Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser
Peter Schneider, Claus Guth, Kwangchul Youn, Robert Dean Smith, Christian Gerhaher, Camilla Nylund, Iréne Theorin, Norbert Ernst, Sorin Coliban, James Kryshak, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Annika Gerhards
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 2 November 2014
First performed in 1845, Tannhäuser was Wagner's first great success and notwithstanding the musical developments first advanced in Der fliegende Holländer, its scale and the coherence of its concept place it more recognisably in the familiar Wagner style. Fusing legends and mythology from a number of sources, Tannhäuser uses these stories as an examination of deep archetypal human desires and experiences and as an expression of Germanic character, but it's also a work that tells us a lot about the composer himself. Tannhäuser is inextricably linked with the philosophy and the struggle of Wagner as an artist, a revolutionary and a reformer.
The nature of the composer, the problematic and difficult and contradictory sides of his character and his thought, the expression of that in his music is perhaps more of interest to the modern-day opera-goer than what the 13th century writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the influence of Heinrich Heine and the arcane language of Wagner's own libretto. There are clear parallels between the figure of Heinrich Tannhäuser and Wagner himself as an artist struggling with and using his physical and sensual human nature as a means to reach a higher, spiritual truth. Setting himself against prevailing thoughts, customs and morals, he's a character that is fated to be misunderstood and forced into exile only to eventually return triumphant and vindicated.
Seen in that regard, Tannhäuser isn't the most modest portrait of the artist as a young man. There's an arrogant self-importance here but, arguably, all of Wagner's later works could be seen in that light as overblown ego-trips of a musical genius who was fully aware of his own talent and ability. It is worth examining then, just what makes them as great as they are, and Wagner's personal life can't be left out of the equation. It's clear from the greatcoats, top hats and neck-ties in Claus Guth's production of the music-drama for the Vienna State Opera, that the director is aiming closer to Wagner's own period, attempting to make the link between the composer and the work clearer and, hopefully, thereby making it a little more meaningful and accessible.
The settings are likewise 'closer to home' than the nymphs and satyrs in the grotto of Venusberg or the Wartburg castle of the middle ages in Eisenach. Act I is basically just a stage and a red curtain, Tannhäuser's time spent with Venus being rather more clearly signalled as the artist having an affair with his leading lady before coming to the realisation that he is neglecting his art and has to move on. Guth initially makes use of doubles on the part of Heinrich and Venus to emphasis the struggle between the sensual and the spiritual side of the artist, but this mirroring isn't taken much further on into the opera. The Wartburg scenes look like Wagner period Saxony or Thuringia concert halls, drawing rooms and bedrooms, but there's nothing that jars with the mythological setting of Wagner's imagination.
Other than transposing the period, Guth's production doesn't really appear to have anything more to add to the meaning of Tannhäuser, sticking fairly closely to the word and the intent of the libretto, but it has to be said that not much more actually happens over the three acts. That hasn't stopped other directors from imposing all manner of strange concepts on the work (I still haven't made much sense out of this year's Bayreuth production), and there's no major deconstruction of the author and the work in the manner of Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal. It may not be an edgy or experimental production, but it's well designed, it looks lovely, and is appropriate and respectful of the work. Peter Schneider's conducting matches that tone, forging a close bond with the stage production. There are no surprises, it's played very much in a solid, classic Wagner style, and that seems appropriate for the purposes of this production.
There are however some notable differences with how Tannhäuser is traditionally viewed, and this creeps in more as the work progresses. Act II, Scene 4, for example is played like a scene from Die Zauberflöte, the nobles - masked and wearing cloaks - separating Tannhäuser and Elisabeth as if to prepare him a Masonic initiation. The Landgrave comes over as a kind of Sarastro, his purpose to win Tannhäuser away from sensuality and emotion to the side of order and rationality by fulfilling his destiny as an artist and Meistersinger. Act III however is the most powerful in how it expresses the reality against Wagner's poetic idealism. Tannhäuser doesn't make any literal pilgrimage to Rome, but is rather sick in bed having collapsed at the end of Act II. Elisabeth might be an angel who journeys over the hills to the Wartburg on a pathway to heaven in Wagner's eyes, but here, in her despair at his failure to "return", takes an overdose of pills and falls into an adjoining bed beside him.
The conclusion to Tannhäuser, if it's not exactly a happy one, should at least be spiritually uplifting. Guth's ending manages to be a little bleaker than most, but it does prove to be uplifting and incredibly moving. Wolfram's song (Act III, scene 2) becomes even more mournful as it follows the reality of Elisabeth's suicide sacrifice, particularly as it's sung impressively in this light by a wonderfully lyrical Christian Gerhaher. The only right ending then, since she has gone to meet Tannhäuser in heaven, is for Tannhäuser also to collapse and die beside her as the curtain falls and Wagner's Tannhäuser theme reaches its almost overwhelmingly beautiful conclusion. Whether it fits with the overall concept, whether it relates to the Wagner-period production design or not, it is nonetheless extraordinarily effective and, for me at least, it gives the work a more relatable human side.
The singers can contribute to bringing out that side of the work too, and that was well done in the Vienna production. As mentioned above, it was most evident in the performance of Christian Gerhaher, who received the loudest roar of approval from the audience at the curtain call. Robert Dean Smith gave his usual solid, untiring and finely sung performance. He faltered slightly when coming back after the long break before his appearance in Act II, but was right there on form again in the third act. Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth was beautifully and sweetly sung. The soprano role of Venus in the original 1845 version of the work performed here (as opposed to its scoring for mezzo-soprano in the 1861 Paris version) was however still just a little too low for Iréne Theorin to really sing with the necessary force. The chorus are also a vital force in Tannhäuser, and the Vienna chorus took up that role wonderfully.
The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. The next performances being broadcast are La Bohème on November 7th, and Khovanshchina on November 21st. See the Live Programme on their website for details.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video