Tannhäuser: Crazy in love

This looks familiar, I’m not sure why.

Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ ich wieder!  After four years with no Wiener Staatsoper in my life, I returned last night, and if this Tannhäuser is any kind of omen I’m glad I did, because it was awesome.  Welser-Möst is doing great things with the orchestra, there’s some fantastic singing, and well, if the virgin-whore complex is getting you down (it certainly gets old for me), Claus Guth has a production for you.

Wagner, Tannhäuser (Dresden version).  Wiener Staatsoper, 8.9.2010.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Johan Botha (Tanhäuser), Anja Kampe (Elisabeth), Matthias Goerne (Wolfram von Eschenbach), Michaela Schuster (Venus), Ain Anger (Hermann).  Production by Claus Guth.

Guth sets the opera in fin-de-siècle Vienna in the early days of Freud and Schnitzler.  Venus is a figment of Tannhäuser’s imagination, his attempt to live with emotional truth and unearth his unconscious mind rather than the live with social hypocrisy of his comrades (who keep their sex lives more neatly compartmentalized).  Unfortunately, this obsession results in ostracism and (socially induced?) mental illness.  The self-harming pilgrims are, post-pardon, confined to a psych ward, Tannhäuser’s voyage to Rome seems to be in the mind only, and Elisabeth kills herself with an overdose of Tannhäuser’s pills.

We open to see… not the usual orgy but another curtain, exactly like the one that just parted (no ballet, it’s the Dresden version).  For a second I thought I had stepped into a Robert Carsen production by mistake.  But no, it is the stage on which Tannhäuser imagines a double of himself cavorting with Venus, a fantasy he finally leaves.  But even afterwards, the oddly stopping and starting action, rooms that fall apart, and surreal moments suggest that large sections of what we see are through Tannhäuser’s unstable eyes.

I liked this production a lot.  It’s arguably an indirect interpretation, avoiding much of what Wagner would have thought the opera is about (the artist-opera aspects are solely metaphoric), but Guth wants to show that Wagner’s good woman/bad woman and redemption thing aren’t unearthly matters at all, they are just means of social control (we’re still in pre-Tristan land, remember).  Virtue and Christianity are all social constructions, ones which Tannhäuser attempts to defy at his peril.  In Act 3, this gets a little on the convoluted side–I was not always sure where Tannhäuser’s social outcast status stops and his apparent actual madness starts–but it mostly works.  The program claims this is the Dresden version, but Venus does come back at the end so I think it’s a Paris-Dresden combo.

The production speaks largely through images and tableux rather than acting.  Much of the blocking is stylized and static.  Maybe this is because it’s an underrehearsed revival, maybe it’s because many of the singers don’t seem to be able to act, but it seems like it’s a part of the production.  (According to a woman I spoke with during intermission, the June premiere of this production was a lot more detailed on the Personenregie end.)  The sets are gorgeous, the prologue and pilgrims wandering through a mostly-empty stage (the shepherd is a junior-sized Tannhäuser double), the more concrete places all reproductions of actual places in Vienna. 

Tannhäuser reenters the world via the seedy, faux-exotic Hotel Oriental (which still exists), where his comrades relieve their unconsciouses by discreetly renting by the hour, unlike Tannhäuser’s more prolonged and indiscreet escapades.  The hall of song is nothing other than part of the Staatsoper itself (the room with the composer’s busts that faces the balcony looking out over the Ring).  Setting the opera in the opera house itself is kind of an overused trick but it never stops working.  This room is a Baroque imitation and social space, here representing a stiff and self-conscious society with the outdated custom of the song contest.   Finally, Act 3 takes place in Otto Wagner’s asylum in Steinhof, this era’s attempt to deal more rationally with its outcasts.  The costumes are all realistic fin-de-siècle, and it looks very good as well as being functional and unfussy.

The Staatsoper’s orchestra was in excellent form.  Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting was grand, losing a bit of impetuosity but making up for it with nobility.  Tempos were moderately quick but never rushed (though the violins came to grief on one or two of those many long downward runs).  Ensembles were mostly clear and balanced. At the loudest moments the orchestra occasionally overpowered the soloists, but for Wagner this was very singer-friendly conducting.  The chorus sounded super.

Johan Botha sang Tannhäuser with astonishing ease, beauty, and tireless power.  After what usually passes for Heldentenor singing to hear something like this is balm for the ears.  But with that amazing ease seemed to come a lack of dramatic involvement, musical shaping, and variations of color for most of the score.  You felt he might as well be reading the phone book, and while him reading the phone book would be pretty and loud it would not be interesting.  His singing is impressive, but rarely affecting.  And the man cannot act his way out of a paper bag (it must be said, a very large paper bag).  So an incredible and memorable performance in some ways, but lacking in others.

At the end, Tannhäuser finally sees Venus in the guise of Elisabeth.

Anja Kampe as Elisabeth was new to me, and I thought she was fantastic.  She’s got a big, silvery, bright voice that seems destined for bigger and less lyrical roles than this one, but did a good job with the delicate parts of the score as well as raising the roof with the loud ones.  She was also the best actor in the production, making the cardboard Saint Elisabeth close to a real and confused young woman.  (If the ticket gods of Bavaria are generous, I should be seeing her as Leonore in Fidelio in Munich later this season, and I really hope I will.)

Michaela Schuster sounded shrill as Venus, but put everything into it and vamped convincingly.  Matthias Goerne sang Wolfram von Eschenbach with velvety tone (excluding some weak top notes) and great musicality, but was quite stiff onstage.  His Evening Star song was lovely, but, staged as a contemplation of suicide, rarely has someone pointing a gun at their own head been so dull.  The action’s all vocal here.

A great start to the season, I hope this is representative.  Forza del Destino and possibly also Semele next week.

Bows (sorry, hopefully my in-house photography will improve soon, the one with flash was even worse):

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the review!

    Almost everything presented at the Staatsoper in Vienna looks like that — static, even when properly rehearsed. But hey, The Met [pre-Gelb] is not much better in that respect either.

    Theater an der Wien is a good example of the opposite approach to opera, which is why I like it more.

    On the other hand, that cast… boy am I jealous!!! 😉

    Botha must be at his lifetime best right now — his Siegmund in Bayreuth was sensational. Goerne is my fave Lieder-singer. Anja Kempe is brilliant too [if you get to listen to her Fidelio, that's `something'] – I'd love to listen to her Elisabeth.