Häuser about that for a birthday present, Mr Wagner?

May 22 marks the 200-year anniversary of the birth of the German composer Richard Wagner, and to celebrate, the Royal Danish Opera are staging Kasper Holten’s production of Tannhäuser. First performed in Copenhagen four years ago, this modern and unique take on one of Wagner’s best known masterpieces received rave reviews from the Danish press first time round. Let’s hope it can deliver with its encore.

The opera, which was written between 1843 and 45 and is fully titled ‘Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at Wartburg Castle’, has a libretto based on the amalgamation of two German legends: Ludwig Tieck’s Faithful Eckhart and Tannhäuser and ETA Hoffmann’s The Singer’s Contest at Wartburg. As expected from Wagner, the story and subtext are fiendishly complicated, but the overriding scheme is the struggle between sacred and profane love, culminating with redemption through love.

Originally set in 13th century Germany, the three-part opera sees Tannhäuser kept captive by Venus, released back to his true love Elizabeth, disgraced trying to win her hand in a singing contest, then packed off to Rome to seek the pope’s forgiveness, before finally finding absolution when he returns to find Elizabeth dead, at which point he dies over her lifeless body. Heavy? You bet. It’s probably best to keep the programme close at hand if you going to have any hope of keeping up.

Holten has added an extra dimension (and additional complication) to the opera with his unusual interpretation, which sees the story set in Wagner’s lifetime and draws comparisons between the toils of Tannhäuser and the real life struggles of the composer. “Wagner, like Tannhäuser, knew what it was like to be homeless in all worlds – to strive for social acceptance, a happy and harmonious life, for love, money and fame, only to subvert his chances time and time again with his impossible behaviour, his megalomania and his genius,” Holten tells the KGL website. “Our Tannhäuser has taken shape very much with an eye to Wagner himself.”

Dab hands at Wagner dominate the cast with Denmark’s Stig Fogh Andersen − who has previously performed Tannhäuser in cities including New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin − at the helm. He shares the leading role with Johnny van Hal, while soprano Ann Petersen, who has honed her skills at the Wagner Concert at Lyon, and Anne Margrethe Dahl take on Elisabeth. Tina Kiberg, Palle Knudsen, Michael Kristensen and Florian Plock make up the rest of the cast alongside world-famous, Jamaican-born bass Sir Willard White, who has previously appeared at the Royal Danish Theatre in El Cimarron.

Wagner himself conducted the premiere of Tannhäuser, but in Copenhagen, Roland Boer will be leading the Royal Danish Orchestra through the music, which includes the famously rousing overture. The super-talented Mia Stensgaard is designing the set and costumes and, as anyone who saw A Folk Tale at the Opera House in 2011 will attest, she normally comes up with something unique, surprising and powerful. So expect a modern twist on a classic with a top quality cast and an intriguing setting – it definitely sounds like a recipe for a great birthday party.

Store Scene, Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, Cph K; performances at 18:30 (unless stated) on Sun (15:00), Tue (19:00), May 14, May 17, May 22, May 25, May 28, May 31, June 3, June 7; tickets 125-895kr; sung in German with Danish supertitles; 240 mins with two intervals; www.kglteater.dk

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