Withholding his full musical sorcery until the last possible moment, Wagner’s flawed masterpiece displays all the self-control of an experienced tantric sex practitioner. Musically speaking, Deutsche Oper Berlin was orgasmic.

<i>Tannhäuser</i> at Deutsche Oper © Bettina Stöss
Tannhäuser at Deutsche Oper
© Bettina Stöss

Replacement singers always get a kind ear from audiences, willing to forgive any perceived weaknesses or fumbles. But with Ricarda Merbeth turning in a commanding last-minute performance as both Venus and Elisabeth, this only added to the splendour, although she had performed the roles previously in the run. 

Wagner was originally going to call Tannhäuser The Mound of Venus, until he learned of the “frightful jokes” that would no doubt have been made of such a title. But he inadvertently courted that mockery since his phallocentric opus doesn’t deal with very much more than a sex addict and a virgin.

The subtitle of the opera could well have been: ‘Let men shag whoever they like.’ Tannhäuser in brief: a man is enjoying a life-long orgy at Venusberg (with the goddess of love, no less) until he gets bored. He then decides to leave Venus as he would like to have sex with the famously virginal Elisabeth, from his hometown, instead. The townsfolk find out that he has been gorging himself in Venusberg (the equivalent of a whorehouse, judging by everyone’s hysterical reaction) and he is cast out of society and told to go to Rome until he learns his lesson. Elisabeth is being courted by several men, but decides that because she has the hots for Tannhäuser she will forgive his transgression. Also at some point Wagner inserts a miniature Eurovision Song Contest, which has the odd structural necessity of containing several less-than-impressive songs, so that our hero can win the day with his own magnificent aria.

The decidedly unsexy overture saw a thinner version of Tannhäuser lowered from the rafters, like spiderman in shining armour, into a bubble-bath of women in nude suits of a pendulous persuasion. From that point on the production displayed no steering creative vision. The lack of consistency was startling. For example, Venusberg is a tableau of sexual freedom with nymphs appearing stark-raving-nude, rising up from the ground, and sinking back into oblivion. Later when the male equivalent of this vision occurs and naked men are similarly raised we are only permitted to see them from the waist upwards, the parallel image thereby being discarded.

Other inconsistencies included the fact that no scenery was used throughout the opera, allowing characters to signify the spaces they inhabit by simply being there in costume. There's nothing wrong with that... until the stage is crammed with hospital beds in the final scene for no apparent reason. A flood of red light suddenly underscores the line “Hallelujah for evermore”, but this device was only used once, and the use of red in particular was seemingly arbitrary. Horses on wheels would make sense if the rest of the production presented an overgrown child-like fairytale, but that wasn’t the case. The horses are just on wheels, bearing no relation to any other aspect of the staging. Inconsistency and anachronisms can of course be used pointedly, but these hurdles appeared to be less than deliberate.

Stephen Gould was in strident form as Tannhäuser, his voice ringing out with heroic force, even affording an occasionally violent rasp to underline his mettle. Hermann was played by Albert Pesendorfer, whose rich voice plumbed the depths required for the Landgrave of Thuringia.

A totally outstanding performance by Ricarda Merbeth, brought detailed acting to her relatively static roles, with her naturalism and expressive voice proving magnetic. Beginning by singing from a music stand as a body-double (Eva-Maria Abelein) mimed Venus’ opening scene, Merbeth, later sang as Elisabeth, to devastating effect, looking for all the world like Bette Davis in plaits.

Merbeth’s final scene must have been supremely confusing to anyone who didn’t know the opera, since Venus and Elisabeth wore the same white outfit – and with Venus singing but Elisabeth being sung about and the body-double trick of Scene 1 not being used for clarity, the spiritual u-turn of Tannhäuser was botched. And nobody seemed to die, as they ought to have done.

The chorus was absolutely fantastic, from miniscule whispering to colossal wedges of sound. I particularly love it when individual voices are discernable among a huge chorus, which is how the Chorus (and Extra Chorus) of Deusche Oper did things under the baton of Axel Kober.

***11