Cher Public

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.

  • m. croche

    Is there an error in tagging? Was this written by La C?

    • Baritenor

      This is another rambling critique by yours truly.

      I can’t believe it! I was given an out and didn’t even take it!

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        You have nothing to be ashamed of…

  • MontyNostry

    “She is charmingly engaged in the song contest rotting for Tannhäuser.”

    Wagner can be a bit prolix, I know, but does the soprano really have the time to decompose on stage?

    • Porgy Amor


      Hey, zombie horror is everywhere these days; why not? It might work if she were decomposing from the first. I’m picturing her looking slightly green already in “Dich, teure Halle”; and by the song contest, a putrid gray. If the makeup artists can manage the illusion of patchy exposed bone, that would be good. By Act III, she’s a terrifying apparition feasting on the brains of pilgrims, until Wolfram mercifully takes her out with a well-aimed head shot (he’s very conflicted about having to do this; a good acting opportunity for the baritone). The kicker: It was Tannhäuser who infected her, before the opera began! He was undead all along, and now begins his own hideous transformation once Venus’s protection is withdrawn. At final curtain, he begins to devour the Pope, who appears in this production.

      This will have its polarizing premiere in (where else?) Rotterdam. ;-)

      • Baritenor

        alright, alright. just when you think Spell-check AND a proof-reader have caught everything!

        • Porgy Amor

          P.S. Nice review, Baritenor. As I commented in one of the follow-ups below, I was not so taken with this, but I do have it and will put it in the eventual-rewatch queue. I did like the female principals, at least.

          • MontyNostry

            Porgy, you have a whole new Regie-Konzept there. After Munich’s Bavarian ‘Planet of the Apes’ Rigoletto we now have the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ Tannhaeuser. Seriously, though, Baritenor, I salute you for your eloquent review — and above all for sitting through the entire opera, which always seems unbearably tedious to me, apart from the obvious good bits.

          • MontyNostry

            Whoops, who’s making typos now? I meant to delete ‘Bavarian’ from the above.

  • Buster

    Lehnhoff kicked out Charlotte Margiono who was supposed to sing Elisabeth, because she was not “his type.” I hated him for that, even more so, because Margiono retired soon afterwards, citing this humiliating incident as one of the main reasons for her erly retirement.
    I did go in the end, even though I really wanted to boycot Lehnhoff. It all looked very dark and ugly, like the rest of his work.
    The dancing worms were ridiculous, could not agree more. It also did not help they used the Paris version, which I don’t love as much as Dresden. Ricarda Merbeth, Petra Lang and Hartmut Haenchen were splendid in it, though.

    • Porgy Amor

      I’ve liked some of Lehnhoff’s work (e.g. the Parsifal and the Rigoletto), but I just found this one…limp. It’s been a couple years since I saw it, but for something on DVD, I’d put it distantly behind the Friedrich/Bayreuth one with Gwyneth x 2.

      • Uninvolved Bystander

        Check out Lehnhoff’s Glyndebourne Jenufa with Silja, Alexander and Langridge. Straightforward and exceptionally moving.

        • Buster

          That is less kitschy than most of his other stuff, you are right.

          Sweet talkin’ boy on the Lehnhoff Turandot:

          • MontyNostry

            Fab-looking production. Not sure about Yannick’s kiss-curls, though.

          • Buster

            It also had Ana María Martínez as the most gorgeous Liù.

    • Are there citations for this, e.g., an interview with Margiono?

      • Buster

        Yes, she mentioned this in a few interviews. Looks and age are more important to directors than voice, she felt. The Lehnhoff insult was the final straw:

        • Buster

          What Lehnhoff really wanted was a more slender Elisabeth:

        • Not to be ungracious to a distinguished artist, but it is not unusual for an over 50 and overweight artist to feel a little defensive and bitter that roles are going to younger and slimmer colleagues. In the history of opera there are not many artists who have continued singing Elisabeth into their 50s, particularly if they were looking as matronly as Ms. Margiono does.

          Further, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a director to request that a singer be replaced if she can’t act the part the way he envisions it.

          None of this is meant to reflect on Margiono’s really excellent and stylish singing, though it should obviously be noted that she is heard here in a character part.

          • Harry

            I thought whether a soprano CAN sing a particular part, would be first port of call. It begs ‘what is more important- in opera’…the quality of the singers and the music itself…. or some director’s interpretation?’ In short, one asks who are the real ‘opera divas’ today. The answer I believe is staring us in the face. Who the director, is! Tannhauser is such a totally static opera, and visually boring. Everybody mopes, throughout. It is Wagner, at his most mournful dreariest -- so full of what are lumbering scolding / nagging piety sermons. I puzzle at times what any director is required for, in this opera. Perhaps, to manage a bit of Venus’s activities, then organizing the various walk -ons, where people should stand and gather. Tannhauser dramatically is like a a set of slow succeeding model’s cat- walk processions… ‘walk on-pause-walk off’. A listen to a compete sound recording normally suffices.

            La Cieca: “Further, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a director to request that a singer be replaced if she can’t act the part the way he envisions it.”

          • armerjacquino

            Of course whether a soprano can sing the part is the first port of call. Margiono could sing it and so could Nylund. If Margiono had been replaced by someone who couldn’t sing Elisabeth your point might have carried some weight, but she wasn’t.

          • Buster

            Thanks for your very cautious reply. In this case, I still feel for the dumped singer. She could have done slutty Wagner better than any blonde bombshell.

  • I was a bit taken aback by “Elisabeth leaps to his death.” Agree with you about Stephen Milling, though.

  • P.S. As a fellow reviewer: NOTHING beats having a friend read your copy before you publish it.

    • Especially when your ostensible editor couldn’t see a typo if it was sitting on her nose. My apologizes, cher public!

    • Baritenor

      …..that should be “defense.” Perhaps La Cieca can fix this particularly egregous error.

      and I DID have a friend read this!

  • Nice review! What I liked was how you focused a lot on the singing as well.

    Come to think of it are there even any good videos of Tannhauser that are commercially available? The Met video is boring and badly sung, I really dislike the one from Zurich too. I’ve never seen the Bayreuth — worth getting?

    • Bayreuth/Friedrich:

      ABSOLUTELY worth getting!

      • DurfortDM

        The Doyenne is of course correct. While the video speaks for itself it is actually the case that the mindblowingly spectacular Dame Gwyneth (in all sorts of ways at her astonishing best here) is hardly the only reason to purchase the DVD. Spas Wenkoff is a much better than a solid Tannhauser (and even mere solidity is impressive here), Bernd Weikal an excellent Wolfram, the production features detailed and effective direction for and acting from all the principles, and Sir Colin conducts a detailed, dynamic, flexible and very lively performance.

        Perhaps my views are somewhat skewed by this having been (on VHS) my first encounter with the opera, but it remains my favorite recorded or live performance.

  • Bluessweet

    Somehow, somewhere we may get to the point where an opera or any stage presentation whatsoever is presented as either an interpretation based rather firmly on the original or as a complete take-off.

    I would venture to say that productions by Nikolaus Lehnhoff seems to be in the former camp while those of Calixto Beito in the later. Really, what is so hard about this concept? Puccini wrote Manon Lescaut, not his version of Massenet’s Manon. Ok, this is a step further with different music entirely but we also have Carman Jones as an example.

    At some point, any new interpretation, good or bad, should stand on its own and be judged independent of its basis, except for, obviously, judging whether or not it has as much more or less meaningful insight and whether its details are more or less successful than the original.

    A final thought: Why must we have time juxtapositions in current productions that make little or no sense? Changing La fille du regiment from 1830 uniforms to 1916 ones did not change the story at all. It cannot be said that it brought into more modern thought, since the very last veteran of that conflict has just passed away. No one living today has a really good personal rememberance of an era that took place 95 years ago. In my opinion, all it did was change bright costumes for drab ones. Then again, my own taste in clothing does not run to grunge, so maybe I’m out of step with the world and the change had meaning for some.

    This is not to say that a theatrical vehicle cannot be changed forward (or back) in time but that if this is done, it should be purposeful and not just for novelty. The recent Philadelphia production of Romeo and Juliet was updated to be about fashion house wars in Italy and, it seemed to me, made a sensible production. You see, it can be done. In taking a Greek Tragedy and updating it to a modern situation might indeed bring a reflection of a point made long ago about another circumstance.

    • Harry

      Following on such comment, I am waiting with baited breath for the final cool hat -trick. For Baroque operas being set on space ships by some dizzy clown of a director. To see some Greek God jump not on his sky chariot but rev up the space ship rocket to declare his love to Goddess X, in another planet galaxy! That is, unless someone has done it already.

      Better still, let’s see directors being ultra-super revolutionary and not update: but go about setting various operas ‘far back in time’. Imagine Berg’s Lulu in the 18th Century? Perhaps ‘La Traviata’ in Medieval days…. ‘Rigoletto’ in Roman times….’Il Tarbarro’ somewhere on the ancient Nile..or what about Puccini’s ‘Girl of the Golden Dark Ages’ One could ask: if people think such ideas are stupid, mad and preposterous, then why is it, considered so intelligent ‘always going forward into the future?
      For to defend that particular sense of rightness: that ‘updating forward’ is the only legitimate form of time change: requires an admittance that Opera is in fact, a completely redundant moldy Art form.

      • armerjacquino

        There’s a fairly obvious reason why updating is done more often than backdating. Composers and librettists can’t see the future, yet their work can have things to say about things that have happened since they died. Beethoven never saw fascism but FIDELIO still speaks eloquently about fascism.

  • oedipe

    Just wondering: by the same token as reinterpreting or changing a libretto, shouldn’t a talented, creative director also attempt to “adapt” the music? For instance, by making significant cuts; or even additions. And if this is not acceptable, why not? Like the librettos, not all musical scores are masterpieces. If there are limits that must not be crossed, which are they?

  • Lily Bart

    OT: Happy Birthday Magda Olivero! 101 amazing years. What a woman, what a voice! Life has been richer with you in it, my dear.

    • WindyCityOperaman

      • Jack Jikes

        With that remarkable vibrato it’s as if her voice were a magnificent serrated-edge carving knife that cuts in a way a straight edge never could. A wonder!

        • Harry

          Jack Jikes :Besides Olivero’s Fedora, I have also a complete recording of Turandot, where she sings Liu. The voice I must admit is an acquired taste.
          I agree with your statement about Olivero (Quote) “…it’s as if her voice were a magnificent serrated-edge carving knife that cuts in a way a straight edge never could” (end)

          The trouble is as we well know,though a serrated edge cutting knife is extremely efficient (at say cutting bread) but it also tends to leave a few untidy crumbs behind as well. A bit like Olivero’s vibrato, vocally does! She is a similar acquired taste like that, of Mara Zamperi