Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser
L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo - 2017
Nathalie Stutzmann, Jean-Louis Grinda, José Cura, Steven Humes, Annemarie Kremer, Aude Extrémo, Jean-François Lapointe, William Joyner, Roger Joakim, Gijs van der Linden, Chul-Jun Kim, Anaïs Constans
Culturebox - February 2017
The failure and the uproar caused by the first French performances of Wagner's Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861 is one of the most significant events in musical history. Wagner's new way of structuring and writing opera with through-composition was certainly viewed as a challenge to the unwritten rules of opera; rules that were strictly observed at the Paris Opera. Those rules may have had more to do with social conventions than musical ones - upsetting the dinner arrangements of the influential Jockey Club members - but Wagner's musical innovations were significant and the work at least made a strong impression despite and maybe even because of the notoriety of the perceived fiasco in Paris.
Wagner had in fact tailored his opera specifically for the French audiences at its Paris premiere, even going as far as including the obligatory ballet sequence - albeit not placed in the conventional running order. The ballet and some of the other revisions are occasionally still introduced into productions of the opera, but it's very rare that you have the opportunity to see the work performed in the French language translation that was given at in its brief three night run in Paris in 1861. It's of considerable interest then to see this rare French version of Tannhäuser revived for the Monte-Carlo Opera.
The difference the French language makes to Tannhäuser is immediately striking, if not really all that surprising. It's not really all that immediately obvious though, since in addition to the long Vorspiel, Wagner's controversially placed ballet also follows the choral Bacchanal, which means that it's a full 25 minutes before you get to hear the voice of Heinrich, or Henri as he is known in this version. And credit to José Cura, who brings his robust dramatic lyrical tenor to the role with a fluid line if not with perfect enunciation, but it's the fact that the role is sung in French that is so striking, making Tannhäuser sound almost entirely different from the more familiar German version.
As you might expect, the work has a softer, lyrical flow in French, and conductor Nathalie Stutzmann emphasises this lighter treatment with a more delicate touch. It really doesn't sound at all like the Wagner we are more familiar with, nor does it really sound like anything that we could find comparable in French opera. It's not at all like Massenet, Saint-Säens nor any of the early adopters or admirers of Wagner's methods, although only Chausson really ever attempted anything in French opera that showed overt influence. What the French version does highlight however is something closer to what Wagner himself would have been aiming for at the time of composition; something that draws from the extravagance and style of the French Grand Opéra but has a uniquely German expression. That makes it sound totally unique in that respect, and in this version you can really see why the work would have come as a shock to a conservative French audience.
Consequently, the French Tannhäuser requires a different type of singer, and that does seem to be the biggest challenge faced by the Monte-Carlo production. José Cura copes best, showing that the role of Henri requires a more lyrical Saint-Säens style tenor than it does a Heinrich Heldentenor. Even then, the French language doesn't always scan well over the long Wagnerian lines and this certainly presents problems for some of the other roles. The role of Vénus is more of a mezzo-soprano role in the French version, and it is sung well by Aude Extrémo. Élisabeth is more of a challenge, and it certainly pushes Annemarie Kremer to her limits. Steven Humes comes over well as Hermann, the Landgrave, and the Monte Carlo production also has a good Wolfram in Jean-François Lapointe, who gives a lovely rendition of 'Ô douce etoile, feu du soir' (O, du mein holder Abendstern), but Tannhäuser/Wagner is undoubtedly a challenge for the French voice. The chorus is outstanding.
Jean-Louis Grinda's production makes effective use of Laurent Castaingt's visually impressive set designs. There's an extravagance of colouration in Act I which matches the vaguely 1940s period costumes with a Powell and Pressburger like Technicolor staging. In a stage context it looks more like more the stylised designs of 'The Red Shoes' or 'Tales of Hoffmann', but it also manages to capture something of the feel of 'Colonel Blimp' or the ecstatic colour sections of 'A Matter of Life and Death'. Act I's Venusberg is extraordinary, a hallucinogenic blaze of colour and psychedelic projections that would be appropriate for Henri's indulgence in this den of sin here being more of the narcotic kind. That also suits the slighter lighter touch that takes an edge off Wagner's rather more heavy-handed social and religious moralising.
Henri's act of rebellion nonetheless still contrasts strongly with the elegant clean lines and formal dress of Act II's scenes in Wartburg. The singing contest takes place in a cathedral-like dome where a grail is ceremoniously placed centre stage. During Henri's act of rebellion, scandalising polite society with profane art that is in defiance of social niceties and musical conventions, four representations of Venus remain present, visible only to Tannhäuser. They are easily upset these fine upstanding citizens, but then so too were the original first audience at the Paris Opera, we have to remember. One can only imagine that, despite the apparent failure of the work in Paris, Wagner must have delighted that the provocation of his own act of rebellion would make him the talk of the town.
Quite what kind of acceptance that the apostate expects to find is always difficult to reconcile in Act III of Tannhäuser, and it's by no means clear what way director Jean-Louis Grinda intends to present it, other than that it is still visually arresting. In a kind of inverted world, trees hang down from the sky, while Henri appears to be walking on the clouds of heaven, while the sun rises above/below the clouds and an eye appears in the sky. Henri's salvation at the end appears to be a heavenly one only, the penitent chorus appearing over the curve rise of the stage proclaiming the miracle of the flowering staff, while Henri faces down the guns of his rivals as the last notes ring out. Heaven and eternal peace ("À lui le ciel et la paix eternelle") may be the due of the penitent sinner, but in this production there's apparently not much earthly forgiveness being offered.
Links: L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Culturebox