There is a temptation to lay blame for the production's flatness on its visual monotony: with variation only in the lighting scheme, all three acts are staged on one unadorned, architecturally modern set with a winding staircase at its center. Raimund Bauer's design resembles nothing so much as the lobby of a place where one might go to *hear* a performance of TANNHÄUSER, that is, a music hall erected in the 1980s or later. In fact, even though director Nikolaus Lehnhoff seems to have consciously foresworn "atmosphere" in the traditional sense, his production might have succeeded in spite of its austerity. The redemption of the same director's controversial post-apocalyptic PARSIFAL (on Opus Arte DVD, conducted by Kent Nagano) was, for me, its detailed consideration of a group of psychologically complex individuals; the director's and actors' alertness to those people's personal torments and sorrows, the eccentricities of milieu notwithstanding. In this TANNHÄUSER, recorded in 2008 at Baden-Baden, Lehnhoff's imagination and initiative have largely deserted him. There is little here that even could be called distinctive, beyond the deliberate vagueness as to time (the costumes span from standard medieval garb to shiny gold sci-fi suits for the Minnesingers in Act II) and the symbolic sexlessness of the pink-bodysuited dancers in the Venusberg scene (they resemble mannequins or mummies). Elsewhere, the opera's subject matter seems to have cowed Lehnhoff into hackneyed mythical one-dimensionalisms, and the lameness trickles down to the cast, who do not so much "act" as display a series of unconvincing attitudes and postures. Their singing is not well served by that unvarying set, which creates the kind of wide-open, reverberant tin-box acoustic that is vocal kryptonite to singers. It conspires with close and harsh miking to magnify every vocal imperfection, and there are many to magnify.
The male principals fare least well. Roman Trekel's baritone never settles into steady tone; hardly a sustained note from this Wolfram passes without wide, uncomfortable oscillations. Robert Gambill's dark, almost baritonal Tannhäuser does not provide ideal contrast with Trekel, but this matters less than his ungainly phrasing and often strained production -- the role is so strenuous qua vocalism that he is hamstrung in his interpretation; there is little more than a generalized passion. There is no finer actress on the world's operatic stages than Waltraud Meier, but Venus is not a role that taps into what she does best (for a recent sample of *that*, see her scarifying Isolde on the Barenboim/Chéreau/Scala DVD issued by Virgin). Though Meier makes a dignified and alluring appearance, and almost anyone else would have looked much more foolish modeling the silly hairpiece forced on her in both Act I and Act III, the role is both too brief and too thin to give her the dimension with which to display her dramatic gifts. This leaves only the singing, and even Meier's admirers (of which I am one) never went to her for creamy, opulent vocalism. The best performance is given by Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth. What she is asked to do is no more or less boring than what the others are asked to do, but her instrument easily encompasses the role's demands, she is appropriately sympathetic and modest in bearing, and she comes closer than anyone else to battling the twin torture chambers of the set and the engineering to a standstill.
The young conductor Philippe Jordan goes in for some eccentric balances in the Overture that are not always agreeable to the ear. In particular, he lets his brass get unruly; someone hearing this piece for the first time would miss a lot of detail. Thereafter, as if his "moment" has passed and now the show must be turned over to the singers, Jordan seems to recede into a slick, casual routine. He never seems engaged in a true collaboration of musical phrasing with the singers. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin has been heard in better form elsewhere in recent years (such as, again, the Lehnhoff PARSIFAL DVD). Expectations were high, and there was certainly room at the top in the TANNHÄUSER DVD field, but this will not occupy it. The default choice at the moment remains the Colin Davis/Bayreuth/DG affair with Gwyneth Jones on double duty as Venus and Elisabeth. For consistently great singing, go audio (Solti/Decca; Sinopoli/DG).