Music: A pilgrim path that leads not to God

It’s not for nothing that the best-known music in Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the “Pilgrim’s Chorus”, sung by penitents en route to Rome to seek forgiveness from the pope. Ostensibly this is a Christian opera that elaborates a Christian myth – about a wandering knight who vacillates between the steamy sexual pleasures of the Venusberg (a sort of otherworldly bordello) and the chaste love of the virtuous Elisabeth (loosely based on St Elisabeth of Hungary), who saves the knight’s soul through her own self-sacrifice.

But Christianity, for Wagner, was a decorative rather than substantive interest. And as Tim Albery suggests in his production currently playing at the Royal Opera House, Tannhäuser is a narrative more about artistic choices than religious ones. The knight combines his wandering with singing: he’s a noble minstrel. And his sojourn in the fleshpots of the Venusberg becomes a rite of passage that he needs to undertake, as a creative artist, before higher values claim his work.

It’s an idea endorsed by William Blake’s assertion that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. And it explains why the designs for this Royal Opera Tannhäuser eschew religious imagery and place the action in a scaled-down, onstage opera house. We’re in a world of artists where the pilgrim path leads not to God but to expression.

Sadly, it’s a show whose own expressive force is patchy. It begins with the explosive energy of the extended ballet Wagner added to his opera when it played in Paris – choreographed here at Covent Garden with elan by Jasmin Vardimon. But little in the next four hours lives up to this dynamic opening gesture. Peter Seiffert in the title role sounds raw and blustery. Emma Bell’s Elisabeth is fine but unremarkable. The only real distinction comes from Christian Gerhaher, who brings the eloquent intensity of Lieder singing to the role of Wolfram and outclasses all around him.

There was unexpected class the other weekend in a semi-staging of Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro, which took place with little heralding at LSO St Luke’s but turned out to be rather special. Put on by the entrepreneurial young conductor Oliver Zeffman with his own Melos Sinfonia (an orchestra of current/recent students), it was beautifully delivered – sometimes needing a more driven beat but rich in musical intelligence and with impressive voices, led by an alluring, lustrous, velvet-toned soprano, Sarah-Jane Lewis, as Giorgetta, and a fiercely ardent tenor, Charne Rochford, as Luigi.

Il Tabarro is an opera I’ve always undervalued, but my ears were opened to its beauty by this reading – which engaged me more than the considerably grander one I heard not long ago at Covent Garden. Strange but true.