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Posts Tagged ‘Lise Davidsen’

Tobias Kratzer’s new production of Tannhäuser for the Bayreuth Festival provoked curiosity even before the premiere: the cast list featured two extra characters, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat. There has been some rant about the inclusion of a drag performer in a Großer romantische Oper by Richard Wagner and that the end of the world is nigh etc etc, but it seems that everybody has forgotten Sebastian Baumgarten’s excrement processing production. If there is something positive about it is that it was an absolute low. Anyone can stage anything in Bayreuth knowing that they won’t ever be responsible for the worst staging in the history of the festival. That is why I had my mind open to what I would find today – and being open-minded always pays.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production is worlds apart from empty provocation. Although the sight of a caravan and a tenor in a clown suit might make one think that he or she ended up in the wrong opera, this is indeed Tannhäuser and the director explores its libretto from an unusual point of view. As he says in an interview, everybody makes it about sex, but there’s a lot more to it. In purely structural terms, this is an opera about exclusion. Tannhäuser abandons society for for a forbidden lifestyle he finally leaves behind with the hope of finding salvation. Then he is banned and sent to a superior spiritual authority in seek of forgiveness and ends up excommunicated. Then he is informed that God’s grace does not exclude anyone. Mr. Kratzer sees a caveat in all that: if you are excluded and is able to make your way back, then you have never truly been an outsider. Here we first see Tannhäuser in a group of anti-establishment street intervention artists. The thrill seems to have been gone for him and his score of Wagner’s Tannhäuser seems to tempt him back to his former life. He jumps off the car and finds himself in the Festspielhaus where the pilgrims are the Wagnerian crowds. His fellow singers recognize him and invite him back, but Elisabeth is not excited about that.

The second act shows the stage of the Festspielhaus where the second act of Tannhäuser is being presented in a traditional production the sets of which look very much like the Wartburg. But there is mise-en-abîme here – the Elisabeth/singer playing Elisabeth is not happy in Wagnerian paradise either. After Tannhäuser left, she felt left behind and tried to kill her self, for unlike him she knows no other world to escape to. The disruption of the singing competition is caused here by the trespassing of Tannhäuser’s troupe – Venus, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat, who make an intervention in the façade of the theater (actually, their words of order are a revolutionary motto by Richard Wagner himself). The police is called, but Elisabeth pleads here not for Tannhäuser’s salvation, but for her own. Venus is disappointed to see that he has never been really disconnected from the high art establishment and watches him being arrested by the police.

In the final act, Elisabeth looks for Tannhäuser in outcasts’ dens and finally find some solace in the company of Oskar. Wolfram tries to bring her back to their “safe” environment, but only catches her attention when he uses Tannhäuser’s old clown costume. Then they have sex, but this only shows him that he has lost her forever – and shows her that she is irreversibly lost. After hearing himself being condemned not by the pope, but by the text in the score he has carried with himself all the way,  Tannhäuser tries to join Venus again, but discovers that the troupe is not the same anymore and that Elisabeth has just killed herself. In the final chorus, he pictures the vagabond life he could never share with her.

This description may make the concept seem a bit all over the place, but that was not the case, Mr. Kratzer’s reading follows the dialogues very closely and creates atmosphere admirably. The Venusberg scene in the caravan had unusual tension, all characters confined in the front seat, Venus driving in an Autobahn under the moonlight. The two extra characters were made to seem integrated in the action and added lots of character to the depiction of the alternative scene Tannhäuser inhabits. The challenges in act 2 were harder to surmount. Mr Kratzer’s video projections did bring about some zest to a scene that tends towards the repetitive and the static, but the comedy touches – well executed and timed as they were – ultimately had an alienating effect. Not only did they make the weight of exclusion over the outsider characters lighter, but also diverted attention from the predicament of the characters who belonged to the establishment but did not feel comfortable in it. As this was supposed to be the issue addressed by this production, the very fact that it was belittled drenched the whole affair of its dramatic power. I myself left the hall saying “oh, it was fun…” and it took me a while before I realized that this was not supposed to be made fun of. Act 3 redeems part of it by focusing on Elisabeth’s depression and suicide. The director was able to express the sadness and desperation of the situation, but the extra/outsider characters remained pretty much outside. Tannhäuser himself seemed secondary in the context. All in all, this was more than worth the detour: Mr Kratzer uses scenic elements with skill, knows how to direct actors and offered visually seductive imagery throughout.

I saw Lise Davidsen and Stephen Gould sing Elisabeth and Tannhäuser some months ago in Zurich, and both offered superior performances today. Ms. Davidsen made a point of lightening her tone to human proportions and phrased almost exclusively in demi-tintes, relying on the sheer size of her voice to sing with disarming directness. Her acting was also unaffected and convincing. Mr. Gould was in very good voice and, if he does not have anymore the vocal insolence of his better years, his singing has gained even more in sensitivity and musical finesse. The sincerity of his acting and the way he embraced the directorial choices showed me new dimensions in his scenic abilities. Elena Zhidkova, live and on video, showed admirable acting skills too, but her voice has developed an instability that tampers with intonation. I had seen her as Venus in Tokyo some years ago (in the Paris version) and had a very different impression back then. Markus Eiche’s voice too has lost a bit of juice and now sounds merely efficient in the role of Wolfram. Stephen Milling was unfortunately not in very good shapes, his bass sounding a bit rusty and his breath a bit short. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi was an ideal shepherd, one of the best in my experience both live and in recordings.

I had read that Valery Gergiev was having trouble with the peculiarities of the orchestral pit in the Festspielhaus, but after seeing a triumphant Simon Boccanegra with him in Salzburg, I did not expect something as unsatisfactory as I’ve heard today. The recessed orchestral sound, the imprecise beat, the sagging tempi, the really messy ensembles, singers left to fend for themselves, all that made an impression of sloppiness hard to believe. I would have not believed if I had not heard it myself.

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Faced with the revival of Harry Kupfer’s innocuous 2011 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Opernhaus Zürich probably decided to add some zest to the event with role debuts for two of the most sought after new voices in the Wagnerian firmament. Although she has been called the next great Wagner soprano by reviewers and fans all over the world, Lise Davidsen has been very careful in her exploration of Wagner’s operas. The words “dramatic soprano” has appeared here and there – and, yes, it would be rash for such a young singer to start off with an Isolde or a Brünnhilde – but there is no doubt that her voice is two sizes bigger than the role of Elisabeth. This is the first time I hear her live – and the singer who occurred more often in my comparison is Astrid Varnay, who debuted as Sieglinde younger than Ms. Davidsen’s present age. Actually, I could not help thinking that Sieglinde would be a perfect role for her at this point. But first some clarifications: differently from Varnay (whom I know only from recordings, of course ), Lise Davidsen’s top notes do blossom in full radiance in a way the Swedish-American soprano’s would not (Varnay herself would be the first to admit that it was not the most exuberant part of her range); and, no need to say,  it would be unreasonable to dismiss her Elisabeth for her voice being too big.

As much as Varnay, Ms. Davisen’s soprano has nothing virginal and girlish about it. Her low and middle registers are full, rich and warm, but its tightly focused projection makes sure that you not mistake her for a mezzo. From a high f on, the focus increasingly acquires a laser-beam-like intensity that makes her high notes effortlessly irradiate in the auditorium. That quality alone made her interventions in concertati simply thrilling. Most fortunately, this invaluable Norwegian soprano is capable to scale down her Valkyrian soprano to pianissimo. This and her purity of line enable her to produce something close to Innigkeit, but one can see that it is an effect she can produce once in a while yet not all the time. As a result, the act 3 prayer proved to be her less compelling moment in the whole evening. She is a clever singer who knows her text and husbanded her resources to make this moment less about resignation and world-weariness and but rather the expression of a conflicted soul over God’s unscrutable designs. To make things better, Ms. Davidsen has a very likable personality and, in spite of her statuesque frame, is able to convey fresh-eyed femininity without affectation.

This was also Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s debut as Venus. Based on my impressions on her Fricka both in Bayreuth and Chicago, I confess I was not surely convinced of this particular piece of casting, but at least in a theatre of the size of the house in Zürich, her performance left nothing to be desired. She sang in consistently voluptuous tone, dark and creamy, and produced some truly exciting high notes always mezzo-ish in quality.

Stephen Gould, by now a veteran in the title role, was not in his best voice,  squeezing his high notes, especially in the first act, and intonation was not beyond reproach. However, his voice has the right color and size for the role – and his experienced with the part helped him out in many a dangerous passage. This afternoon was supposed to be Stephan Genz’s debut in Zürich, but he was indisposed and was replaced by Christoph Pohl, whose baritone would be ideal for Wolfram were it a bit less grainy. Mika Kares proved to be more at ease in Wagner than he was in Verdi, offering a noble toned account of the role of the Landgraf.

Axel Kober does not try to bring Tannhäuser closer to Wagner’s later works and is not afraid of going Weberian in leaner sonorities, a tempo beat and marked rhythms. It is difficult to tell apart the orchestra’s less than rich-sounding strings, the hall acoustics and the conductor’s intensions in all that, but the fact is that the three act finali benefited from the circumstances and shone in absolute clarity.

Harry Kupfer’s unimaginative staging updated the action to the sort of contemporary setting that does not amount to any extra insight. Tannhäuser has taken a bad turn from his bourgeois milieu and ended up in a decadent night club scene that was supposed to seem depraved, but ultimately looks like as if Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut had been filmed in Dresden or in Leipzig. The Landgraf and the Minnesänger sport polo shirts and play golf – and their competition looks like Germany’s got Talent. The final scene takes place in a train station – and have I said that the pope appears personally to apologise for his bad customer services?

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