Cursed, or perhaps blessed, with almost no visual memory at all, I had almost completely forgotten what the Royal Opera’s current Tannhäuser, directed by Tim Albery and with set designs by Michael Levine, looks like. Or perhaps it was the natural tendency to repress the memory of unpleasant experiences. Wanting to enjoy the Overture, I closed my eyes until the moment the Venusberg ballet that Wagner composed for the doomed Paris version in 1861 began. However many hundreds of times I hear that Overture, with its wind chorale and weary strings, I still hang on every bar.
It was instantly clear that Hartmut Haenchen, the conductor of this first revival, was going to be lighter and fleeter than Semyon Bychkov had been first time round. Mainly, Haenchen’s way is preferable. With Bychkov there were puzzling pauses, dragging orchestral bridge passages, general stasis. Haenchen knocked a quarter of an hour off Bychkov’s timing, with enlivening effect. On the other hand, there was unusually poor ensemble, both from the orchestra, occasionally, and the chorus, whose magnificent grand ensembles in Act II were ragged and their projection poor. You would hardly have guessed that the ensemble in Act II, when Elisabeth rushes to defend Tannhäuser, is the grandest in opera, it was so subdued, no doubt for the benefit of the soloists.
On the other hand, the scandalous Paris Venusberg music was thrilling and shocking — but what was happening onstage? Ballet dancers in singlets did forward and backward rolls, jumped up on to a long dinner table and gyrated, but without a hint of eroticism, hardly any touching, or even teasing. No wonder Tannhäuser didn’t bother to watch it. Only when it reached its long, dying, what should have been post-coital strains did he arrive in his shabby black overcoat, worn throughout, and sit bored on one of the dining-room chairs, which are so prevalent a feature of contemporary opera productions.