Friday, 8 April 2016

Tannhäuser – Antwerp Opera House – 14 October 2015

Venus (Ausrine Stundyte) and Tannhäuser (Burkhard Fritz). Photos: Annemie Augustijns
Review from the March 2016 issue of The Wagner Journal

Tannhäuser – Burkhard Fritz
Elisabeth – Annette Dasch
Venus – Ausrine Stundyte
Wolfram von Eschinbach – Daniel Schmutzhard
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Ante Jerkunica
Walther von der Vogelweide – Adam Smith
Biterolf – Leonard Bernad
Heinrich der Schreiber – Stephan Adriaens
Reinmar von Zweter – Patrick Cromheeke
Young Shepherd – Merel de Coorde

Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of Opera Vlaanderen

Conductor – Dmitri Jurowski
Director – Calixto Bieito
Designer – Rebecca Ringst
Costumes – Ingo Krügler

Lighting – Michael Bauer

Act II in the Wartburg

As one might have expected from director Calixto Bieito, his concept of Tannhäuser offers a mixture of insight and bafflement, revelation and frustration. In an interview in the programme he recalls that it was the first opera he ever saw on stage, in Barcelona at the age of 15, and it made an abiding impression, which begs the question of why it has taken him so long to stage it for the first time. This Flanders Opera presentation is his third Wagner production, following stagings of Holländer and Parsifal in Stuttgart, and from what I have seen of those in brief video snippets and pictures there’s a shared vision of an apocalyptic milieu with this Tannhäuser. If that teenage experience inspired him and his younger brother to play at being medieval knights, there’s unsurprisingly none of that in the adult Bieito’s concept. And less than a contest between sexual and spiritual love, or between hedonism and socio-religious conformity, he treats the drama as a battle between the natural world and a stultifying civilisation, with Venus the representative of the former, Elisabeth of the latter. But it’s not quite as simple as that. The mise-en-scène for the Venusberg is a forest, with choreographed, upside-down trees suspended from visible stage machinery ‘performing’ the Bacchanal (Act I is given in the Paris version, Acts II and III in the Dresden), and through which Venus runs backwards and forwards like a wild child of nature. The setting is at once threatening and enticing, as is she. By contrast, the Wartburg of Act II is a sterile construction of glossy white pillars, with a dinner-suited populace among which Elisabeth obviously feels alienated: she is at the mercy of her uncle, the Landgrave, and we first see her dressed identically to Venus and writhing on the ground in self-pleasure, a nod perhaps to the idea of a battle of the sexes with earthy, free-spirited womanhood rebelling against rule-bound, controlling masculinity. This idea has certainly already been suggested in Act I, where Tannhäuser escapes Venus’s clutches only to fall in with his one-time compatriots and is subjected to a fraternity-like blooding as his fellow singers exert their macho propensities as a way of luring him back into their circle. By Act III, the two worlds have collided and merged: the trees of the Venusberg have overrun the pristine whiteness of the Wartburg, nature has reclaimed the space occupied by order and, as the final tableau suggests, Venus as the symbol of the natural world is triumphant. It shows that the opera can encompass different readings as wide as exact opposites: here the triumph of chaos over order, in other productions that of civilisation over the excesses of transgression.

Amid this broad scenario, Bieito explores the relationships between the characters with visceral physicality – relationships that all seem to be one-way and unfulfilled. (Apart from plenty of groping, unusually for Bieito the nudity is confined to the printed programme – a reproduction of Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde provocatively greets one on opening the cover.) As Tannhäuser attempts to pull himself away from the lure of Venus, she uses every ruse, verbal and physical, to try and claw him back. At the Wartburg, we seem to be witnessing a kind of love triangle, with Wolfram after Elisabeth, who only has eyes for Tannhäuser, who in turn seems to have a thing for Wolfram. Tannhäuser himself is portrayed as a rebel, likened by Bieito to Brecht’s Baal. He eschews the formal attire of the Wartburg until he is forced to change for the song contest, and he has the kind of personality that enjoys winding people up with outrageous talk, his ever more scandalous responses to his fellow minstrels’ tame descriptions of love being the epitome – and, of course, his undoing. It might be fair to talk of Wagner pre-empting Freud in his psychological insight of character, but to invoke the name of Schopenhauer, as Bieito does in the programme interview, is to credit the composer with too much foresight – he didn’t encounter the philosopher’s work until nearly a decade after Tannhäuser’s initial completion, and it would be reading too much into the Paris revisions to suggest they were informed by it.

Pushed into the background more than usual – literally so in the sense that the pilgrims’ voices are always offstage – is religion. It’s as if Bieito sees the plot’s premise of Tannhäuser seeking redemption in Rome for his supposed misdemeanour as so ridiculous, even as presented through the prism of Wagner’s very 19th-century view of medieval faith, that it can safely be ignored. ‘It is about something other than religion’, he states. In a sense his is a reading of the medieval legend of the troubadour Tannhäuser, before Wagner added the counterweight of the whole song-contest and Wartburg paraphernalia, and in which our ‘hero’ chooses eternal damnation and Venus once his salvation is seemingly rejected by the Pope. It also fits his rejection of Baudelaire’s celebrated summing up of the plot as the struggle between flesh and the spirit, which he labels ‘pretty simplistic’. ‘Simplistic’ is something this production is certainly not. There are levels of interpretation that only become apparent some time after the final curtain has descended, and there are small touches everywhere too numerous to take in at a single viewing. In other words, it’s a concept that intrigues, even beguiles, but most importantly forces its audience to think. If it is not entirely successful in every respect it is perhaps more down to individual aspects of presentation than the thinking as a whole: there are still some details floating around in the memory that fail to make sense.

Wolfram (Daniel Schmutzhard) and
Elisabeth (Annette Dasch)
Bieito asks a lot of his singers, and despite a double-cast Tannhäuser and Elisabeth during this ten-performance run, there was never anything short of total commitment from all involved. At this penultimate performance, Burkhard Fritz may not have been the most heroic-sounding of Wagnerian tenors, but there was subtlety and lyricism in his shaping of line and projection of the text (the intimacy of Antwerp’s opera house is generous in this respect). Ausrine Stundyte’s Venus proved a rich characterisation, employing the vocal reach of a Kundry (a role that she has also sung to great acclaim) to seduce, cajole and ultimately entrap. Annette Dasch’s Elisabeth was less satisfactory – vocally somewhat monochrome and with her control sometimes lost to the permanent distraughtness of the depiction. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Wolfram, too, seemed to exist in a perpetual state of angst, which occasionally disrupted what was largely a detailed, suitably Lieder-esque delineation of the role. The Opera Flanders Symphony Orchestra made a ravishing sound under the direction of Dmitri Jurowski, though his overall tempi were perhaps just a little too on the stately side – it certainly made for a long evening with such a late start time as 7.30pm.

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