Glitzy showbiz collides with modernist realism in the Lyric Opera’s new production of Tannhäuser. Collides, literally, as when the golden proscenium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – decked out in red velvet – gets dropped squarely into the middle of Michael Levine’s beautifully desolate set, and carnival lights sweep suddenly away the darkness that pervades most of this production’s four-hour-plus running time. But, of course, the light isn’t holy, and in director Tim Albery’s hands Tannhäuser’s closing trade of spiritual absolution at the expense of female life (this is, as Catherine Clément reminds us, the economics of opera) has never felt less cathartic.

Michaela Schuster (Venus) and Johan Botha (Tannhäuser) © Robert Kusel | Lyric Opera
Michaela Schuster (Venus) and Johan Botha (Tannhäuser)
© Robert Kusel | Lyric Opera

The Lyric’s recent production of Parsifal made excellent use of vertical space; here, it is the diagonal that takes center stage, beginning with a long formal dinner table that is canted up on one end to serve as a Slip ‘n' Slide for Venus’ sexy subjects. I admired, during Wagner’s expansive and roiling overture, in which string motifs act like thermals that buffet soaring horn lines, the visual dizziness of the table being spun round and round. Otherwise, the opening orgy, in which men and women make a transition from formal- to underwear, is pretty vanilla. Wouldn't it have been nice, at this moment of historic shift in U.S. civil rights, to see a little gay action in erotophilic Venusberg? The glossy, brightly lit bodies from the overture give way to a bombed-out landscape; in striking contrast, everyone is now swaddled in too-big mercenaries' uniforms. Even the supplicants returning from Rome in the third Act hardly look transformed as they shuffle onstage in heavy rags. But Albery and Levine offset the coarse detail of the set with a clean, box-like approach to the horizon, which works remarkably well in its suggestion of the infinite

The German mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster plays Venus as a svelte presence who nicely contrasts Amber Wagner’s doe eyes as Elisabeth. Perhaps taking a cue from Johan Botha’s utterly relaxed Tannhäuser, Schuster starts the first act a little sleepily. The character only starts to kick into place when she gets campy, a mode perfectly suited to the garishness and commercialism of her Venusberg. Flinging bedspreads dramatically across the stage, Schuster pairs her histrionic deity with a rich, pleasantly warbled voice that occasionally slides around the tone she wants.

Venusburg Ballet © Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera
Venusburg Ballet
© Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera

Botha, meanwhile, shows up only vocally in Act I, singing with a stunning tenor richness that seems to spill out of his throat like a swarm of gold flashes. I have to speculate that our admiration of his sound is meant to compensate for a total lack of dramatic intensity in the role and even the voice; rhythmically, Botha was somewhat lazy, rarely hitting any of his dotted rhythms with precision. And that beautiful sound isn’t neutral dramatically: it conveys a sense of ease, complacency, and general contentment that severs the sound of the opera from what’s happening scenically. Who would guess that being the recipient of a goddess’ rage would feel so pleasant?

As if to prove that one can have sound and dramatic intent, Amber Wagner sings Elisabeth with a gorgeous, pearly-yet-warm sound that alternately conveys worry, pride and even faintness of spirit. These states are part of the sound, mind you: when Elisabeth is anxious, for example, Wagner’s voice pairs a quick vibrato with an attack that is never late, capturing a mind that’s spinning faster than her words. And while Botha livens up a little in the later acts, finding moments of urgency, it is Wagner who really shines as this opera progresses. In the third act, her already exemplary voice seems to enter a new zone of relaxation and openness. She sings with a deepened command and an access to a horizon of sound that make it seem as though her throat had found six more inches of release. It’s a phenomenal performance.

Amber Wagner (Elisabeth) © Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera
Amber Wagner (Elisabeth)
© Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera

Andrew Davis and the Lyric's orchestra were remarkable this night, conveying fullness while never swallowing the singers. Listen to the way Davis composes the orchestra's sound in the ardent passages that underscore Venus's opening supplications: the sound is tight and focused, with a searing solo violin. 

Admiration, too, must be expressed for the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who captures Wolfram’s charming innocence and nervousness during the Act II song contest but comes back on stage in the third act to deliver “Lied an den Abendstern”, the opera’s show-stopper and one of Wagner’s most indelible arias. Although not everything in this production works (the second act set, featuring the proscenium from the opening in shattered form across a rubbled stage, yields a one-second moment of recognition that fails to sustain or generate interest for the rest of the hour), the subtlety and utter simplicity of the way the light falls across an empty stage over the course of Wolfram’s five-minute ode to the coming of death shows that the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s grand conception of all the senses working toward a unified dramatic goal, doesn’t need to be showy. Directors who stroke their own egos with pyrotechnics and shabby ideology should feel chastened by what felt, dare I say it, like a true moment of Wagner – Tannhäuser quietly watching Wolfram address the audience as we all fell into night. This was twilight not for the gods but for those parts of ourselves that returned from Rome, untransformed and unrepentant.