The sonorous brass intoned the Pilgrims’ Chorus music, the very visible lighting rig rose slowly out of sight, and then, ever so gradually, a figure in shining armour descended from the flies. As the Overture progressed, the knight touched down in the Venusberg (the sunken recesses in the stage made it seem more a cleft than a mountain), and to the sound of the sparkling music associated with this forbidden kingdom of love, he cavorted with its inhabitants, languishing nymphs with obviously prosthetic bosoms. Since it was the Dresden rather than the Paris version of the opera, the Pilgrim’s music returned at the end of the Overture, during which Venus and Tannhäuser embraced on an altar-like table. This dipped briefly out of sight, and on its return Peter Seiffert had replaced his much younger acting double.

Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser) © Bettina Stöss
Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
© Bettina Stöss

Thus even before a word was sung, much of the back-story of Tannhäuser had been conveyed through mime. Although eschewing strict realism, Kirsten Harms’ production made plentiful use of medieval trappings in the first two acts: plate armour, chain mail, wimples, horses and heraldic head-gear all seemed suggestive of Wagner’s early 13th century setting, as were the projected images of gothic sculptures on the curtain and back-wall. Act II began with rows of armour rising from the depths like the Terracotta Army; these eventually were suspended in the heights and remained a visually striking ornament for much of the rest of the production.

The medieval approach was largely abandoned in Act III, with the stage instead dominated by rows of modern hospital beds. There wasn’t any in-story justification for these invalids, although their presence did enable a particularly memorable rendition of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, which started so faintly that it seemed as if the sound must be coming from off-stage. This was not the case: as it built up, the sick and injured rose and declaimed it with full-throated power, before they collapsed back as the sound faded out again. In fact, the pilgrims were never pilgrims in this production: their earlier number in Act I was staged as if they were in the red flames of Hell (or, more probably, Purgatory). Bernd Damovsky’s lighting changes were especially effective in this production, with symbolic uses of colours such as blue and pink (in the Venusberg), yellow (as the Shepherd sang of the May morning – nicely performed by Elbenite Kajtazi), and luminous green (as Tannhäuser told of the pope’s anathema).

Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) and Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser) © Bettina Stöss
Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) and Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
© Bettina Stöss

Another fascinating aspect of Harms’ production was the decision to give the roles of Elisabeth and Venus to a single soprano, on this night the accomplished Petra Maria Schnitzer. Although not possessed of the biggest voice, she paced herself well throughout the demanding double sing. Her imaginative approach was showcased in the different tones she employed in her cries of “Heinrich” in Act II. Visually the two roles were only distinguished by the hair-styling: Venus had long, free-flowing locks modelled, surely, on Bouguereau’s famous painting of the goddess, whereas the saintly Elisabeth wore braids. This led to an intriguing closing part of Act III, during which the dead Elisabeth remained on stage covered by a sheet, her hair having been loosened by the love-lorn Wolfram. At the end, the sheet was removed, and Venus appeared, only to be rejected finally by Tannhäuser when Wolfram invokes Elisabeth’s name. The fact that Tannhäuser dies cradled in Schnitzer’s arms left one wondering as to who actually was holding him. Or maybe this isn’t the right question – the point may have been to collapse Wagner’s whore-vs-angel antithesis into a single, more realistic, human entity.

Peter Seiffert © Bettina Stöss
Peter Seiffert
© Bettina Stöss

Seiffert is an old-hand at the demanding title role, and certainly took some time to warm-up: his opening recitative was distinctly ropey, and he only began to find his feet with the three-verse hymn to Venus. By Act II, he was into his stride, and matched the other Minnesingers song for song (Thomas Blondelle’s Walther and Seth Carico’s Biterolf were especially good here). Perhaps the finest singing of the evening was from Markus Brück as Wolfram – his ‘Abendstern’ song was simply exquisite, delivered from a recumbent position next to the unconscious Elisabeth. Daringly, he kept the dynamic down throughout, instead conveying a range of feeling through nuances of colour and vibrato. Also in fine voice was Ain Anger, who was a resonant Landgraf Hermann. The orchestra under Axel Kober was competent, with especially good oboe solos in Act II.

At the end of the show, Peter Seiffert’s life-time contribution to opera in Berlin was recognised in a brief ceremony in which he was awarded the honorary title Kammermusiker. He may have been shouted down during the singing contest in Act II, but Tannhäuser’s paeans to love certainly won this fine Wagnerian singer the acclaim of this audience.