Cher Public

No contest

tannhauser amazonRichard Wagner viewed dance as an essential element of art, though he used it sparingly in his operas. The bacchanal he put in the 1861 Paris version of Tännhauser was supposed to depart from classical ballet and serve up an orgy of motion, with figures assembling and reordering themselves, not unlike the physical manifestation of a symphonic poem.

One wonders what he’d make of Staatskapelle Berlin’s 2014 production, now on BelAir Classiques. Director Sasha Waltz’s sweaty pileup of writhing bodies in the opening tableau serves as the jumping off point for a fully choreographed opera in which dancers weave around and through the scenes with sweeping gestures, arresting poses and sometimes sophomoric mimed responses to what’s being sung. 

Waltz has done such work before, earning positive notices for adaptations of L’OrfeoDido and Aeneas and Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. Wagner proves a thornier task: The abstract movements and updated mid-20th century setting (a nod to the company’s temporary quarters in the Schiller Theater) strip away symbolic points of reference without really illuminating the clash between the sensual and the spiritual or other layers of the drama. Particularly busy moments, such as the first act scene with the Landgrave’s hunting party, almost veer into self-parody.

The mise-en-scène depicts the song contest on the Wartburg as a hedonistic tie-and-tails gala, a concept that obscures Wagner’s overt nationalism, with its nod to battles for the majesty of the German realm. Instead, male partygoers swoon as Wolfram sings of the pure courtly ideal of love and the ladies lift their gowns and shake their breasts to Tännhauser’s increasingly enthusiastic paeans to sensuous pleasure. By portraying the title character as a kind of polymath who presages the sexual freedom of the 1960s, Waltz breaks away from the work’s plodding earnestness but doesn’t inject enough dramatic substance to contrast with the opening act’s Venusberg scene.

There are some striking stage pictures of grey-clad pilgrims in fog-filled valleys, and of the saintly Elisabeth’s body being covered with leaves that have sprouted from the Pope’s staff at the very end of the opera. The Venusberg scene is a titillating pageant in which some 20 nearly naked dancers cavort and freeze in poses within a white tube-like structure that could have been inspired by a college term paper on dream analysis.

It’s left to the vocalists and Berlin orchestral and choral forces led by Daniel Barenboim to provide most of the interpretive substance. Barenboim fuses the extended Paris ballet music on to the standard Dresden edition of the opera — an imperfect marriage made better by his careful attention to the chromatic palette and the impressionistic aspects of the bacchanal.

At 62, tenor Peter Seiffert struggles with the title role’s high tessitura more than on his Teldec set with Barenboim but progressively adds heft and shading to the interpretation in the final two acts. His Rome narrative has a detached, third-person quality that abruptly veers into deep despair at the recollection of being denied pardon by the Pope, making the character seem quite contemporary, as it he’s grappling with issues that could require an analyst.

Peter Mattei’s Wolfram is done up as a bit of a nebbish in suspenders and shirtsleeves and subjected to some odd tai chi-like blocking during his song to the evening star. No matter. The baritone is tender and noble, struggling to comprehend the peevish Tännhauser’s internal landscape and keenly aware that he can’t measure up in Elisabeth’s eyes. René Pape is a dignified Landgrave Hermann, wrapping his impressive bass around the welcoming aria “Gar viel und schön” and infusing every phrase with meaning.

The women are less vocally satisfying. With an assertive top range, keen dramatic instincts and movie-star looks, Danish soprano Ann Petersen ably navigates “Dich, teure Halle” and Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer but doesn’t temper the portrayal to deliver enough depth of characterization. Russian mezzo Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus is intense, with a fast vibrato and slightly tart tone that won’t be to everyone’s liking but is certainly attention-grabbing. Perhaps it’s the quality of this recording, but she sounded more sensual in the role on Marek Janowski’s version for PentaTone. Solid contributors in lesser roles include Tobias Schabel as Biterolf and Sonia Grane as the shepherd.

Barenboim takes a fleet, no nonsense approach that spotlights the music’s folk-like qualities and flowing phrases without putting a particularly distinct interpretive stamp on the proceedings. The Staatskapelle Berlin sounds in fine health,  a few intonation issues notwithstanding, with the violins excelling in their difficult second act passages and the brass sturdy and majestic (eight horn players get a collective cameo, walking across the stage at the conclusion of the first act as the hunting retinue gathers). The chorus admirably captures Wagner’s desire for the pilgrims to sound as if approaching slowly from a great distance.

Wagner was never completely satisfied with Tännhauser, and his efforts to adapt it to Paris with Venus’ court proved a fiasco. This odd production may try to capture the composer’s notion of gesamtkunstwerk but is most effective when there’s a minimum of stage business, allowing the music to stand on its own. On those merits, it’s a worthy contender among the DVD releases.

  • huswest12

    Talking about Wagner. Great news. The South African tenor Johan Botha will be singing the role of Sigmund in the performance of die Walkure next week in Budapest.

    • PCally

      Good to hear. I hope that means he’s at least on his way to a full recovery.

    • Camille

      Thank you so much for reporting this great news as I had been reflecting upon his condition once again when listening to the rebroadcast of his Tannhäuser from last fall on Sirius last week and prayed fervently, (like third act Elisabeth), that he may get well and continue on.

      Of all the Wagnerian tenor performances I’ve ever heard, (with the singular exception of one of Ben Heppner’s Tristans), and that would also include the estimable Herr Seiffert as Tannhäuser--in a production with yet another ill-conceived lousy ballet--Big Botha is the only one who has sung an heroic role with the ease and assuredness that made it seem child’s play and rendered such as a gratifying experience to us in the audience. As my stomach is usually tied up in knots watching the tenor protagonist flail and lurch and belch his path through perdition (and not to mention the never-to-be-forgotten grandstanding Wolfgang Schmidt with his fabulous back flip near the end of the Rom Narrativ in 1997), it was GLORIOUS to finally hear this terrifying role fully SUNG, and should it come out on DVD I will make the exception of snapping it up. The opera Tannhäuser, in whichever version, the Dresden, the Paris, the Vienna--hell maybe there is a Riga or Brooklyn version for all I know--is a great favorite of mine but it is and always will be a kind of mess and necessitates the conductor and director making a lot of decisions, and so is tampered with to an inordinate degree. I don’t know where the solution lies, but perhaps it works best in its Dresden version but I so love the sloppy Tristan leftovers Der Meister serves up that I go for the Paris/Wiener verson everytime.

      Get well, Big Botha, and float that boat our way once again!

      • PCally

        I hope the powers that be release those met performances. The cast was really something (except for DeYoung) and the production is probably one of the better Schenk productions. I know this production has been released on DVD already but it would make sense to release these performances since it’ll probably one of the last times Levine conducts Wagner at the house.

        (A DVD of the Lulu performances wouldn’t be so bad, since those were Peterson’s last performances).

  • PCally

    I’ve noticed that many directors, even the more regie-oriented ones, seem to struggle a bit with Tannhauser. I’m a huge Kupfer fan but the production that came before this current Tannhauser was pretty underwhelming by Kupfer standards and Alden’s production in Munich also seemed fairly tame by his 1990s standards. Ditto Lenhoff, never the most experimental director in the first place but one who often appeared to have an overall POV in much of his work. His Tannhauser is just dull. Meistersinger appears to be the same way, a lot of great directors don’t seem to know what to do with it. It’s apparently very challenging.

    My love for Barenboim, Pape, and Mattei means that I will most likely purchase this at some point. Those a three of the greatest Wagnerians of all time IMO and after hearing Mattei at the met I’m thankful someone had the sense to record him in the role. I also like Prudenskaya a lot, even if it’s not the most sensual or caressing sound. She wields it with conviction and is quite potent. Venus in the Dresden version is a pretty thankless role IMO.

    • Porgy Amor

      I thought Prudy’s Azucena for Barenboim (in the Alice-in-Wonderland-esque production with Trebs and Domingo) was excellent, and I generally have thought well of her in other things I’ve heard. She’d likely be an asset in this to me. Maybe when my opera break runs its course…

      The other Marina “P,” Marina Poplavskaya, was the originally scheduled Elisabeth in this.

      Thanks, Adriel, for the informative and well-written review.

      • PCally

        Popsy would have been interesting to say the least. I’ll continue to be a fan of hers, even if the fandom is at times somewhat inexplicable. In a fantasy world she’d sort her problems out, find her true fach, and make some sort of return. But those things rarely happen. I don’t know that I’d ever even heard of Ann Petersen before these performances so I have genuinely no idea what she sounds like. Adrianne Pieczonka apparently sang in this production the year after it premiered and I wish she’d sung in the premiere since we’d have her on video. I bet she’s super in the role at her best. Excited to see what next year’s munich production brings.

        • Camille

          I hear you and do commiserate but “fantasy world” has to be confined to the stage and the one singers actually exist in is something far different and far harsher. While it’s always possible she could make a return (and what became of that vocal coaching with Christa Ludwig that was reported a couple years back?), maybe she has decided to take her life in another direction. I haven’t heard the slightest word about her in a long time now so perhaps she has cut her losses and is living a different life.

          A pity. It’s not as if she didn’t have a voice (like some), or that you couldn’t hear her (like others). It just seemed to be some fundamental lack of very basic technical grounding which, ultimately, caught up with her on account of her precipitous rise. How old is she? Not yet forty, I think. Perhaps there will be a future — but I am grateful to have seen those two last performances of her Tatyana for, with or without a voice (and she certainly could be heard to have been suffering from the effects of bronchitis or a chest cold) she burned the stage with a rare flame, and I know how corny that sounds but in her case it’s just the simple truth. Hard to describe what she had exactly, but it was there in spades. Nor will I forget the loving and friendly way Peter Mattei picked her up in his arms and twirled her around at their curtain calls. It seemed to me at the time somehow ominous or foreboding and knew not why I felt that way.
          I hope she will find her way back home, wherever that may turn out to be.

          • PCally

            I saw one performance of the Tatyana and riveting as it was it was also somewhat sad as that was a role that should have been ideal for her and every time she even attempted to sing at a louder volume the voice simply went out of her control to a degree that was just unpleasant. In addition to all those technical troubles she’d been singing while severely ill and that sort of thing most certainly does damage. Her somewhat gloomy take on the role was very complimentary with Mattei’s and the two were, even by the operas standards, a very depressing couple.

            Elisabeth is a hard role to nail dramatically. I’ve seen several spectacular singers who didn’t have a clue what the role was about and the one singer I saw who was remarkable was Westbroek who, though not nearly as weak as she reportedly was on opening night, was clearly working with a compromised instrument. Well one can’t have everything I guess. As far as Tannhauser goes, that opera is not really well served on DVD so the met performances would be welcome, at least for the musical aspects (the schenk production is decent though).

            • Camille

              Yes, Elisabeth is a Vapid Virgin so much of the time she is portrayed but one must remmber she is based upon the real life character of St Elisabeth of Hungary, a very strong person of nobility and noble principle, so the little vacuous darling aspect is no good for me. Ms Westbroek was an excellent Elisabeth except for the problems with her vocal emission and which I hope to god she can clear up. While I watched her third act calvary I kept thinking “Was Leonie really THAT much better at this?” For she really could be compared with her. I don’t know as I didn’t see La Leonie in her famous walk up the hill but my husband did and he remembers.

              I thiught Poplavskaya gave a remarkable interpretation of Elisabetta. A very very difficult character to bring alive and almost alwYs ivershadowed by the always grateful mezzo who inhabits Eboli. For once they get the “BIG” popular aria moment and they all come on, guns aboaze and most of the time, overacting and missing the notes, HA! I’ve never seen a wholly believable or totally complete and competent Eboli--I await La Garanca’s take on the role. I missed Bol’Shoye OLGA’s, a great regret.

            • PCally

              I get even sadder thinking about Westbroek, even if she hasn’t fallen to the wayside in that same way. SHE is a singer who has pretty much always stunned me dramatically and the voice in it’s prime was really gorgeous in an earthy sort of way that was unique IMO.

            • Porgy Amor

              Unpopular opinion(?): I prefer Elisabeth’s music to Eboli’s. Not just the arias, although, those too. “Oh ma chère compagne”/”Non pianger, mia compagna” is one of the parts of that opera that make me really lean forward and see what the singer has. I listened once to about 20 performances in a row of it, and I concluded that it’s not an easy sing. Elisabeth gets at least two and maybe three remarkable duets with Carlos, all so different from one another: moonstruck infatuation in the first, resignation in the last, and enough mercurial shifting feeling in the middle one for a relationship of a whole life (the most musically remarkable of them all). And, of course, Elisabeth gets a share in the magnificent quartet in the fourth act, in which these four unhappy figures do more than just become people, they become us. It’s on a level of the greatest movements of Mozart’s operas.

              I like Eboli’s music a lot, of course. The Veil Song can be a lot of fun, and “O don fatal/e” is a fine mezzo diva curtain-closer. But a great soprano need not fear. Verdi gave her plenty.

            • PCally

              Right there with you porgy

            • Me too. I could actually manage quite well *without* that Veil Song holding the opera up for no urgent reason.

            • armerjacquino

              Hands off the Veil Song!

              I don’t think we need turn it into the Eurovision Song Contest, really. Both women have some incredible music, e basta.

              I’d imagine that the crossover between the two roles is minimal, because people who can float Elisabetta’s high lyrical lines may not be able to dig into the chesty stuff Eboli needs, and vice versa. Interesting that Verrett, one of the greatest Ebolis of all time, insisted that Elisabetta should have been her part.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              Camille, my first ever Don Carlo had Borodina as Eboli and it was tremendously exciting. It was the BBC Proms performance that was the basis of the Haitink recording, although sans Gorchakova on the actual night, sadly. My second had Urmana who certainly held her own against Mattila’s Elisabeth but I wouldn’t say came close to stealing the show.

              My most recent Don Carlo had Uria-Monzon, opposite Harteros, so there was no question of the Elisabetta being over shadowed on that occasion. Harteros gave one of the best performances of anything I’ve ever seen and Uria-Monzon was a bit of a dead loss.

              Re Urmana, she came to the Edinburgh festival several times when she was first becoming famous. In addition to the Eboli, I recall a stunning recital of Russian repertoire plus Obradors, and a vocally flawless Lady Macbeth that was just jaw-dropping. I recall reading in her biography at that performance that she had a first Isolde scheduled but so far she was still fulfilling engagements with her mezzo hat on. I think the next time I saw her was as La Gioconda which she sang extremely well but more carefully and less excitingly. Then there was a Forza Leonora which was very boring and slightly ragged that really made me wish she’d stuck with the mezzo Fach. But she did have such tremendous possibilities and I suppose if you are more on top of Lady Macbeth than practically anyone else who has tried it, mezzo or soprano, it’s natural to be tempted by other soprano roles. The mezzo repertoire is pretty small and seems to contain a lot of further conventional subdivisions that further limit what an artist can do if they stick to what is truly best for them -- I can understand why they so often experiment.

            • PCally

              Crespin sang both ladies’ music at different points and she always said one of the roles she most regretted not singing was Elisabeth.

              I imagine that she would have been up for either role at that point in time. Granted I think in both there would be moments of effortful singing but I don’t think range would have had much to do with it.

            • armerjacquino

              Crespin’s rep was nearly as unusual as Callas’, though…

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              Indeed, plus Callas did sing Elisabetta and record O Don Fatale. Tebaldi recorded O Don Fatale and sang Elisabetta too, which doesn’t seem to be that unusual a combination -- just not the entirety of both roles.

          • tiger1

            I agree with Porgy Amor about Elisabetta having some great music. The second (first if 4 act version) duet is among my all time favorite music. But both parts are meaty and good -- even if Elisabetta, in particular in the five act version, is the somewhat larger part. I think that there must be at least one or two singers who have done both parts but I am not sure -- and also in what order as a mezzo moving to soprano might have done Eboli before Elisabetta -- and soprano moving to mezzo or very dramatic roles might go from Elisabetta to Eboli.

            • Porgy Amor

              I think that there must be at least one or two singers who have done both parts but I am not sure

              Violeta Urmana, in recent times, comes to mind. I have not actually heard her Elisabettas, but I’d imagine Eboli was the better role for her. Her best work was in the early mezzo years, one exception being a surprisingly interesting and well-conceived Lady Macbeth in the Tcherniakov/Currentzis production. But mezzos actually sing that part.

            • Krunoslav

              Can’t think of anyone besides Urmana that has done both roles onstage. Bumbry recorded excerpts of Elisabeth de Valois ( in Italian and German at various times) but i don’t believe she ever yielded up her eye patch and show stoppers.

              Elisabeth in tessitura and need t float just isn’t a part that would flatter Zwischenfach artists. Looking at the Ebolis and Elisabeths on the Met archives site, hard to think of any I’d want to have hard do both- except Ponselle, who might have sung a terrific Eboli.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              I suppose the one who should have done both is the dreaded Leonie, who hooted her way through Elisabetta and certainly had facility at the top, if not float per se, and could have given an appropriately mental ‘O don fatale’ and would have had her moments elsewhere, such as the ‘malheur sur toi’ trio (sorry to mix languages). The veil song wouldn’t have been much fun for anyone mind.

  • overstimmelated

    “The bacchanal he put in the 1861 Paris version of Tännhauser was supposed to…serve up an orgy of motion, with figures assembling and reordering themselves”

    Even the umlauts were carried away!

    (forgive me, couldn’t resist)

    • Camille

      Perhaps they were övërstïmülätëd?

      Sorry, sorry, sorry. Couldn’t help it.