My last opera of the year was also my first Wagner: a new Covent Garden production of Tannhäuser, directed by Tim Albery and conducted by Semyon Bychkov.

Johan Botha as Tannhäuser and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth © 2010 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda
Johan Botha as Tannhäuser and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth
© 2010 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda

First things first: Bychkov was magnificent. His phrasing wowed me time after time, the dynamics and matching of the music to the action were impeccable, and some glorious textures came from the orchestra in passages of all sorts, particuarly in Wagner's trademark brass writing. In just under four hours of music, there was hardly a foot wrong and never a dull moment.

Almost as impressive as Bychkov was Johan Botha's singing of the title role. Botha is a big man in all dimensions - perhaps more so even than Pavarotti at his largest - and he produced a sound that was creamy smooth, rich and full of expression. He came through powerfully above the orchestra without ever showing strain or effort. It's a huge part - Tannhäuser is on stage for the vast majority of the opera - and Botha was in total control of it: I was thrilled to listen to him for a whole evening.

All this said, Tannhäuser is a strange work. It's based on an old German folk tale and tells of a knight-errant minstrel torn between sexual love (for the incarnation of the goddess Venus) and a "pure" courtly love for the chaste and pious Elisabeth, who attempts to help him find salvation by interceding with the Virgin Mary. Tannhäuser returns from the clutches of the "Venusberg" to the Landgrave's court at the Wartburg, which prompts a singing contest to win Elisabeth's hand. Despite the weirdness of this juxtaposition and the overall mystic overlay, several of the scenes last night came across with strong humanity. In the first act, Tannhäuser explains to Venus that he still loves her but that his mortality forces him to leave her and seek goals other than her sensual love. The dialogue that ensues explores the emotional landscape of any human break-up, and was sung compellingly by Botha and Michaela Schuster. In the third act, Tannhäuser's explanation that the pope has damned him to eternity is a potent expression of despair and as devastating an attack on a false priesthood as you can hear in opera (Tannhäuser is genuinely repentant and the pope therefore has no right to refuse him absolution).

Some of the material is more difficult for a 21st century audience. The idea of a singing contest to gain the hand of a much-desired woman is fairly daft in the first place, and the ideal of courtly love is a difficult one to take in, with its view of woman as a perfect, chaste and distant object who is to be wooed with no reference whatsoever to sexuality. It's also hard to believe in the violent reaction of the crowd in the Wartburg when Tannhäuser dares to mention the words "love" and "thirst" in the same sentence. But with all-round singing of the quality shown last night, you can suspend some disbelief, no more so than in the third act scene in which Elisabeth refuses the love of the ever-faithful but boring Wolfram and determines to seek the salvation of her beloved but errant Tannhäuser. It was sung quite beautifully and intimately by Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christian Gerhaher.

The production used the 1875 version of the opera, which is based on a Paris performance into which, in accordance with the Grand Opera conventions of the day, Wagner inserted a ballet sequence depicting the lasciviousness of the Venusberg. Wisely, this production steered clear of the original stage direction, which contains a bizarre concoction of Naiads, Sirens, The Three Graces, Nymphs, Bacchantes, Fauns, Satyrs, Youths, Tritons, Nereids and "numerous sleeping Cupids" who awake and "flutter upwards and in different directions like a flock of birds" (if you don't believe me, check out the libretto). Rather, choreographer Jasmin Vardimon put together a more abstract confection that packed a powerful erotic punch without the pseudo-classical frippery and made splendid use of the manic pace of Wagner's chase sequences.

After the first "Venusberg" act, the production became dark and drab. The overall look had shades of "post Bosnian conflict", presumably picking up on the Landgrave's Act 2 lines describing the recent "wars against the Guelphs". The Wartburg's hall in which the singing contest takes place is represented as a bombed out ruin, the Landgrave and his followers are clothed as partisans and military irregulars, while the women wear very south-east European headscarves. I thought it sat rather oddly with the courtly formality espoused by the Wartburg's ideals, and I didn't think Elisabeth's costume did any favours for Eva-Maria Westbroek. The artistic tension in Tannhäuser requires genuine sexual competitiveness between Venus and Elisabeth in their different ways, and you can't achieve that if one is wearing a strappy black number and the other spends most of the opera wrapped in a refugee's coat and scarf.

At the end of the evening, though, Wagner's music was the clear winner: Bychkov received a huge standing ovation and many bravos from a packed audience. Sadly, there's only one more performance and it's sold out (as I write this, there is a single box seat left at an eye-popping £568!), so I guess you'll have to wait for the next revival.

****1