As in many Romantic literary works, the leading male character is often the subject of crucial decisions take by women – so is Tannhäuser. It is only fair that, for a change, in a production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser a woman takes all the big decisions. For illuminating results, I would say. In Kirsten Harms’s staging for the Deutsche Oper (premièred last year), girls also take the center stage. We have already seen productions in which Elisabeth and Venus are sung by one singer (most notably in Götz Friedrich’s staging for Bayreuth) since they would both represent the carnal and ideal aspects of love. But Harms goes a bit further – no unhappy ending here. Elisabeth acknowledges and sublimes the Venus in her, thus saving Tannhäuser from the psychological fracture that prevented him from being a complete person. Here, the superposition of heaven and hell is nothing but earth.
The concept is cleverly realized – the ideas are clear and unobtrusive, the symbols are deep and yet immediate and, even the revolutionary ending ultimately does no violence to the libretto. To make things better, Bernd Damovsky’s sets and costumes are exquisite. Some scenes show surpassing beauty, such as Tannhäuser floating in complete shinig armour to land on a see of sirens swimming on stage. In order to achieve that, every stage contraption a modern theatre has at its disposed is used, making for a truly grand show. If I had to be critical, although I find the idea of showing Elisabeth as caretaker of sick people (as apparently St. Elisabeth of Thuringia was), it took me some time to adjust for the modern hospital beds in a staging that turns around armours, knights, standards etc.
As one should expected in a Elisabeth+Venus combo, the Dresden version was used (which is a pity – I am an absolute partisan of the Paris edition), to little avail. Before I say anything about Nadja Michael, I must explain that I do not believe that one singer could sing both roles really well. On the video from Bayreuth, Gwyneth Jones is in great voice and does a terrific job, but is rarely convincing as the seductress or the ingénue. Maybe the young Régine Crespin would have pulled this out, but I am not really sure.
Nadja Michael-haters say that she is the poorman’s Waltraud Meier, but I would say her whole package is more ambitious and maybe therefore more frustrating. Let us start with the voice. It is difficult to say wether she is a soprano or a mezzo. I would guess she is a soprano who had been trained as a mezzo and was not able to understand that soprano singing has a different “method”. All her high notes have this edge as if you have asked a mezzo who has a high b and a high c to use them all the time. As her whole approach is heavy-handed, her voice never floats, soft dynamics are unfocused, high-lying phrases are chopped to accomodate (lots of) extra breathing pauses and pitch is really erratic. Contrarily to what I thought, her Venus worked really less well than her Elisabeth. Maybe because she thought Venus should require a fuller-throated approach, it all sounded colourless and unsubtle. For Elisabeth, we could see she had the right ideas about every phrase – she is an intelligent artist, there is no doubt about that – but they rarely really worked out in practice. If I had to say something positive about her vocal performance, is that she can conjure enough power to pierce through ensembles (it is a reasonably sizeable voice), at the expense of any sense of line and tonal beauty however. As for her stage performance, she is a truly beautiful woman and, considering Venus is here shown as Boticelli painted it, this is a mandatory requirement. Her graceful figure and swan-like neckline gave her Elisabeth graceful vulnerability. That said, as her whole acting method is overintellectualized, she is finally not a force-of-nature. She moves like a ballet-dancer, striking very expressive and beautiful poses one after the other. The final balance is still positive – she is a very good artist, but she ought to be a more accomplished singer.
The fact that the staging gives pride of place to Elisabeth/Venus was finally a blessing considering that the scheduled Tannhäuser, Scott McAllister, fell ill and had to be replaced (with a great share of difficulty, since the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring would have “reserved” all possible replacements) by Ivar Gilhuus, a Norwegian Heldentenor whose complete lack of tonal allure was compensated by his determination to sing every note written by Wagner. Considering how strenuous the part it, the Deutsche Oper should be praised for finding such an efficient last-minute replacement for the title role. Tonal allure was not a problem for Markus Bürck, whose dulcet baritone is comfortable either in loud or soft dynamics. His performance was so uniformely perfect that it would survive microscopic examination. Bravissimo. Finally, Kurt Rydl’s instability has grown too evident for the role of the noble Landgraf.
Philippe Auguin presided over the whole performance with masterly precision – the Deutsche Oper Orchestra offered playing of unimaginable beauty throughout – wide-ranging, perfectly balanced, featuring ductile string section with scintillating passagework, but the chorus deserves my special congratulations. Rarely have I heard in an opera house (even at the Deutsche Oper itself) choral singing of such high quality. Every section homogeneous, all sections blended, crystal clear diction, no loss of tonal quality in pianissimo and, most of all, highly expressive quality – the Deutsche Oper Chorus scored this evening top marks in every possible requirement an opera house chorus should meet with.