Wednesday, 5 January 2011

TANNHAUSER at Covent Garden, 2 Jan 2011

Richard Wagner, TANNHAUSER Royal Opera House, 2 January 2011


Venus                                                    MICHAELA SCHUSTER
Tannhauser                                         JOHAN BOTHA
Shepherd Boy                                     ALEXANDER LEE
Landgrave Hermann                          CHRISTOF FISCHESSER
Wolfram von Eschenbach               CHRISTIAN GERHAHER
Walther von der Vogelweide           TIMOTHY ROBINSON
Heinrich der Schreiber                      STEVEN EBEL*
Biterolf                                                   CLIVE BAYLEY
Reinmar von Zweter                           JEREMY WHITE
Elisabeth, Hermann's niece              EVA-MARIA WESTBROEK
Elisabeth's attendants                      KIERA LYNESS, 
                                                                DEBORAH PEAKE-JONES,
                                                               LOUISE ARMIT, 
                                                               KATE McCARNEY

(*Steven Ebel is participating in the Jette Parker Young Artists' Programme)

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
Chorus Master                                     RENATO BALSADONNA

Conductor                                              SEMYON BYCHKOV

I rather liked the rather quirky production (by director Tim Albery), and the performance was of a very high standard, both musically and dramatically.
There was a delightful conceit at the very beginning - the curtains rose to reveal - the curtains of the Royal Opera House. The Venusberg scene consisted of a dance sequence, performed by very beautiful, fit and athletic young people - at one point one of the girls did a flying leap of the table, to be caught in the arms of one of the boys - unfortunately, however, at no point did it seem to connect with the erotic charge of the music - and the music really did carry an incredible erotic charge! I don't think I have ever heard it performed so passionately as on this occasion by the ROH orchestra under Semyon Bychkov. 

 The dance, however, was NOT erotic - rather too sane and healthy for the Venusberg, so that one didn't really feel that Tannhauser was suffering from the surfeit of pleasure he claims to feel. This was slightly disappointing - the dance sequence was very good, but not particularly decadent!

Michaela Schuster was a very sultry-voiced Venus, wearing a suitably slinky black dress.

And another minor criticism of the actual production - when Tannhauser returns to the earth, and meets up with his former colleagues again, the stage is almost bare,  and there is a large gulf between Tannhauser and the others, into which at one point someone falls (don't ask!!) ....and the gulf gradually closes once Wolfram welcomes Tannhauser back, and the others follow suit. Uh - this is obviously meant to let us know that there is a PSYCHOLOGICAL GULF between the singers. Thanks, Mr. Albery, but I think most of us can work that out for ourselves!!!
I'll say a bit more about the production before I turn to discussing the individual performers. By and large, I did quite like it, but I wanted to get the criticisms out of the way first. The Song Contest is set in  a ruined hall - the Wartburg, but in ruins, so that Elisabeth's 'Dich, teure Halle' has the implication that not only she will start to live again now that Tannhauser has returned, but that the ruins can now be rebuilt and the Hall of Song will have a new lease of life.

People have criticised Botha's size, and he is indeed somewhat - ah - larger than life, and spends most of the time sitting down....he has a limited amount of movement and gestures which he uses when necessary. (I think it is a bit unfair to criticize Botha when Pavarotti was allowed to get away with it for decades - he sang roles like Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, the Duke of Mantua, etc. etc..... who are supposed to be young, handsome and attractive to women!!)

 To be honest, I don't have a problem with this - I just didn't look at him! I listened instead to the beautiful clear, bright voice, which didn't flag even during the difficult Rome Narration. I found his portrayal of the tormented artist very convincing - I must confess that I find TANNHAUSER a very disturbing work in many ways....not so much the conflict between sacred and profane, but the wallowing in guilt; it's as if Tannhauser almost ENJOYS being wracked with guilt about the time he has spent in the Venusberg. And I don't care what Botha looks like, since he managed to convey the passion and the ambiguity so convincingly.
The Elisabeth of Eva-Maria Westbroek was an ideal contrast to the Venus of Michaela Schuster, so that one believed in Tannhauser's conflict.

This Elisabeth isn't just a saintly virgin, although sainthood is what she achieves thanks to her sacrifice for Tannhauser's redemption - she's also a young woman with emotions, who has been genuinely in love with Tannhauser - I think we sometimes tend to overlook that Wagner's stage directions specify that, when Tannhauser contradicts Wolfram by singing in praise of sensuality, she starts to express her approval......("Elisabeth starts to make a gesture of approval, but when everyone else stays gravely silent, she shyly refrains").  
The Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher  was also richly deserving of the high praise it has received from most critics. He is almost understated, in contrast to the passion that Tannhauser expresses, but one can feel the desperation of his unrequited love for Elisabeth, and his singing is very lyrical and nuanced, his 'O du, mein holder Abendstern' a shining example of lyric technique.


The theme chosen by all the other singers in the Song Contest - i.e. devotion to pure virtue rather than sensuality, which Tannhauser praises - actually rather misrepresents the Minnesingers, though obviously it is necessary for Wagner's dramatic purpose. The real Walther von der Vogelweide was not such a prissy little man as Wagner makes him out to be, and would never have written so disparagingly about sensuality! (I've included a link to one of his poems, in case anyone wants to follow this up  .'under der linden', by Walther von der Vogelweide.     And a translation!   Translation of 'under der linden' )

Here is a link to a YouTube clip of a performance of  Unter der Linden.

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