The unveiling of Dutch National Opera’s new Tannhäuser was a very good night for Wagner, chiefly thanks to the magnificent orchestra and chorus. Director Christof Loy offered an interesting take on the singing knight torn between carnal rapture with the goddess Venus and his socially acceptable love for Elisabeth, and there was some fine solo singing. But it was the spellbinding colours and three-dimensional splendour of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the house chorus that swept one away. Proven Wagnerian Marc Albrecht delivered precision and passion, his every choice of tempo and articulation serving a dramatic purpose. Especially impressive were the tricky concertatos, during which he maintained translucent vocal harmonies amid rich orchestral textures.

Daniel Kirch (Tannhäuser) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Venus) © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Kirch (Tannhäuser) and Ekaterina Gubanova (Venus)
© Monika Rittershaus

Loy is not the first opera director to use the Salle Le Peletier, home to the Paris Opéra during the mid-19th century, as a stage setting. Stefan Herheim beat him to it with Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes for Covent Garden. Yet Loy has the stronger justification for expropriating Edgar Degas ballerinas and their admirers from the Jockey Club. These elite subscription holders with permanent backstage passes closed down the 1861 French version of Tannhäuser when Wagner put the obligatory ballet at the beginning of the opera, instead of in the middle. The Jockey Club gents were furious at having missed ogling their favourite dancers because they were still at dinner. Loy draws an analogy between the beleaguered Wagner and Tannhäuser, composing at the piano in a ballet studio. The society of Minnesänger uses the rehearsal room as a gentlemen’s club, a brothel and a venue for song competitions in front of their wives and girlfriends. Once you accept the premise of an outwardly respectable elite participating in private orgies while condemning anyone who publicly admits to doing the same, Loy’s concept clicks into the plot. Transgressors like Tannhäuser, an artist who openly derives inspiration from his frowned-upon liaison with Venus (an opera singer), are sent on a pilgrimage to Rome to ask for forgiveness. He rails against this hypocritical attitude to dissolution and absolution.

Svetlana Aksenova (Elisabeth) © Monika Rittershaus
Svetlana Aksenova (Elisabeth)
© Monika Rittershaus

The unchanging set and black and white costumes, brightened by a sea of bronze and mauve evening gowns during the song contest, are impeccably realised, as is the direction of the singers. However, visual monotony eventually sets in. It doesn’t help that Tannhäuser opens with its potentially most spectacular scene, the bacchanal. Loy choreographs it into a masterpiece of elegant debauchery, while Albrecht works up the voluptuous orchestra to a pinnacle of disciplined frenzy. The scene leaves little to the imagination but never degenerates into cheap sensation. Once the party is over, it is mostly up to the performers to provide the pageantry, which, whether as pilgrims or guests, the chorus supplied in abundance. Soprano Julietta Aleksanyan made a little jewel of her pastoral ditty as the Shepherd Boy turned cleaner. Despite accomplished singing and unstinting commitment to her character, lack of textual shading left soprano Svetlana Aksenova’s Elisabeth somewhat ill-defined. By having her drop dead suddenly, Loy sucks the pathos out of her final scene. She doesn’t have time to depict the fatal blow she suffers when Tannhäuser isn't among the shriven pilgrims. Her premature collapse also interferes with Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star, which starts with a premonition of Elisabeth’s death after the fact. Baritone Björn Bürger, a wonderful Wolfram with the sensitivity of a Lieder singer, had to sing first and collapse with grief later. Bürger’s highly strung Wolfram cooked up a special chemistry with Aksenova, who constantly fanned the flame of her best friend’s unrequited love by running into his arms for consolation. Among his strongly cast fellow minnesingers, Attilio Glaser’s ringing tenor stood out, making it a shame that this 1875 version of Tannhäuser, the last one of several, none of which wholly satisfied Wagner, leaves out Walther’s solo.

Björn Bürger (Wolfram), Daniel Kirch (Tannhäuser) and Svetlana Aksenova (Elisabeth) © Monika Rittershaus
Björn Bürger (Wolfram), Daniel Kirch (Tannhäuser) and Svetlana Aksenova (Elisabeth)
© Monika Rittershaus

A cool beauty in silver furs, Ekaterina Gubanova was Venus, a woman who loves Tannhäuser as much as Elisabeth, and she vocally lived up to her incarnation as an opera diva. Her copper-coloured mezzo entangled Tannhäuser in its coils, as she harpooned one high B after another. Bass Stephen Milling was also top-drawer, combining power with effortless lyricism as Landgrave Hermann. In the title role, Daniel Kirch completed this punishing marathon for tenors with unflagging volume and stamina. On opening night, however, his timbre had little lustre. Glottal attacks and shouty top notes could not mask a lack of suppleness. In Act 3 his technique became less obtrusive and in the narration about Tannhäuser’s distastrous pilgrimage, his singing drew closer to the expressive ferocity of his acting. Loy denies his renegade artist, dazed and desperate, the salvation of the libretto. There isn’t even a hint of reconciliation between his psyche's warring natures. This Tannhäuser pays with his sanity for failing to compartmentalise his private and public personas and keep his id off the grid.

***11