On his deathbed Wagner is said to have told Cosima, “I still owe the world another Tannhäuser.” It was his favourite opera, and after all its hero, the minstrel-knight Heinrich von Ofterdingen, was as much an artist as the composer himself, so there is more than a degree of self-identification. Equally, the bacchanalia with which the opera opens and their later rejection represent the eternal battle between a life of the senses and a life of the spirit, something which Wagner himself wrestled with throughout his personal life. The moments of suffering depicted here by the 30-year-old composer foreshadow the more complex figures in later dramas such as Tristan and Parsifal.

Sophie Koch (Venus) and Stephen Gould (Tannhäuser) © Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Sophie Koch (Venus) and Stephen Gould (Tannhäuser)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

It didn’t take long in Act 1 before I began to feel that if Tannhäuser was so desperate to leave the Venusberg, then Venus was well shot of him. Having heard Stephen Gould sing Siegmund under Christian Thielemann, I had high hopes for his assumption of this role. It is all well and good depicting the character as a very angry young man indeed, constantly rattling at the bars of his cage and yearning to break free from the monotony of never-ending sexual gratification. It is something else to experience the unrelenting force of such a powerful voice without much in the way of dynamic shading. Whoever said that Wagner didn‘t value the expressive effect of a cantabile line? It was left to the silkily seductive tones of Sophie Koch as Venus to demonstrate why less is often more.

Having rubbed my metaphorical eyes at some of the visual absurdities of the previous evening, it was a relief to see a modern minimalist staging used for the most part so effectively. It made good sense to place both Tannhäuser and Venus in a large rectangular structure clad in panels of white gauze which were then systematically torn down, revealing the desired escape route. After the Pilgrims’ chorus these were then deployed as covering for the red sofabed on which Venus had been reclining, the white now representing the true and pure path that Tannhäuser is being offered.

<i>Tannhäuser</i> © Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Tannhäuser
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

In a good performance Act 2 will ratchet up the dramatic energy. So it was here. The staging was again restricted to the bare essentials: rows of simple seating, a small model of the Wartburg on a raised plinth, a bevy of hostesses in mini-skirts checking the invitation cards of the arriving guests (who streamed towards the stage from all doors of the hall). Good to also see an intelligent stage direction which ensured that the invited company behaved as individuals and not as serried ranks of  mannequins. This act had got off to a commendable start with the expressive lyrical warmth of Tünde Szabóki’s Elisabeth. In this instance, her “Dich, teure Halle” had extra significance, addressed as it was to the splendidly resonating walls of the Béla Bartók auditorium. One of the great set pieces in this opera, and indeed one of the most thrilling examples of massed choral singing, the Entry of the Guests, was delivered with panache and fervour by the combined forces of Hungarian Radio, the Honvéd Male Choir and Budapest Studio Choir, with dazzling fanfares sounding forth from the uppermost tier. No less impressive were the male voices towards the end of the act when the singing contest has ended and Tannhäuser is confronted with a choice between his old life and the path of virtue. This was one of those cases where, if Gould had held back earlier, the manner in which he poured his heart and soul into the repeated “Erbarm dich mein” would have created irresistible momentum.

Tünde Szabóki (Elisabeth) © Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest
Tünde Szabóki (Elisabeth)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

The Wolfram of Markus Eiche was a model of sensitive delivery, as it had been in the previous act‘s Prize Song, the voice benefiting from his keen ear for colour and nuance. His “O du, mein holder Abendstern” was simple but affecting. By now Tannhäuser is a broken man, having been denied the salvation he sought in Rome, but Gould's over-emphatic diction and the sheer volume of the voice were at odds with what the characterisation requires at this stage. Three aspects of the staging struck me as unconvincing tweaks to the storyline: Elisabeth takes a phial of poison to hasten the release from her own troubled spirit and Tannhäuser is shown with all the accoutrements of a heroin junkie. When the power that Venus still has over Tannhäuser is finally snatched away, the backdrop continues to be bathed in an inappropriate red light.

Ádám Fischer, this time conducting the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, elicited playing that was initially merely circumspect, but which grew in confidence and intensity and achieved towards the close a radiance entirely in keeping with the message of redemption.

****1