Tannhäuser by the Freiburg Opera

The visit of the Freiburg Theater to Norwich for a Wagner Fest was a welcome addition to the British summer operatic scene. Given the large number of empty seats at the Monday showing of Tannhäuser, it could not have been a financial success – a shame because the performance was never less than interesting and had some compelling features. High on that list was the Czech soprano Dana Burešové who, as Elisabeth, combined an impressive stage presence with immaculate (obviously the right epithet for this role) vocal quality. The other singers were not in the same class musically, but gave committed dramatic performances.

Fabrice Bollon, the conductor, was stronger on excitement than on lyricism and this suited Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s staging. Very true to the themes of the piece and how a dominant male society represses female sexuality, this had several novel and impressive moments, particularly in the third act. Wolfram addressed his famous Morning Star song not in the abstract but directly to Venus and was enraptured by her. And, at the end, as the whole company including a now enfeebled Tannhäuser, revered the saintly corpse of Elisabeth, he stumped off in exasperation. A pity that in the first two acts Höckmayr’s production had been unnecessarily complicated (for example, another Tannhäuser stalking around while his double sings) and overcrowded with visual images. All of this may have provoked Frank Cliff in his programme note to warn us that this is a “modern interpretation” and an “interesting concept”. Are British audiences really that innocent?