Hartmut Haenchen
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
5 May 2016
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannStephen Milling
TannhäuserPeter Seiffert
Wolfram von EschenbachChristian Gerhaher
Walther von der VogelweideEd Lyon
BiterolfMichael Kraus
Heinrich der SchreiberSamuel Sakker
Reinmar von ZweterJeremy White
ElisabethEmma Bell
VenusSophie Koch
Ein junger HirtDuncan Tarboton

Downhill from Venusberg: a bland Tannhäuser revived at Covent Garden

At the heart of Tannhäuser is the hero’s struggle between spirituality and sensuality. Tim Albery’s 2010 production, receiving its first revival at Covent Garden, establishes this conflict within a stylish opening 20 minutes, but thereafter things become rather bland. Tannhäuser is something of a problematic opera. It was a great hit with Victorian audiences, thanks to Wagner’s tuneful score, but there are acres of dull writing and Albery’s staging does little to alleviate the tedium, despite a couple of very fine performances to raise interest levels.

During the overture, the curtain rises on a familiar scene – a replica of the Royal Opera House’s gilded proscenium arch and plush velvet curtains, in front of which the singer Tannhäuser sits as a spectator. The curtains part and the Thuringian princess Elisabeth briefly appears as a saintly vision – the woman Tannhäuser abandoned. His new lover, Venus, then slinks into view – a prima donna taking her curtain call – and beckons her consort through the red velvet. A series of Tannhäuser doubles are then teased and tempted by a bevy of dancers. Jasmin Vardimon’s frenzied choreography of the Venusberg Bacchanale has couples sexily writhing and cavorting, hurling themselves across a long revolving table. It’s hardly orgiastic, but it makes for a striking opening.

Thereafter, Albery’s production is unobtrusive, but bland. When Tannhäuser expresses his desire to leave, Venus unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him into staying, before stroppily vowing that he will return to her when he finds no peace with men. The proscenium arch rises and Albery leaves us with an austere bare stage… and it’s downhill from there. If Venusberg represents decadence, then Albery turns everything on its head and has Wartburg a place of decay. The Landgrave of Thuringia, who welcomes Tannhäuser’s return, is a local warlord with Kalashnikov-toting henchmen. They speak of art, but their “hallowed hall” of Act II is a war-ravaged theatre, strewn with rubble, eroded even further in Act III to post-apocalyptic levels. The song contest to decipher the essence of love – a sort of Wartburg’s Got Talent – disintegrates into bickering when Tannhäuser praises physical desire, revealing he has been in Venusberg.

Mark Pullinger | 27 April 2016

The Guardian

Tim Albery’s 2010 production of Tannhäuser returns to Covent Garden for its first revival, but it remains to some extent an awkward piece of music theatre. Albery muddies Wagner’s vision of the conflict between flesh and spirit in an artist’s soul with imagery about illusion and reality in art itself, and art’s role in dark political times. Sophie Koch’s Venus presides over an erotic table-dancing show that takes place within a model of the Opera House stage. When Peter Seiffert’s Tannhäuser returns to the world of men, we find him in a warzone where the blasted remains of the Venusberg are visible among the rubble. There’s little sense, however, of a society governed by religious values, which obscures the significance of the communal outrage at Tannhäuser’s sexual rebellion.

Hartmut Haenchen conducts the Paris version of the score with lithe, swift tempi, though his pacing is wonderful and nothing feels rushed. The singing varies from decent to great. In the immensely taxing title role, Seiffert impresses with his stamina, though his voice is now less than beautiful. Koch is occasionally pushed in her upper registers. There are, however, distinct plusses: Christian Gerhaher, beautifully alert to the nuances of text and line, remains among the finest of Wolframs; Emma Bell makes a rich-toned, nobly assertive Elisabeth; and Stephen Milling sounds superbly sonorous as the Landgrave. The choral singing is exceptional.

Tim Ashley | 27 April 2016


Astonishing Performance from Sophie Koch in Covent Garden’s Tannhäuser

And so to the first revival of Tim Albery’s 2010 production of Tannhäuser, a production with twists that engage if not massively illuminate and with a cast that includes some stand-out stars – and some who are not.

First up, though, the score. For the first time in London this is the Vienna version (see the informative comment from the conductor below): so that we get the act II reworkings as well as having Tannhäuser sing without chorus after Elisabeth’s dramatic intervention. We have the extensive Venusberg ballet, occasionally raunchy (the whole thing is clearly intended to be), presented by six couples. Those dancers at the opening would not be out of place in a Soho basement, perhaps, even if the Covent Garden standard is, one assumes, notably slicker. The orchestra itself was on fine form, both in the Overture (superbly balanced horns and bassoon in the opening) and during the ballet. It was also clear that his was to be no langorous Wagner evening: and, indeed, the night concluded a good twenty minutes before the estimated finish time in the programme. The result was not rushed exactly, but there were some choral corners where orchestra and chorus parted company; perhaps these will be erased as the run continues. Yet the chorus itself was generally excellent, and in the more powerful moments was certainly a force to be reckoned with. Off-stage orchestral effects (of which there are many) were well managed throughout.

The production itself is rather patchwork: we are also shown the conceit of a mini-Covent Garden within the main stage, complete with famous red curtain and ER crest. Perhaps the Venusberg is another reality held within ours, just a step away, an astral plane where anything goes? That second, shadow-side Covent Garden is revealed in various states of disrepair as the opera moves forward. The lighting remains on the dim side, and that’s the overall impression one goes away with; Thuringian men are a mob charged with machine guns. All this is very clever and all are trying too hard to make a point, the net result of which is a production that surely will not stand the test of repeated viewings. The planting of a young tree to represent the Pope’s staff sprouting green leaves is an example of rather obvious substitution that dissatisfies.

Sophie Koch was an astonishing Venus, making her Royal Opera role debut triumphantly. Rich and refulgent of tone, her voice was fully open; this, coupled with her sheer stage presence made her hypnotic. Perhaps Peter Seiffert was not quite her equal, and the opening scenes revealed a trait that was disconcertingly present throughout the evening: a sort of zooming in and out of focus for his voice and, indeed, his rapport with the role itself. Initially, he sounded disconnected and strained; then for a while all would be fine, as if everything was congruent once more, before strain once more crept in. He is an experienced Tannhäuser, for sure (San Francisco, Berlin State, Deutsche Oper and Zurich are amongst the opera houses that have featured him in this role), but this was not his night; the beam was not consistently on full, shall we say. Far more consistent was the clear star of the evening, Christian Gerhaher in the role of Wolfram. He brought a Lieder singer’s art to Wagner’s long lines, triumphantly: here was a strong interpretation moulded into human shape by infinite gradations of tone and flexibilities of phrasing. Lyrical and beautiful, his “O du, mein lieber Anendstern” brought the hushed intimacy of a fine liederabend at the Wigmore Hall to the far more spacious Covent Garden – yet the sound projected over the vast space perfectly. The role furnished Gerhaher’s Covent Garden debut in 2010.

Emma Bell’s Elisabeth, another singer making a role debut, was magnificent. Set amongst ruins, “Dich teure Halle” needed all the magic she could inject, and her gleaming voice brought it through. Here was an intensely human Elisabeth, and we the audience felt her hopes and fears with her in the song contest.

Not all the cast was consistently good: Ed Lyon’s Walther von der Vogelweide was decidedly weak. Yet other small roles were well taken, including Michael Kraus’s Biterolf and Stephen Milling’s confident Hermann. Yet it is difficult to ignore the fact that the imperfect masterpiece that is Tannhäuser still makes its blazing mark. If Haenchen’s tempi alternated between injecting intensity and just staying the right side of feeling rushed, he remained within boundaries; and Gerhaher’s Wolfram made the evening worthwhile, regardless of other concerns.

Colin Clarke | Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 26.4.2016


This is the first revival of Tim Albery’s 2010 staging of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, with mostly a new cast and conductor. Michael Levine’s set for the Venusberg scene is a theatre-within-a-theatre copy of the Royal Opera House’s proscenium arch and front curtain (including the EIIR crests), and it is the ruined version of that design that dominates Acts Two and Three. Rather than drawing the usual moral distinction (which made the opera such a hit in its 19th-century heyday) between pagan carnality (bad) and Tannhäuser’s redemption through the sacrifice of Elisabeth’s death (good), Albery suggests that the Venusberg is about human/artistic completeness, while existence on the Wartburg is a drab vale of tears.

When Venus, rejected by Tannhäuser, sings at the end of Act One of the devastation she’ll visit on humanity, we see the result at the start of the next Act – but Elisabeth doesn’t, addressing her ‘Dich, teure Halle’ to a ruin, and in the process giving the measure of her shattered hopes in loving Tannhäuser and her capacity for self-delusion. Albery builds up layers of subversive interpretation. The bombed-out shell of the opera house – hardly a flattering setting for the Hall of Song in Act Two – and Jon Morrell’s costumes for the men of Thuringia (greatcoats and machine-guns) bring us face to face with images of Bosnian or Chechen warfare, of people on the edge of civilisation rather than its guardians. The other aspect Albery plays down is any imagery to do with the story’s Christian basis; for all the references to the Redeemer, the Pope and the Jungfrau, here faith is not much more than a barely sustainable, generalised hope, and the Pope’s leaf-bearing crosier is replaced by the planting of a healthy young tree.

Photograph: Clive Barda The staging holds our interest and disguises the opera’s longueurs – the Venusberg bacchanalia as part of the Overture, a hyperactive striptease for twelve dancers, goes on too long, as does the eminently cut-able dialogue between Venus and Tannhäuser. Hartmut Haenchen played his part with some swift tempos, which weren’t always big-ensemble-friendly – the invisible chorus of pilgrims in Act one had some slippery moments – and he didn’t allow inflated, early-Wagnerian grandeur to dominate. There were, though, many passages when he drew a spiritual, Parsifalian glow from the orchestra, reinforcing Albery’s take on the story and its lead as a Parsifal prototype; he accompanied the singers with utmost subtlety, especially in the slow, quiet music; he miraculously made sense of the rather distended Act Two conclusion; and his finely paced unfolding of Act Three was spellbinding.

In the original run, Johan Botha’s Tannhäuser had sounded effortless. There may have been more of a sense of strain to Peter Seiffert’s take, but his intense engagement with the role gave a focus to the production. The heroic top of his tenor was thrilling, and while he seemed low on stamina by the end of Act Two, he had regrouped for a finely controlled account of the ‘Rome Narration’. Albery’s direction emphasised the main characters’ isolation, and Seiffert was all the more convincing as Tannhäuser tries to break the mould.

Emma Bell was singing Elisabeth for the first time, adding this role to her Eva and Elsa – her WNO Elsa (2013) was simply wonderful, and her Elisabeth is in the same league in the way she possesses the role. ‘Dich, teure Halle’ gleamed with febrile rapture, and her voice sailed upwards without a hint of constriction. But it was Elisabeth’s moments of failure – the second loss of Tannhäuser after the song-contest fiasco; her giving up on life when Tannhäuser, as she thinks, has failed to return from his Rome pilgrimage; and, most poignantly, her tender but loveless regard for Wolfram – where Bell came into her own as a Wagner star of great subtlety and complexity.

Photograph: Clive Barda Christian Gerhaher, the only lead from the first run, was similarly superb as Wolfram, the diffident, introspective would-be lover who idolises Elisabeth as though she were the Virgin Mary. It’s almost a shock when this peerless Lieder singer sings loudly and operatically, but he is just as commanding as his voice gets quieter and darker, taking the audience with him into Wolfram’s muted, conflicted world. With just a minimal hand movement or vocal nuance, Gerhaher tells you that Wolfram, for all his artistic expertise as a singer, will never make the leap into experience as Tannhäuser has – and he knows it. With his easy highlighting of the text, ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ filled the house with its quietness.

As Tannhäuser’s nemesis, Sophie Koch was a lustrously sung, predatory Venus, Stephen Milling radiated authority as the Landgrave Hermann, and there were fine solos during the contest from Ed Lyon as Walther and Michael Kraus as Biterolf.

For all its obliqueness, this production of Wagner’s ‘problem’ opera has a dreamlike power, intensified by magnificent singing and playing.

Peter Reed | April 26, 2016

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A production by Tim Albery (2010)