First things first - Tannhauser is not Wagner's strongest opera dramatically. In fact, in some respects, it seems a step back from Der Fliegende Hollander. Neither Venus or Elisabeth is drawn with the same depth as Senta and at no point does Tannhauser's inner conflict rival that of the Dutchman's. The only character who stands out for me as a fully rounded creation is Wolfram, Tannhauser's equivalent of Erik (who I never feel much for). In this instance Wolfram's cause was done no harm whatsoever by the singer, but more of that later.
Second things second - despite the above the Royal Opera's new production of Tannhauser is incredible. I would happily go again tonight (OK, maybe tomorrow, I need a night off) if I could. The opera may not be in the league of many of Wagner's other mature operas but it's, in many ways, one of his most consistent in terms of pacing. Four and a half hours in the theatre flew by.
The cast for this run is as follows:
Conductor - Semyon Bychkov
Tannhäuser - Johan Botha
Elisabeth - Eva-Maria Westbroek
Venus - Michaela Schuster
Wolfram von Eschinbach - Christian Gerhaher
Herrmann, Landgrave of Thuringia - Christof Fischesser
Despite much criticism of Botha for his size you can't really fault the voice, especially his diction, which was remarkable. He may be a big man with a big voice but he does act the role as well as sing it. For me the real stars of the show though were Semyon Bychkov, the ROH orchestra and chorus - all of whom got as big a cheer at the end as (almost) any of the singers. I love the fact that the Covent Garden audiences are willing to applaud the orchestra and chorus as much as they do. In this case, as is often the case with Wagner here, the conductor gets the orchestra on its feet before the opera has even begun, in recognition of the work they're about to put in.
The shock of the night, for me and (judging by the reviews) for everyone else too, was just how good Christian Gerhaher is. His Wolfram was incredibly sung and, especially in act III, dramatically stunning. If you can get to Covent Garden and find (and afford) one of the few remaining tickets, it's worth going just to hear him. Otherwise I believe the opera will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 over Christmas so tune in.