London Opera Review by Polly Hope
Richard Wagner.
The Royal Opera House Covent Garden London

Wagner himself calls the work a 'Grosse Romantiche Oper,' so be it, who can argue with its creator? What a feast it is, voluptuous and grand, a moral tale lauding Christianity. Music to die for, love to be lost in, rule of the mob, but the whole work isreally just about sex.Well the word isn't actually used; lust is the favoured one, about four hours of the stuff and never a dull moment.

Tannhauser is surely the only heavyweight opera where the first half hour is devoted to lap dancing? For this great porno scene a replica of the Royal Opera House's proscenium arch complete with appliquéd and embroidered red velvet curtains has been built half size on the stage. For what purpose I am not sure but curious to think of Venusberg being just behind the front tabs in our very own opera house!

Venus in a spangled frock lies around in bed while equally spangled nymphs gyrate. A vast table rises from the floor and the ladies strip down to bikini bottoms and T-shirts. Boys emerge from the shadows and the dancing becomes extremely erotic but alas gymnastics quickly win over eroticism.

The music is glorious from the first murmur under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, I think the entire audience would like to be part of this marvellous scene and to fool around with Venus.

Then Tannhauser himself appears and confronts Venus saying he wants OUT, so much sex is boring him and he wants real human life again. But we are certainly not bored by Johan Botha's truly thrilling voice. Mind you if he could keep off the chocolate cake for a bit hemight look a bit more the romantic tenor, still his long black overcoat covers much, but might be hot to wear in Venusberg. After some pretty heated singing Venus, Michaela Schuster, lets him go. He makes his escape to a bleak landscape where a shepherd boy pipes a song about spring to a growing tree. Pretty boy, pretty voice.

All the voices in this production areof the best, as the opera progresses the voices seem to get more wondrous. This is a human story seemingly about puritan guilt and the impossibility of enjoying pleasure long term. But why I ask does everything have to take place in the dark? Scene after scene is black on black. Spring is sung about and just a small green tree is all we are shown. No air, no daylight, no nothing of the real world that Tannhauser so wants to return to. Wagner's music is about this, albeit in very formalised styleand turned into myth but still a real world of real humanity, even if it doesn't look like it.

So to Elisabeth, his earlier love, appears and poor Tannhaiser is riled for singing that sex is joy and fun. The knights watching thissinging competition want to kill him but Elisabeth begs for a reprieve.Tannhauser is sent off to Rome to ask forgiveness for his lust. Cripes, what a world! Venus shows up again and Tannhauser almost falls for her enticements. Elisabeth dies of course and Tannhauser also dies on her dead body.

So much for a tale of morals.

Whatever you think about bleak life and its rewards in the afterlife this is a great production. Musically it is the best possible, and visually, if you can put up the black, it isvery clever, especially the vanishing acts using nothing more than light to make the singers appear and disappear in a wonderful magical way.

Not a moment of dullness and the rendering of Wagner's magnificent early score is stupendous. If you have a chance to catch this production and you can put up with the killjoy philosophythen you are in for a great event. Wagner is so modern, so inventive, so gripping and with the forces of a top opera house oneis completely seduced into maybe thinking this is perhaps correct behaviour for all of us.

Polly Hope London