Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck has proudly mounted a locally flavoured version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Director Johannes Reitmeier has adapted Venusberg, where sleaze, sex and promiscuity abound, to become Sanatorium Monte Verita, a place near Lago Maggiore in neighbouring Switzerland where once visitors came for periods of rest and retreat, or for vegetarian food, nudism and free love. Hardly the same. And the Wartburg Castle scene, with its grand Hall of Song, has become a war-damaged and desolate Tiroler Landestheater, the very theatre in which the opera was being performed. I had difficulty identifying with these, and felt the conflict in Tannhäuser’s life between the good and virtuous, personified in Elizabeth, and the desire for debauchery and promiscuity, rampant in Venusberg, had become diminished.

Josefine Weber (Elisabeth) © Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater
Josefine Weber (Elisabeth)
© Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater
For this night usual Tannhäuser Daniel Kirch was unavailable, so Irishman Paul McNamara, was brought from Berlin. Understandably he had some difficulty adjusting to this uique production. Venus, dressed sleekly in white, leading a group of eager enthusiasts in a yoga class, used Tannhäuser as her model for them to follow, while making some half-hearted attempts at seduction. Jennifer Maines, a rich deep throated Venus, sung convincingly, no more so than when her anger at Tannhäuser’s plea to be let free was at full force. In this scenario McNamara’s “lass mich zeihn” (Let me go) pleas became so much more understandable. Initially he seemed uncomfortable in the role, and I even wondered if he would last the distance. But having survived the first scenes, he emerged much stronger and was at ease by Scene III. With his mention of the Virgin Mary, Venus disappeared into a hole in the stage, and the damaged-theatre set appeared, with Sophie Mitterhuber, blind beggar instead of young shepherd, singing sweetly. Pilgrims, on their way to Rome for the jubilee, entered looking like wounded soldiers returning from war, sang forcefully of their quest, a rousing paean of hopeful release from their sin and shame, the tune almost the theme song of the opera.

Act II of Tannhäuser has the best tunes, including Elizabeth’s haunting “Dich teure Halle” as she re-enters the Song Hall for the first time since Tannhäuser’s earlier Venusberg departure. This is Elizabeth’s big moment which audiences wait for. Josephine Weber was certainly up to the task, singing magnificently, with passion and conviction in her voice as she reacquainted herself with the hall, and the returning Tannhäuser. His friend Wolfram (Armin Kolarczyk) watched wistfully, yet discreetly, in the background aware his hopes of winning Elizabeth were fast receding. He would later come into his own with his tender rendition of “O du, mein holder Abendstern”, to the evening star, hinting at his premonition of Elizabeth’s imminent death. She had prayed earnestly for this, believing her intercessions from heaven would have more chance of saving Tannhäuser, her errant knight, although in this production she doesn’t get the chance for she doesn’t die. Instead, during Act III’s orchestral introduction we have film of Landgrave Hermann (Guido Jentjens) trying to marry her off to Walter, from whom she fled at the last moment. He then forced her to enter the convent (maybe Director Reitmeier considered it equivalent to dying!)

<i>Tannhäuser</i> at Tiroler Landestheater © Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater
Tannhäuser at Tiroler Landestheater
© Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater

Back in the Hall-of-Song/war-damaged-theatre, the crowd of noble gentry gathered for the song contest. Trumpets blared enticingly and the guests, wearing predominantly maroon, reds and browns, gathered singing with gusto their rousing praises of Landgrave and his hall. It was an inspiring and impressively theatrical occasion. On cue, the contest got unruly when Tannhäuser, overseen by Venus standing in the balcony, began his lusty paean to erotic love. Rescuing him from being beaten to death by his fellow singing contestants, afforded Weber’s Elizabeth her most moving singing of the evening, culminating with McNamara’s Tannhäuser resting his head tenderly in her lap, a touching scene between the two. She really was his angel. McNamara’s “Erbam dich mein” (Tannhäuser seems to often seek forgiveness) and the beautifully blended men’s voices that accompanied it, led to the pilgrims’ singing on their way to Rome. Tannhäuser must join them, so kitted with cloak, hat and staff by his song rivals, he headed off “nach Rom”.

Armin Kolarczyk (Wolfram) and Josefine Weber (Elisabeth) © Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater
Armin Kolarczyk (Wolfram) and Josefine Weber (Elisabeth)
© Rupert Larl | Tiroler Landestheater

Act III has the full blooded pilgrim song, with which the opera teases the audience from the start. As returning pilgrims poured into the now darkened on-stage theatre, many on crutches and stretchers, their richly voiced “Joyfully now my homeland I behold” soared and resonated to the gods, thrilling in their sense of satisfaction. A nice touch was Elizabeth and Wolfram tending the wounded. Left alone, Kolarczyk sang his haunting “Evening Star” while kneeling on the balcony, then by mentioning Elizabeth’s name, rescued Tannhäuser from relapsing into Venusberg, and finally held him in his arms as he died, redeemed.

The Tiroler Symphonieorchester, under the guidance of Francesco Angelico, played competently all night.

**111