2013 is Wagner’s bicentennial: opera houses that can afford a staging of the Ring are all of them doing that; those that cannot are doing their best. Calling this revival of Hans-Peter Lehmann’s 2007 production a “commemorative event” would be pushing it a bit far; the New National Theatre has been staging one Wagner opera a year for a while, and Tannhäuser is it this year. Last year’s Lohengrin got at least a smart new production (the one in which Jonas Kaufmann was supposed to sing), an adjective I cannot use to describe this one. Think of columns of ribbed plexiglass/aluminum moved about by a bunch of stage hands, cold lamps, slide projections and some kitsch-y pseudo-medieval costumes – no, it is not a cos-play competition at the entrance of Iidabashi Station! But if you guessed that, it was quite close to what you could see on the stage of the Tokyo Opera Palace this afternoon. To make it worse, Personenregie could be summed up like this: “Elisabeth, bounce around, then stop it when everybody draw their swords”, “Venus, play with your cape; when you’re annoyed, raise your arm”; “Tannhäuser, act ‘drunk'; when you’re embarrassed, kneel down” etc. I won’t waste anyone’s time with the ballet… but, YES!, the Paris “edition” was played today.
This is the second time I hear conductor Constantin Trinks – and the experience is very different from the first time. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not exactly a Wagnerian phalanx – the string sections basically sounds too thin for this kind of music and the dynamic range is somewhat limited – and I have the impression that the maestro decided to give propriety pride of place. As a result, ensembles were clean, texture was clear, every musician had time enough to tackle their parts (especially singers, who did not even need to look at the conductor for an extra breath pause), but after five minutes you could tell how the next page of the score would sound. Saying that the performance was slow-paced (it often was) does not explain it all – often experienced conductors opt for a slower pace when they notice that their orchestra cannot cope with what they had in mind, but the audience should not notice that they are being served the second-best option. It might take Furtwänglerian talents to offset an orchestra’s weaknesses, let alone turn them into something of a “feature”, but the fact if that if there is no drama, there is no Musikdrama. And one felt each uneventful second of this performance passing.
I had never heard Meagan Miller before and cannot tell if today was a bad-voice day, but what I heard did not make me feel eager for a second time. It is a big voice with some healthy top notes, but the tone is curdled and piercing without being properly focused, there are moments of tremulousness, low notes often abrupt and phrasing not always elegant. She had her moments – unfortunately both arias were blowsy and gusty – her mezza voce soared beautifully and effortlessly in the big concertato in the end of act II, for example. The adoption of the long Venusberg scene paid off in the casting of Elena Zhidkova as Venus. When one thinks of a Russian mezzo, one generally pictures something like Elena Obrastzova in his or her mind. Not the case here – hers is not a gigantic dramatic voice with a powerful vibrato, but rather a middle-weight forceful, perfectly-focused voice with an extremely well-connected bottom register. One could hear in the occasional moment in which she was caught off-steam why Wagner called it a soprano part, but she handled the climactic top notes adeptly, producing rich, round sounds rather than pushing and screeching. There are more characterful Venus around, but Zhidkova’s sensuous voice and solid technique are more than praiseworthy. I cannot forget to mention Tomoko Kunimitsu, a full-toned yet boyish Shepherd. A beautiful voice.
Back in 2009 I saw Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser. He is a Heldentenor of unusual poise (and the voice is still young-sounding and pleasant), but the intervening years had not made the arduous title role easier for him. Rather the opposite. He knows how to balance his resources, but the effort was too palpable to be overlooked. Moreover, most of what had sounded “subtle” in Rome (I mean – his performance in Rome, not Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage) here sounded just voice-saving tricks. In any case, at this stage in his career, it is already commendable that he actually sings the role better than many a younger tenor. And probably more intelligently and expressively. Jochen Kupfer is a new name for me – and one to keep. It is a velvety, ductile, rather large voice with enough dark resonance to avoid any hint of tenorishness. His Wolfram was at home either singing heroically or in flowing legato. There is something stiff in his manners, and I have the impression that he still needs to mature in the part. But do not mistake my words – what he offers now is already worth the detour. Last but not least, Kristinn Sigmundsson (Hermann) was in great shape this afternoon – a flawless performance. Also, minor roles were very well cast from the ensemble. Actually the “last but not least” should go to the New National Theatre Chorus, which sang very cleanly too.