Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Georg ZeppenfeldTannhäuser – Klaus Florian Vogt
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Walther von der Vogelweide – Dean Power
Biterolf – Peter Lobert
Heinrich der Schreiber – Ulrich Reß
Reinmar von Zweter – Ralf Lukas
Elisabeth – Anja Harteros
Venus – Elena Pankratova
Shepherd Boy – Elsa Benoit
Four Pages – Members of the Tölz Boys’ Choir
Romeo Castellucci (director, designs)
Cindy van Acker (choreography)
Silvia Costa (assistant director)
Piersandra di Matteo, Malte Krasting (dramaturgy)
Marco Giusti (video, lighting assistance)
Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Soren Eckhoff)Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic – if one may speak in the singular – is very different from almost anything else one on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also, may God help us, our ‘taste’ – as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves. We thereby run the risk of becoming ultimately almost as conventional as those we think we have left behind. I shall happily admit that I have been wrong, should I see this staging again, crack the code – if code there be – and find greater enlightenment than I did on this occasion. As it stands, however, I found myself somewhat disappointed by a staging that seemed to pale beside Castellucci’s fascinating Paris Moses und Aron – to which there were perhaps a few too many visual resemblances for comfort, let alone provocation – or indeed to what I know of his other theatrical work. That Castellucci has thought intelligently about Tannhäuser is clear from an interview in the programme; I wish, though, that there were more of a sign, at least to me, that such thoughts had made their way into the staging. There were times, I am afraid, when this production, for all its stylised, internationalised ‘beauty’, veered close to the merely boring.
The setting is almost brazenly non-specific. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, especially when Wagner himself treads the line between myth and ‘historical’ drama. An air of mystery, even of mystification, concerning where we are, who these people may be, is in many respects welcome; not everything need be set in a present-day or time-of-composition warzone. The sinister quality of strange rituals is palpable. Is there perhaps a hint of ISIS or some such in the cult-like environment of the world beyond the Venusberg? Perhaps, but it all begins to look a little too much like the world we had seen in Moses and, more to the point, so what (without anything more on which to go)? Is there not a hint of Wieland Wagner without the content – he himself has often been accused of having, for ideological reasons, divested his grandfather’s dramas of much of their content – and in the achingly fashionable, yet vacuous, scenic language of the modern corporate art installation? Unlike many operagoers I am not, I hope, one to roll my eyes at the mere mention of interpretative – or non-interpretative – dance, but does the beautifully choreographed movement do anything more than, well, be beautiful? Is that the point? It may well be, but at some point, might it not be argued, or at least demonstrated? Or am I again missing the point, hidebound by my own, doubtless Teutonic or even Socratic preconceptions? Designers – Castellucci is to an extent his own – have their tics, of course, their house styles; but what is the idea, even the Idea, shrouded, often literally, by the undeniable style?
|Venus (Elena Pankratova)|
Great play – great scenic play, at least – is made of the kinship between the harp of the Minnesänger and the crossbow of the warrior. It is an interesting idea, not least in this most dualistic – at times, catastrophically if fascinatingly so, in dramaturgical terms – of Wagner’s operas. (In Tristan, even, there is more mediation than here, and it is of course infinitely more accomplished not only than Tannhäuser but than most other human drama in giving the appearance of reconciliation even when ‘reality’, whatever that may be, belies that appearance.) Alas, it never really progresses beyond a few striking visual signs, whereas an explanation, not necessarily didactic, of the relationship between art and war, love and death, is surely invited here. Even the ugliness of the fatty mound that is the Venusberg and its outgrowing creatures – the decay of boredom, satiation, and so forth, I presume – is so ‘beautifully’ stylised as to lose its dualistic edge. Or did it never have that edge in the perfect place? Lacan is clearly going round and round here, but is anything more than that happening? Again, is that the point? The second act has a great deal of slow business with people almost losing themselves in curtains; well, not a great deal, just much repetition of a little business, really. There is something intriguing about whether that mysterious thing is, flailing, writhing, maybe writing, in the central box, on which the singers’ principal concepts are inscribed; at the same time, there is a little, however inadvertent, of a Dr Who monster to it too.
I have no idea why the tombs in the third act are inscribed ‘Anja’ and ‘Klaus’ rather than ‘Elisabeth’ and ‘Heinrich’; whatever metatheatrical point may have been made quite eluded me. Likewise the passing of increasingly absurd increments of time, signalled in an o-so-‘beautiful’ typeface: from one second, to endless milliards of milliards of years. Meanwhile corpses rot – beautifully, tastefully, needless to say. The actual singers look on and occasionally move around. Eternity, perhaps, although it never actually reaches that state? Is that, again, the point? Is there a role for history after all? I certainly hope so, in this most Hegelian of composers, but I am afraid I had simply ceased to care. Having opened by saying how different Castellucci’s aesthetic was from what we tend to see in opera, I have to admit that the results, if not the intent behind them, were in some respects not so very different from Sasha Waltz’s explicitly balletic production (verging on non-production) for the Berlin State Opera. As I said above, I should be delighted to be proved, even to prove myself, wrong; none of us is infallible. I did so over Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring. Perhaps I simply need to immerse myself more in Castellucci’s way of thinking; or perhaps this was not his finest hour. Time will tell.
We need await no passing of time to reach some sort of critical judgement on the musical side of things: never less than good, in some cases quite outstanding. I do not think Tannhäuser is really the role for Klaus Florian Vogt; Lohengrin is. And yet, the unearthly, almost pre-pubescent (on steroids) beauty of the voice can bring fruitful contradictions of its own, intentional or no. What if Tannhäuser is just an overgrown choirboy after all? Vogt certainly has the stamina for the role, and can sings its notes – even if he relied a little too much, especially during the first act, on the prompter, whose sibillants were almost as audible as Vogt’s own. Anja Harteros gave an excellent performance, although I could not help but think that this was perhaps not quite the role for her. She seemed almost as if she would have been happier singing Verdi; at any rate, she gave the impression of trying to play a ‘character’, which Elisabeth is perhaps not, at least in a straightforward sense. Whatever Tannhäuser may involve, it is not straightforwardly a world of psychological realism. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram was at least as beautifully sung as any I have heard from him (which is saying quite something indeed). It was not just beautiful though; there was an edge, an anger even, suppressed or otherwise, which had the character, such as he is, become more rounded, more interesting than I can recall. Elena Pankratova’s Venus was finely, even movingly, sung, her reappearance in the third act from on high (unseen) quite magical. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Margrave and Dean Power’s Walther von der Wogelweide also stood out, making the most of their roles without exaggeration. Choral singing, once again, was quite outstanding, a tribute both to members of the chorus and to Soren Eckhoff, their chorus master.
Last but certainly not least: Kirill Petrenko’s direction of the outstanding (once again!) Bavarian State Orchestra, whose depth and variety of tone are truly second to none. Petrenko’s way with the score is anything but conventional, without ever so much of a hint of being ‘different’ for the sake of it. If my preference, lazy or otherwise, is for the more overtly symphonic line a conductor such as Daniel Barenboim brings to this music, Petrenko’s insistence upon the individuality of ‘numbers’ – which to all intents and purposes they are, or at least can be – within the score reaps its own, explicitly musico-historical rewards. He has clearly thought about each section, however defined, and how it might characterise it – and, moreover, is able to do so. The Overture, for instance, began in surprisingly Mendelssohnian fashion, blossoming, expanding into something more, as if to suggest Wagner finding his way from roots he may or may not have wished to acknowledge. In the second act, Wagner’s antecendents in French opera, not least Meyerbeer, came very much to the fore, without loss to a greater sense of the whole. The third act was more truly ‘symphonic’; here, one felt, the Wagner of the music dramas proper had arrived. Fascinating, instructive, provocative in the best sense: more so, alas, than what I was able to glean from Castellucci.