Fresh, direct

Directors love directing Wagner, or rather, they love directing their versions of Wagner. They don’t seem to like the operas very much. We all know what we’re going to see if we travel to Bayreuth or Berlin or Stuttgart for an evening: the regietheater world of concept grafted over concept grafted over concept with the seeming intent of showing how smart the director is: A Meistersinger where Beckmesser (or Sachs) is clearly Hitler, or a Parsifal where the grail is turned into a Happy Meal ™, for prime Capitalistic satire, or a Lohengrin where everyone is some form of rodent.

Sometimes, hey, it works. Sometimes (alright most of the time), it’s a muddled mess. And then there’s the other side of the scale, which seems to happen with disturbing frequency but isn’t commented on half as much: where directors try to tell the story straightforwardly, sometimes slavishly, but get lost in fulfilling all the spectacle of Wagner’s complex stage pictures and forget about the drama.

Thank God, then, for Nikolaus Lehnhoff. As seen in a recently released on Opus Arte from 2008 performances in Baden-Baden, his production of Tannhäuser manages to be original without being (too) outlandish. Mostly, he succeeds. Approaching the opera with many ideas, he mainly seems concerned with plumbing the depths of the libretto for hidden meanings and key relationships rarely observed in productions of this seminal work.

The DVD, filmed in High Def and looking and sounding gorgeous, features a lengthy documentary featuring interviews with the director, conductor and principal singers. In this documentary Lehnhoff calls Tannhäuser “a Faustian everyman searching for meaning.” Most productions seem to focus on Tannhäuser as Artist; this one is Tannhäuser (slash Wagner) as Philosopher and Anarchist. Neither the complete freedom of the Venusburg nor the confining traditions and meaningless rituals of the Wartburg appeal to Tannhäuser’s search for truth, and it is only in death that he finds release and sanity. Lehnhoff successfully draws parallels between the two worlds and their emptiness by employing a unit set: a curving, revolving staircase resembling a double helix.

In the first act, this staircase transitions from Venus’ grotto to the valley outside without so much as a revolution: clear indications that Tannhäuser’s problems are not behind him. In act two, it is bedecked with tiny lights as it becomes the song hall at the Wartburg, shown here as an empty spectacle complete with microphone stand for the contestants, who are dressed in blinding gold tuxedos that even Elton John would have considered a bit much. (The costumes, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, are either in this category or they are the type of trenchcoats and cocktail dresses found in pretty much every Wagner production. They are the evening’s major weakness.) In Act three, the barrier between the two worlds breaks down and the staircase has crumbled, leaving a winding path upwards for Elisabeth to ascend and disappear.

Unfortunately, Lehnhoff makes his one significant misstep right at the start. In a program booklet, he claims that the Bacchanal is impossible to stage correctly because the music is too overpowering for the usual visuals of nymphs running around and groping each other. So instead, we mysterious larva-like figures wrapped head to toe in white silk writhing and paying homage to Venus (and, it goes without saying, groping each other). Venus appears on a platform center stage, between the double helix stairs, and she appears do be dressed as Elizabeth the First, complete with red fright wig. Then a dancer dressed as a horned bull-like creature is sacrificed to the goddess: a stand-in for Tannhäuser, perhaps?

The choreography of Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn is part Sacre du Printemps, part Beyonce music video. It gets things off to an obtuse start, but at least the music making here is first-rate. The Philharmonia Chor Wien sings throughout with remarkable clarity of tone and great feeling, and the accolades thrown at the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin are well deserved: withstanding an occasionally unruly brass section, they are outstanding under Philippe Jordan’s probing, intelligent baton.

Robert Gambill’s muscular heldentenor does not quite have the ideal flexibility for the role but he certainly has the energy and the philosophy. He takes some time to get fully up to speed, but by the end of act one he is in fine form. The length of the role does not seem to daunt him and he is at his best in the Rome Narration, which has sizzling intensity. If he has marshaled his resources to get to and through this punishing aria, it does not show.

Waltraud Meier, in sumptuous vocal form, is constrained somewhat by the fact that she spends about two thirds of her scene unable to move from her platform. Even thus restrained physically she is a fascinating Venus. Thrilled and sexually excited by Tannhäuser’s briefest touch, she is clearly obsessed with him and deeply wounded by his decision of leave. Shedding the outer layers of her gigantic dress and letting her hair down, she slowly transforms from goddess to a human woman in a black cocktail dress, desperate for affection. A far cry from the steamy sexpot usually presented, this Venus seems only a few steps away from becoming Kundry in Parsifal. (It should be noted that the DVD of Lehnhoff’s wonderful production of that opera features Meier as Kundry, so perhaps I’m biased.)

Camilla Nylund is Meier’s worthy rival for Tannhäuser’s affections. Despite being dressed in stereotypical virgin white (changing into a wedding dress for act three), this Elisabeth is no pious ingénue but an emotionally mature and deeply religious young woman who loves him wholeheartedly but is confused by his carnality; she spends much of their duet vacillating between recoiling from his embraces and giving into them. She is charmingly engaged in the song contest rotting rooting for Tannhäuser, and when the crowd turns on him she leaps to his defense with surprising strength. It is there that Nylund’s brilliant soprano is heard to best advantage, cutting through the ensemble like a laser. The prayer in act three, hushed but full of zeal, is also excellent and while “Dich, teure Halle” perhaps lacks the ultimate in smooth phrasing, it is certainly exciting.

The weakest of the four principal singers is Roman Trekel as Wolfram. He is in general underpowered and he has a tendency to bark. However, he approaches the part with a lieder singer’s intelligence, and is well suited to Lehnhoff’s take on the part. This Wolfram clearly lacks the passion that gives Tannhäuser’s art such fire. He seems torn between his friendship for Tannhäuser and professional and personal jealousy, and his performance at the Song Contest is hesitant and awkward. It is only after witnessing Elisabeth’s sacrifice and experiencing the pain of loosing her forever that he is able to find the passion to sing the Abernsternlied. The effect is offset somewhat by Trekel’s unsteadiness but the point is made.

Stephen Milling, one of the finest Wagnerian basses around today, is exceptional as the Landgraf, as is Tom Fox’s stern Biterolf. Marcel Reijans is a strained and unpleasant Walther, so his restored music thus comes off as a bit of a trial. Katherina Müller gives a striking performance as the young Shepherd, not only due to lovely purity of tone but also because she is given one of Lehnhoff’s more striking ideas: the Shepherd becomes a beautiful, androgynous faun carrying a young tree. The innocent presence of what is clearly a spirit of nature reveals, if only for a fleeting moment, what Tannhäuser spends the rest of the opera searching for.

Tannhäuser’s search is great food for thought and Lehnhoff provides no easy answers. Wagner calls for Tannhäuser to collapse across Elisabeth’s bier and for the signs of his salvation, the pope’s flowering staff, to be carried in. But Lehnhoff denies him these comforts. There is no staff, no concrete evidence of benediction, and the exhausted Tannhäuser expires in the arms of his friend Wolfram in a dark and empty valley. Has he been redeemed? Does the Pilgrim’s chorus beckon him to heaven, or is it simply another group returning from Rome?

Lehnhoff denies us pat resolution and leaves us, somehow, with an ambiguous ending to one of the world’s best-known operas. And it works. It works brilliantly. There are uneven parts, and the physical look of the production is sometimes over the top, but Lehnhoff carries his ideas with such convictions that the ones that fail simply fall away.