Tannhäuser Royal Opera House 15 December


Another black-themed brothel (from intermezzo.typepad.com)

There were some entertaining points to this production.  When the curtain rose on the first act, to reveal another ROH curtain in another proscenium arch, the audience–at least, the stalls audience–laughed, which made a difference from the groan that greated the reappearing table here in the Bolshoi’s Eugene Onegin.  Then during the first interval my companion was able to espy the bottle of Campari that the barman said didn’t exist.

But otherwise I found myself deeply out of sympathy with the piece–in this case, Wagner’s music wasn’t good enough to disguise the insane solipsistic paucity of the story.  If there is a dramatic point, it occurs when the dead Elisabeth persuades God to forgive Tannhäuser–that happened securely offstage, and showing it would have needed too much chutzpah even for Wagner.  And of course first of all Elisabeth and then Tannhäuser die spontaneously when the plot demands it–there isn’t any cause in the action.

I did hear Semyon Bychkov (the excellent conductor here) on the radio describing Tannhäuser as the model of the artist scorned and despised for being different, when murderers and rapists were pardoned.  But from the admittedly idiosyncratic perspective of the Pope of Rome, having sexual relations with a pagan deity is quite a severe breach of bon ton, and  different from the things that mere humans do to each other.  The cynical expedience with which Wagner deployed the  drivelling about God and holiness here leads me to believe that he was as much an atheist as I am, but I can’t give him any credit for it.  I had the feeling that on this occasion the giant’s robes had failed to cover the dwarfish thief Wagner, and you were all too aware of him gesticulating frantically and crying Look at me, Look at me.

Johan Botha as Tannhäuser (from intermezzo.typepad.com)

The production rehashed many of the cliches that irritate me in the theatre:  the Malevich-styled brothel, the men with guns and general war-torn ruination (but at least they weren’t covered in oil this time), the crowds standing around in no particular shape for no particular reason.

I can’t say I was worried by the commanding presence of Johan Botha sitting on a chair downstage for most of the evening–he put his part across with commendable strength and clarity and even infused the Rome Narrative with genuine fatigue and disillusion.  In fact, apart from the tired errors of the production concept, I thought the Royal Opera did this about as well as one could–the problems were down to Wagner.


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