The hours seemed to fly by watching the Royal Opera's new production of Tannhäuser on Monday evening. The opera about man's dilemma between passion and purity is told on a grand scale with an enormous cast and all are in very fine voice. Johan Botha in the title role is the man unhappy with the excess of Venusburg and unsatisfied with harsh earthly realities. There is no pleasing some people I suppose, but he manages to give this story credibility and power throughout the four hours of the performance.
The production itself is minimal with the orgiastic excess of Venus's grotto Venusburg limited to the Royal Opera's velvet curtain and a rather large dining table. When a sensual and athletic ballet emerges from what started to look like a gala dinner at the opera you couldn't help but wonder if all opera fundraisers are that fun. If there was only one disappointment here it was thinking that Venus (the lovely Michaela Shuster) should not be in a dinner dress as it just wasn't as hot as everything else being served up. Not that she could not cut through the most loudest of bellows from the orchestra. As for the ballet, it not only looked great, but you couldn't help but be impressed by it's ability to set the story. It did not look easy either and I was exhausted just watching them. Given Tannhäuser was also a big man, you could understand why he was exhausted with all the goings on in Venusburg as well...
Of course back at the earthly Wartburg the grass was not greener. Nor was the shepherd boy who heralds Tannhäuser's return to the Wartburg particularly melodic. But particularly nice about this version was the Eva-Maria Westbroek's ambivalent sexuality she conveyed as Elisabeth. It will be fascinating to see what she does in the upcoming production Anna Nicole. Again the simplicity of the production design adds to its wonder. The song contest at the Wartburg was so dramatic, with parallels drawn to a more recent European war a nice touch. Aiding to the drama was the fine voice of Christian Gerhaher in the role of Wolfram, who remains in love with Elisabeth (just to keep things a little complicated).
While at times the opera grinds to a halt with little action and an awful lot of libretto, what could have been a chore to watch was quite engaging with a great production and terrific cast. The audience loved it as well, although unlike Adriana Lecouvreur, no teddy bears were thrown from the circle. Conductor Semyon Bychkov received some well deserved cheers for keeping this performance engaging and fluid.
And in case you missed it, and will not be able to make the final two performances, the Radio 3 broadcast is available on iPlayer until the end of the week.