In Richard Wagner's obsessive drama Tannhauser
--with its themes of sin and repentance, cultural inhibition and artistic spontaneity, sexual excess and lost innocence--symbols sprout as profusely as dandelions on summer lawns. A lot of the symbols were put there by the composer (who also wrote the libretto), but for this production director David Alden has decided to add many more--notably in the first scene: an orgy in the love nest of the goddess Venus. The sadomasochistic visuals, reminiscent of the feverish inventions of Hieronymus Bosch, may help to explain Tannhauser's decision that he wants to go home. Like the scenery, the costumes are eclectic, ranging from modern formal evening gowns to medieval suits of armour and even, in a few choice instances, nothing at all.
The director may be trying to say too many things at once. The profusion of visual symbols shows a rich imagination, but a more clearly defined focus would have been helpful. That kind of focus is found in the acting, partly because Alden is a good director but also because he is working with seasoned performers. René Kollo as Tannhauser and Bernd Weikl as Wolfram von Eschenbach have made specialties of these roles, and even when the story strains credibility or when the music strains their voices, they give convincing portrayals, as do Waltraud Meier and Nadine Secunde and the supporting cast. Zubin Mehta's conducting is opulent if not subtle. This is an intriguing though sometimes disturbing production. --Joe McLellan, Amazon.com