Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Tannhauser’

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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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.

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Tannhäuser is the last Wagner opera that Marek Janowski and the RSB are presenting in the Philharmonie before they tackle the Ring. Other than the Ring, it was probably also the only non-Ring opera that Janowski recorded on studio (albeit incomplete, as the soundtrack for Istvan Szabo’s movie Meeting Venus – Kiri Te Kanawa’s only Wagner recording, if you don’t count the Waldvogel in Haitink’s Siegfried or one Blumenmädchen in Solti’s Parsifal). It has been a while since then, which now is going to be an interesting pendant to the live recording  made this evening – while the 1993 release (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) presented the point of view of “Tannhäuser as fully mature Wagner”, the concert this evening showed it still enveloped in a post-Weberian atmosphere (or maybe it it is because I have seen Das Liebesverbot only this week…) – with lean, bright orchestral sonorities, cleanly articulated strings, an a tempo-approach to rhythms and an almost objective interpretation: no manipulation of dynamics, tempi or phrasing to create momentum. Each act developed spontaneously and naturally to their climactic final ensembles. These choices fit the RSB’s natural sound (which is not German-style beefy in itself). It is a pity, though, that the French horns were not in their best shape this evening. The Rundfunkchor Berlin was a strong feature this evening, especially the men. I just wonder why nobody wants to perform the “Paris” version anymore – I really don’t care if it does not really “matches” the rest of the opera. It is MARVELOUS music and I cannot understand why a conductor wouldn’t want to perform it.

Although Nina Stemme’s voice is a bit too mature for the virginal Elisabeth, she proved to master the ability of producing large-scaled Innigkeit, suggesting the necessary vulnerability in clean phrasing and aptly controlled fervor. She was also in splendid voice – full, warm and naturally voluminous. It is doubly regrettable that the “Paris” version was not used this evening, for Marina Prudenskaya would certainly be more than capable of tacking the extra challenge. I have heard her before only in small roles – and did not know the full extension of her voice. Her big, dark yet focused and ductile mezzo is entirely at home in Wagner – she does not need to force and phrases with homogeneity and elegance. If her interpretation is still a bit unspecific, this is only because she needs a bit more experience in the repertoire. And I am sure that there won’t be lack of opportunities for that – I cannot think of anyone else around closer to the physique du rôle in the operatic stages . The third female singer in the cast did not let down either – Bianca Reim has the ideal voice for the Shepherd, clear, pure and almost boyish.

Replacing an indisposed Torsten Kerl (who isn’t these days?!), Robert Dean Smith displayed amazing technical security and musicianship. It is a pity that his tenor lacks squillo in its higher register (what made him a bit inaudible in ensembles), but that it is the only thing one could complain about this evening. He  sang with unfailing good taste, flowing quality, crystalline diction and breathtakingly long breath. The fact that the role is not very close to his personality – I am afraid that there is not an ounce of wildness in someone one would rather describe as debonair – even made me rethink the role of Tannhäuser. This evening, there was no revolutionary artist trying fighting the establishment, but rather a harmless, heart-on-sleeve fellow who is suddenly told he is a sinner even without understanding exactly why. In this sense, the contrast to Christian Gerhaher’s extremely mannered Wolfram also worked as a dramatic point. This German baritone has a very beautiful voice and I know that I am alone in my opinion here, but I find annoying the way he sings without any legato, stressing this and that syllable, singing some notes unsupported and white toned or, when more energy is required, hectoring his way along in end-of-career Fischer-Dieskau-ian style. Fortunately, the Abendstern song prompted him to let the music speak for itself, and the result couldn’t be better: this was one of the highlights of this evening. Although there were rusty patches in Albert Dohmen’s singing, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him in Lohengrin and offered a very commendable performance . Finally, Peter Sonn was a very secure and forceful Walther. His is an interesting voice – but he could benefit from a more liquid, round-toned, natural phrasing.

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It is said that it is the eye of the owner that keeps cattle fat. Kirsten Harms has barely left the direction of the Deutsche Oper and her production of Tannhäuser starts to decay – the relatively silent stage contraptions are now quite noisy, lighting was erratic, stage elevators were poorly used and  those who were operating the stage ropes were not really sure which props should be lowered on stage (at a certain point, the safety curtain was lowered by mistake…). Maybe it was just an impression, but the second act’s singing competition has now a great deal of gags.

In any case, although the musical performance had its share of tiny glitches, Donald Runnicles offered a commendable account of the score. Conducting Wagner with small-scaled singers is a challenging affair – one the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director has often failed to meet – but not this evening. The house orchestra played with fine focus and a lighter sound bright enough to have presence, and the maestro never missed the right opportunities to unleash his musicians when this should and could be done. Moreover, Tannhäuser is a specialty of the Deutsche Oper chorus – their singing alone is worth the trip to Charlottenburg. This is the third time I’ve heard them in this opera and it has been consistently excellent.  The choristers were not alone in providing great singing this evening – Markus Brück is probably the finest Wolfram in the market these days. I have recently seen Goerne and Gerhaher in this role and, sensitively as they both sing the Abendstern song, Brück provides richness and roundness of tone without loss of ductility and flexibility and still avoids any hint of affectation. To make things better, he has a sizable voice and can hold his own against any Heldentenor. Not that this was necessary this evening.

The first time I have heard of Robert Gambill was in Bruno Weil’s recording of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which he sang Pedrillo. He could be seen next as Lindoro in Gelmetti’s DVD of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Then, in 1999, he was singing Tannhäuser with Barenboim in the Staatsoper. Before he was billed as Siegmund and Tristan, he could record Graun’s Cesare and Cleopatra with René Jacobs  – he even did a very good job with trills back then. I had tried to see his Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper, but he canceled twice. I had never seen him live before this evening, but I like the sound of his voice and his Mozartian background made me curious. Yes – it is a beautiful voice, not a dramatic one yet large enough, he can phrase with Mozartian poise and has excellent diction. All that below a high f. From that note upwards, he suffers from some sort of misconception that involves too backwards a placement, resulting an opaque and unstable sound that fails to pierce through. He has admirable stamina and by virtue of a steely breath support pushes his way through – but he predictably soon got tired. Things got so perilous that I was expecting for a replacement, but one has to concede Gambill something: he never gives up and very rarely cheats. I have seen healthier Tannhäusers who “forget” to sing some impossible notes during the concertati in the ends of act I and II, but not Gambill. Although he sounded tired, had to chop his phrases to get an extra helping of air, pecked at high notes mid-phrase, could be below true pitch in exposed acuti and finally employed a lot of acting with the voice, this tenor did sing more or less everything Wagner wrote. I just wonder if he enjoys this experience – not even Jon Vickers tried Tannhäuser (does anyone believe that whole “immorality” story?!). Why not Lohengrin? Walther?

I am not sure if Wagner is Manuela Uhl’s repertoire either. Her voice is too high for Elisabeth and, hard-pressed by having to produce a Wagnerian sound, it comes across as acidulous and fluttery. She could not find dynamic variety and sang a quite insensitive prayer in the last act. You can imagine by yourselves how her Venus was. Reinhard Hagen is always a reliable Landgraf and Thomas Blondelle’s Walther had no problem in presiding over ensembles, a lesson to his Tannhäuser: beefing up high notes is a very poor replacement for natural tonal brightness.

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Jim Davis’s Garfield once said “if you want to look thinner, hang around people fatter than you”. Now I understand Katharina Wagner’s smirk while being booed after yesterday’s performance of her production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This evening, deafened by the thunderous Boo-fest reserved to Sebastian Baumgarten for his production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, I could not help thinking that you can go far worse than Miss Wagner. At least, she had a couple of insights about the libretto and staged them. Well, she did not stage it very well – but she tried. Baumgarten believes he has had an insight too. Let’s read it: “The question we are faced with on a daily basis is: how are we to reconcile our pre-subjective drives and impulses, the asocial, with our subjective plans and dreams (in social and communicative contexts)? And time after time the answer is: quite simply we can’t. That is because this antithesis lies at the very heart of life. Only in art and especially in music is this antithesis abolished*. Is it only me or this is the most obvious observation one could make about Tannhäuser’s libretto?! But there is also set designer Joep van Lieshout’s take on the story “The battle of Tannhäuser is about choosing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the end Tannhäuser is not able to find either of them.

If you are not dazzled by the profoundness of this analysis, you will probably be curious about how these platitudes have been staged. Here is my serious but not very enthusiastic attempt of making sense of what I have just seen: the concept of sublimation lies in the core of this staging, understood as the struggle for converting bodily impulses into nobler/spiritual values. This is macrocosmically represented by an installation called “The Technocrat”, an industrial plant that transforms human excrement into fuel gas and (most surprisingly, if my Chemistry classes are still valid) spirit (i.e., alcohol). In the social level, this is shown as an Orwellian group of workers who are cued by an invisible administration through motivational slogans. From the spiritual (i.e., mental) point-of-view, this takes place through channeling erotic impulse into art. During the overture, a film is shown in which one can see sonograms and x-rays depicting a rib-cage,  a heart, a stomach superposed with images of machines. Tannhäuser is held in a cage with ape-like creatures, someone in a leopard-costume and two rays (as in stingray). Venus is a pregnant hag without any allure. Tannhäuser gets sick of all that and presses a button: the cage named Venusberg slides into the floor and he then finds a drunk young man (the shepherd) and some people in red robes. He is delighted, especially when a bunch of guys dressed as members of a Scottish Glam rock band show up (the Landgraf and the other singer knights).

In act II, we see Elisabeth in a red robe excited about Tannhäuser’s imminent arrival while trying ugly jewelry. Wolfram is jealous, but understands that two is company and, once alone with her, Tannhaüser gives her a brief incursion into the Venusberg (remember: it is just one floor down). She is flushed, he disappears. Then the Landgraf invites the people with robes, some girls with swimsuits and swords and a bunch of women in bridesmaids’ frocks and a priest to the little singing competition in the facilities. Venus takes the ladder to the gathering place and joins the group, although the priest does not seem happy to see her. Everybody sings, but Tannhäuser sings and pour water on his rivals from the second floor. Then he grabs Venus from the audience and sings her hymn to her. The very colourful group of factory workers who convert feces into biogas is shocked and try to kill him with some knives that happened to be hanging nearby. Elisabeth threatens to kill herself and they let her have her way. But she is not convinced of the effect and gets some red paint and makes her little scene a little bit bloodier. She assures Tannhäuser that Heaven will forgive him, but he seems either too stupid to understand or unwilling to do so, but it is too late to change thngs and he goes inside a container with the words “Rome 4501”.

Provided you forget that there is an industrial plant etc etc, act III is actually quite conventional almost until the very end. Elisabeth is sad – check; Wolfram is melancholic – check; Elisabeth dies away (here with a little help from Wolfram); Tannhäuser gets out of the container bald and beardless and explains how the Pope was mean to him (if you really believed the whole gas plant thing, you probably asked yourself ‘Pope?!” at this moment); Venus (who was basically there all the time) appears and then disappears – check; Elisabeth is shown as a saint – check. Then Venusberg is lifted to the ground, the ape-like figures bounce a lot, the rays contort themselves and….ah, Venus has her baby. Curtains.

Yes, I’ve got that Baumgarten probably wanted to show that, although basic instincts are considered vile and spiritual values noble, the only miracle of everyday life – birth – is produced by the body and its impulses: no spirit produces flesh, but flesh does produce spirit. You will find many passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses about the classic discussion of transcendence/immanence, especially related to the body and Catholic values. But there is a big difference there: Joyce is a genius, while Baumgarten doesn’t go beyond Friedrichshain’s Weltanschauung: The Werkstatt Bayreuth should not therefore content itself with simply serving up Tannhäuser as a refined entertainment for festival audiences or We wanted to make one very dense continuous peformance of two and a half hour instead of the traditional one but the caterer forced us to keep the pauses… I really wonder if Mr. Baumgarten does have the moral stature out of his heavily subsidized professional activity to sneer at people like me who have to work to pay for expensive festival tickets. When he chooses, for example, to engage in a social project of integration for children of foreign descent in working-class neighborhoods of Berlin instead of collecting his fee for making poor stagings of an art form he himself considers decadent, maybe he would be able to start pointing fingers around him. Until then, he should study a bit more and give up trying to shock people with extras dressed in costumes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats for his view of Venusberg. We read newspapers, we watch CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera – we are well-informed about the REALLY shocking things in the world. Only a very ignorant person would try to enlighten anyone well-informed (as the audience of Wagner operas tend to be) with subpar, pseudo-intellectual stagings.

But there is always Wagner’s music. Tannhäuser is something of an uncompleted opera, in the sense that the composer never found a final edition for it. This evening, the usually called Dresden version was used, even if I have the impression that something different happened between the end of the overture and Venus’s first line, but I cannot really say it. There might have been some unusual cuts in the closing scenes of act II, but I would need a score to say something more precise about that. Maestro Thomas Hengelbrock would have liked to follow some cuts made by Wagner himself after the premiere in Dresden, but it seems that the Festival did not subscribe to the idea. In any case, Hengelbrock can be counted as the responsible for the interest of this evening’s performance. Some might find his Tannhäuser too unconventional in its fast pace, clean-cut phrasing and taste for orchestral effects (with the occasional sudden accelerando or ritardando), but the fact is that it sheds a new light on the score. He is a conductor new to the Festival pit and could be found wanting in sound (especially when the chorus was singing) and I am sure that, in a regular opera house, with an orchestra as good as this one, he could have been even more eloquent. Although singers sometimes found it hard to follow his beat, ensembles were generally clear and consequent – and the orchestra never failed in clarity and played with animation.

Camilla Nylund was a reliable Elisabeth in her warm, round and homogeneous soprano. She sang with good taste and sensitivity, but lacks the necessary radiance to pierce through thick orchestration in roles like this. Stephanie Friede has the elements of an important dramatic soprano voice in her – but they are so chaotically handled that the results are generally disappointing, especially in what regards intonation. I know I have been spoiled by Stephen Gould’s and Johan Botha’s Tannhäusers and I had to remind myself that generally the tenor in the title role sings like Lars Cleveman. As it is, the part lies very close to his limits and he pushes a lot in order to get through. As a consequence, there is not really much legato to speak of. Forcing high notes and beefing-up the tone rarely work for long and the result is that the effort became more and more evident as the opera goes on. By the third act, he was exhausted and just trying to survive. Michael Nagy could be a very good Wolfram – he knows exactly what kind of singing this role requires, but his voice is too often on the verge of throatiness for comfort. Günther Groissböck was a very positive Landgraf, singing firmly and incisively. Considering the general shortcomings, it wouldn’t be correct to call him “the best in the cast”, for he was far superior from his colleagues this evening. Katja Stuber deserves mention for her cleanly sung Shepherd too. Last but not least, the Festival should be praised by a strong group of singers for the competitors at the Wartburg.

*Hegemann, Carl. A fearful misdeed has been committed. Notes on the Bayreuth Tannhäuser 2011. In: 100. Bayreuther Festspiele (187202911): Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Program to the performance of the opera.

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Although what we use to call the ”Paris” version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is usually seen as stylistically uneven in comparison to a more homogeneous ”Dresden” version, I have no doubt in my preference for the ballet music and a more ambitious Venusberg scene. Does it makes some of act 2 seem too well-behaved? Well, it does – but this is too small a price to pay for the more sensuous and sophisticated music Wagner wrote later  – and the Royal Opera House made the right decision in opting for it.  The problem is that the more complex Venusberg scene requires a difficult choreography for the bacchanale and a more psychologally elaborate character development for both Venus and Tannhäuser. And I do not believe that the Royal Opera House could provide that in its new staging.

Tim Albery’s nondescript production probably tried not to displease anyone and ended on not pleasing anyone. The liberties taken with the libretto and its stylized visuals suggest a Regie staging, but it does not bring any kind of ”reading” to the story. The Royal Opera House program publishes some texts about artists and excesses and about ”gated communities”, but their relation to the staging is more hinted at then intimately related to it. The sets are basically variations on the theme of the Royal Opera House curtains. They are in perfect shape at the Venusberg,  are replaced by a tree to depict the fields where Tannhäuser sees the pilgrims, then they return as partially ruined for act 2 and are finally shown as entirely ruined in act 3.  I can remember these ideas from a couple of productions I have seen this year – Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for Bayreuth, for example. However, if Albery found inspiration in Herheim, he limited it to the sceneries. I could not find a coherent approach in this Tannhäuser other than what clearly meant in Wagner’s libretto.  The shepherd as a projection of the young Tannhäuser – that could be  interesting, but it comes and goes without further development (and I guess I have seen that in Herheim’s Parsifal too…). Showing the Landgraf’s noble guests as a  ”gated community”-meeting of armed vigilantes seems a pointless inference when Venus is seen a vamp in a sexy gown purring on a white bed (both in acts 1 and 3), Elisabeth as a girl in white lace and a veil, Tannhäuser as a guy in a suit and Wolfram as… another guy in a suit. Someone should have explained the director that he could have chosen a traditional staging if he had no ideas to add to Wagner’s well-conceived ones.

Semyon Bychkov knows his Tannhäuser and was able to find the right atmosphere for every scene: the warm tonal palette and flexible tempo for the Venusberg scene, the large scale and depth of sound for the pilgrims, the quicksilvery excitement for the hunting party, the grandeur for the arrival of the guests, the Innigkeit for Elisabeth’s prayer and Wolfram’s song. The Royal Opera House’s hardly belongs to the world’s leading Wagnerian orchestras – more blunders in the brass section than one would expect, poorly synched chorus, some dangerously messy ensembles and  noticeably hard-working violins in fast divisions did not entirely spoil the show, but one wonders what the conductor would do with a truly world-class formation.

Although Eva Maria Westbroek is admirably full-toned, Elisabeth is definitely not her role. She sounds too mature, lacks purity of tone in lyrical episodes, is often tested when softer dynamics are required and is ill-at-ease handling delicate feelings (her prayer came through as rather gutsy than touching). Michaela Schuster surprised me with the warmth and sexiness she could inject in her singing, but the role – as often in this repertoire – takes her too her limits and many exposed high notes were cut short rather than rounded out.  I have enjoyed Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram less than probably everybody else. Although his voice is intrinsically beautiful, I find his phrasing lacking legato and often inclined almost to parlando, the tone too open and metallic now and then and the interpretation more studied than expressive. Compared to most baritones who tackle the role, it is of course an elegant performance – but I wouldn’t say that he was the shining feature of this performance. Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf, producing focused low notes. Pity he seemed to be not really concentrated this evening.

Johan Botha’s physique and lack of stage presence may be for some too much to put up with, but if you like Wagnerian singing, you should listen to his healthily sung Tannhäuser. While most tenors in this role have a baritonal quality and become increasingly strained during the performance, this South-African tenor has an unending supply of powerful top notes and is entirely at ease with the somewhat angular writing. His voice has a spontaneous, bright-toned quality that flashes rather than climb through a Wagnerian phrasing. The results are unusually polished and musicianly. He is not an electrifying performer, but offered a particularly moving account of the Rome Narration and sounded really sincere in his sorrow on listening about Elisabeth’s death in the end of the opera.

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In the context of the Wagnerian Wochen, Kirtsten Harms’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser has been revived with a different cast and conductor, but the concept of having one singer for both Venus and Elisabeth, central to the production’s “message”, persists. In the original production, Nadja Michael proved to be miscast in both roles. Not the case this evening. Although Petra Maria Schnitzer is rather short on tonal richness, low notes and sexiness for Venus, she proved to be a most efficient Elisabeth. I refrain from the word “illuminating”, for Schnitzer is the kind of reliable singer who is sufficiently satisfying in every single department, but rarely takes you by surprise in anything. Her large lyric soprano has no glitches – her tonal quality is golden, she produces big top notes when this is required from her, she can fine her voice down to pianissimo and sings with good taste throughout – she even produced an intimate touching prayer in act III. Pity that Dietrich Henschel no longer possesses the nobility of tone for Wolfram. His vocal production was either rasp, throaty, fluttery, poorly supported, nasal or a combination of these. Where is Markus Brück when we need him? Pity also that the reliable Reinhard Hagen found some difficulties with the higher end of tessitura in the role of the Landgraf.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer offered transparent orchestral sound, with some exciting fast passagework from strings. I have missed the sheer voluminousness that Philippe Auguin could conjure last time – and some scenes dragged a bit: this was hardly the most sensuous Venusberg in the market. If things happen there in such low pace, I perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed for green fields, nightingales and other rural articles. As usual, the Deutsche Oper Chorus did a terrific job.

I leave the best for last. I have always believed that Tannhäuser was a role condemned to be poorly sung. Today I was gladly proved wrong – Stephen Gould’s performance this evening should appear in the dictionary next to the entry “Tannhäuser”. His voice is at once big, firm, easy and pleasant. He phrases with musicality, has perfect diction, knows how to tackle declamatory passages with the dexterity of an Astrid Varnay, snarls when one wishes him to do so and even reserves unconstricted mezza voce for some key moments. Have I mentioned that he ended the opera almost as fresh-toned as in the beginning? There was no moment when the audience had to worry about the next dramatic top note. This is a singer in the top of his game in Wagnerian heroic repertoire.

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I have read a lot about Robert Carsen’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and regretted that I could not be in Paris to check it. So when I read that it would be re-staged in Rome, I’ve decided to follow Elisabeth’s advice: Nach Rom! However, here I am in Rome, but not Carsen’s production… The Teatro dell’Opera had later on checked its pocket and realized that, oops, they couldn’t afford to bring it. I felt inclined to be upset, but since they took the decision to hire Riccardo Muti as musical director, I have been trying to keep my mind open to the Roman opera house’s decisions. But, as much as Tannhäuser had to keep his eyes closed not to see Italy’s charming landscape, I felt I should do the same before Filippo Crivelli’s ad hoc production. OK, limited budget is always challenging etc, but what I have just seen vies with Cecilia Bartoli’s new CD’s cover for the title of human race’s ugliest creations. And the idea was to knock you out from moment one.

Venusberg is basically an archway made of pink fabric upon which imaged of naked women taken from famous paintings were projected. Ah, and there was a couch for Venus, whose costume is reminiscent  of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. When the mention of the Virgin Mary’s name transforms the whole thing in Thuringia, Crivelli must have thought of the DDR, since it basically consists of three sets of flat tree trunks with a catwalk on the background. Act II was more conventional – it looks like the Met’s production bar the money. To make things worse, the show was truly poorly lit and the costumes left a lot to be desired. I leave the worst for last – Gillian Whittingham’s coreography for the bacchanale. Some of my neighbours laughed, while I tried to look away out of compassion.  In a few words, the idea seemed to have some people running back and forth or giving hands to each other and circling. Seriously, if vice looks like that, one can perfectly understand why Tannhäuser longed so much for the Virgin Mary.

As it was, Béatrice Uria-Monzon had to provide all the sexiness by herself. Her soft-grained yet spacious mezzo soprano does seduction without much ado, but the exposed dramatic high notes test her sorely. I do not know if the conductor tried to help her with very fast tempi in the Venusberg scene, but apparently only made her lag behind the beat at moments. Martina Serafin seemed to inhabit an entirely different theatrical and vocal universe. Although she is Viennese, her whole approach suggests the words soprano lirico spinto. She has a warm, large, rich soprano, approaches phrasing almost like a Verdian soprano, with portamento aplenty and a Renata Tebaldi-ian cantabile glamour. The comparison with Tebaldi is not accidental – although she is very expressive, it is some sort of generalized yet touching expressiveness. Also, her whole stage attitude has an old-fashioned grandeur, hardly compatible with the chaste Elisabeth. In any case, this is a voice of impressive resources albeit not entirely in control. Many loud top notes came off poorly focused or harsh, and her mezza voce is not really reliable. Dich teure Halle was more solid than triumphant, but her act III prayer was sensitively done. I am not entirely convinced that Tannhäuser is a good role for Stig Andersen. His voice is not truly large, but he produces some forceful top notes now and then, provided that there is not many of them in sequence, for they noticeably tax him. Because of the stress, his praising of Venus in act I was quite arthritic, but he finally pulled out act III out of the freshness of his approach. Whereas many a tenor in this repertoire would tell his pilgrimage to Rome as a piece of heroic singing, Andersen sang it with restraint, savoring the words, creating the impression of a broken spirit, coloring the Pope’s wolds with real scorn. A flawed yet valid performance. Matthias Goerne also has problems with high notes – anything above mezzo forte is dealt with either strain or head voice. But the whole performance seemed to be conveyed to the Abendstern song, which was so exquisitely performed that one would forgive him anything. Finally, Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf in spite of the occasional curdled-toned moments.

After a bumpy act I, conductor Daniel Kawka settled into such a honest performance that he finally won me over with his transparent ensembles, natural pace and cleanliness. I particularly appreciate the way he embraced the orchestra’s sound – bright and flexible, as many Italian orchestras tend to produce – instead of trying to impose a Teutonic large and fat sound that would only vex them. And the house orchestra was in good shape – the brass section could be nobler, but was quite clean, the lean-sounding string sections produced liquid divisions and everybody kept animation to the last chord. It is a pity that the chorus was way below that level – the women are particularly problematic, including what regards intonation.

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