannhäusers themselves can (and do) swap, their two worlds are clearly separated by the highly skilled (and extremely well-timed) use of light, designed by Markus Bönzli to create immediate distinctions of time and mood. Tannhäuser is an opera full of journeys: by separating his actions from his reflections in this way, Höckmayr traces our hero's own journey from arrogant lust to agonised self-knowledge. As the other Minnesingers welcome him back to the hall, the Tannhäuser of the action glances only at the backs of their heads: the Tannhäuser of later reflection looks searchingly into their faces.

Nina von Essen’s set is, accordingly, a church at all times, a place determinedly without architectural rapture but given variety and dynamism by a mobile wooden pulpit (the focus of much action) and a split stage with three upper rooms, the central one being where at various times the Pope prays, Venus sits and Elisabeth waits, separated from – and yet brooding over – the action below. The depressing grey walls, however, are necessarily plain, for often they host video projections of Tannhäuser's thoughts: images of ecstasy, agony, nudity, elation and worship, as well as his idols: Elisabeth, Venus and the Virgin Mary. Julia Roesler’s costumes are modern, mainly drab grey and black, relieved by the sharp white of penitential shifts (even Venus gets one!) and the strong red of lust and authority. It is no accident that Venus and the clergy wear the same colour. Tannhäuser's purple locates him, appropriately, somewhere between these worlds of grey and red, part of both, yet belonging truly to neither.

Marius Vlad’s owlish stare and assured stagecraft make him an unforgettably convincing Tannhäuser; the energy and acuity of his characterisation are exceptionally compelling, though his high tenor does at times feel a little thin for this music. The actor Edward Martens is handsome and heartbreaking as his doppelgänger: as Elisabeth prays to the other Minnesingers to show him mercy, Martens silently mouths her words, remembering in anguished detail every syllable of her determination to save his former self.

Dana Burasová is a wonderful Elisabeth: her voice huge and clear, soft in its lower ranges. She sings Wagner with natural grace and fabulous control. Burasová understands the power of stillness, while her marvellously expressive face, communicating at once the girlish singlemindedness and womanly strength of Elisabeth, brings great dynamism to her later scenes: at times, she absolutely commands the stage. Alejandro Lárraga Schleske is a constant treat as Wolfram, portraying him with romantic depth, tender intensity and mature humanity, his voice effortlessly filling the space with perfectly-judged phrasing. Astrid Weber gives a shimmeringly sensuous performance as Venus, alluring and unnervingly vulnerable in her red silk nightie, with her full voice soaring easily across the orchestra: the duet between Wolfram and Venus becomes an epic Venn diagram of fear, desire, curiosity and shame which fills the theatre with rippling tension.

Theater Freiburg's <i>Tannhäuser</i> © Maurice Korbel | Theater Freiburg
Theater Freiburg's Tannhäuser
© Maurice Korbel | Theater Freiburg

The Philharmonic Orchestra of Freiburg create a vast wall of glorious sound under Fabrice Bollon, while the Chorus of Theater Freiburg sound magnificent throughout, particularly the male pilgrims in their wonderful choruses, so powerfully reminiscent of the Prisoners in Fidelio. The Shepherd, a soloist with the Boys Choir of Calw, sang so exquisitely that he received one of the most furious bouts of applause of all.

Theater Freiburg don't usually tour, so this journey to the Norwich Theatre Royal is itself a pilgrimage of a kind. The camaraderie and team spirit stirred up by the unusual challenge of moving such an enormous company, sets and all, to perform two great Wagner epics in one week (Parsifal preceded Tannhäuser) in a different country and on a different stage, shines out in a production rich with enthusiasm, skill and commitment. Höckmayr's passion and vision, meanwhile, ensures a highly articulate and intimate drama which keeps us on the edge of our seats until its tragic, transcendent end.