Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Tannhäuser, filmed at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in 2008, opens with a stupendous though perhaps unintended visual pun. Expecting Venus, we are confronted with Elizabeth — Elizabeth with a "z," that is. Done up as the Tudor monarch, she occupies a pedestal at center stage, resplendent in an iconic farthingale, her robe a thickly textured eggshell-colored raw silk, her Titian hair fanning out like a seashell. Around her revolves a double helix that rises into the flies, an allusion to the DNA molecule, linking desire to the wellsprings of life itself. The double helix is embedded in turn within a spiral staircase that flares wider as it ascends: a symbol, one soon suspects, of spiritual aspiration. Increasingly shaken by Tannhäuser's complaints, Venus casts off her royal apparel to reveal a glistening, black-sequined cocktail dress, lets down her hair, and lolls on the floor like a despairing odalisque. Arriving right on cue in Act II, Elisabeth with an "s," the Landgrave's niece, is all in white, the picture of anxious, somewhat matronly bridal decorum. No doubt about it: this Tannhäuser focuses as intensely on the psychodrama of its women as it does on the hero's torn soul.
Abstract and formalist as it is, Raimund Bauer's unit set undergoes transformations of striking expressive power. The wardrobe, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, mostly offers a bold, deluxe gloss on medieval court attire, though the contestants in the "war of the minstrels" (all but Tannhäuser) show up in gold tails that would be the envy of Liberace. (The dais formerly occupied by Venus and Elisabeth is outfitted with a microphone stand for the occasion.) Action, in the main, is pared down in the extreme, yet vivid by virtue of intensity and concentration. Tannhäuser, of course, is a law unto himself: restless, impulsive, rumpled and unkempt.
In the notoriously strenuous title role, Robert Gambill delivers a thrilling performance. It cannot be said that the peaks are scaled without effort, but the account of the music is scrupulous down to the grace notes in the hymn to Venus, the articulation of the text incisive rather than rhetorical. With the face of a fallen angel, Gambill gives the character's many ironies glints of bitter charm. Singing the Paris version of her music with an authority matched only by her personal glamour, Waltraud Meier conjures up a Venus of incomparable fascination, momentarily marred by affectations that recall Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond or Star Wars' C-3PO on the blink. Camilla Nylund gives Elisabeth the heart and soul of the true jugendlich dramatische, lending her climactic intervention in Act II a heroic fire. Elisabeth's prayer in Act III, so often meek and mild, erupts here as desperate existential protest. Stephen Milling gives the Landgrave's deep and conflicting emotions the stamp of truth. Underpowered and ill at ease, Roman Trekel has a hard time of it as Wolfram. Got up like an androgynous satyr in a Renaissance masque, Katherina Müller gives a dulcet account of the Shepherd's morning song. It remains to mention the dancers, who perform the bacchanal cocooned top to toe in Lycra, writhing like larvae struggling to be born, twitching like errant robots, copulating after a fashion and so on. The choreographers Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn have no shortage of ideas, but their handiwork is an embarrassment.
Glimpsed during the preludes, the conductor Philippe Jordan casts quite a spell. Severe and gentle by turns, his face seems inspirited not by ego but by submission to some higher law. His gestures are expansive, precise, yet unostentatious. Rather than simply sweep the listener along, Jordan leaves space for contemplation, for mystery, far beyond conventional romantic melodrama. As much as Lehnhoff, it is Jordan who pilots this Tannhäuser into waters as deep as those of Tristan and Parsifal.
Camilla Nylund, W altraud Meier; Robert Gambill, Roland Trekel, Stephen Milling; Philharmonia Chor Wien, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Philippe Jordan. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Arthaus Musik 101 351 (2 discs), 205 mins., subtitled