Tuesday 16 February 2010

Tannhäuser, Deutsche Oper, 12 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Reinhard Hagen
Tannhäuser – Stephen Gould
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Dietrich Henschel
Walther von der Vogelweide – Clemens Bieber
Biterolf – Lenus Carlson
Heinrich der Schreiber – Jörg Schörner
Reimar von Zweter – Jörn Schümann
Venus/Elisabeth – Nadja Michael
Shepherd – Martina Welschenbach
Tannhäuser double in the overture – Stefan Siedler

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (designs)
Inga Timm (assistant costume design)
Silvana Schröder (choreography)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Of the ‘canonical’ Wagner Romantic operas and music dramas, that is from The Flying Dutchman onwards, Tannhäuser must surely be the least fashionable. It certainly seems to be the least performed. I had only seen it in the theatre once before, the very same theatre as it happens, though in the Deutsche Oper’s previous production, by Götz Friedrich. How then, did the present performance, from the first revival of Intendant Kirsten Harms’s 2008 production, compare? On balance, favourably in musical terms, less so when it comes to the staging.

I am afraid I found Harms’s direction as confusing as I had in December’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Both that work and Tannhäuser need a degree of directorial assistance. To clarify or to problematise would seem the two obvious paths from which to choose. Here, it was difficult to detect a unifying idea beyond the refusal to opt for the either/or principle, of which Harms speaks in a programme interview. It seems to me that either this was not pushed hard enough, to go beyond portraying Venus and Elisabeth as ultimately one and the same, or it was insufficient as a Konzept; to go beyond that dichotomy of my own, I might add that the two are not mutually exclusive. So if Elisabeth is ‘revealed’ as Venus – this ‘revelation’ seems especially weak, since it is creakingly apparent all along – then where does that leave Tannhäuser? If the choice between Wartburg and Venusberg were a false one, then perhaps his fate might be considered tragic, yet it did not seem so here. Is he thereby redeemed? Perhaps, but again it is difficult to discern that from the staging. Venus/Elisabeth seems to move centre stage, but is that merely to evade the issue? (In fairness, it arguably makes Elisabeth a more interesting character.)

Moreover, there is no cumulative element to the settings and designs; we simply move from one setting to another: sometimes with a certain mediævalism, which does not seem to be ironised, sometimes not. Stage mechanics are displayed at the act openings, but it is difficult to discern any attempt thereby to frame, to ‘deconstruct’, or to alienate. I have no idea at all why the pilgrims of the first act appear in Hell, mediæval monsters and all, a setting which is difficult to relate to the rest of what we see. A mediæval musicologist friend informed me that a good number of the heraldic costumes for the second act are copied from the Codex Manesse – Walther von der Vogelweide appears in that manuscript himself, I might add – yet, whilst the effect is undeniably colourful, I can discern no dramatic point beyond a further blurring of time and location, a blurring whose point is in turn unclear. Likewise, the point of airborne suspension and gradual, albeit interrupted assumption of suits of armour eluded me. Finding the third-act Elisabeth as a Florence Nightingale character, tending the sick in modern hospital beds, refers of course to the deeds for which the historical figure was canonised, but the connection with the rest of the production, or indeed with the work, remained obscure, at least to me. I can see a good case for highlighting a tension between the Middle Ages, Wagner’s time, and our own, but the decisions here seem merely arbitrary – if a critique of Wagner’s dramaturgy at this time, then it needs to be made clear, and I do not think that it was – and sadly lacking in dramatic tension.

Ulf Schirmer, however, delivered an eminently dependable account of the score. There were no especial revelations – and he was hamstrung by the decision, whoever made it, of performing the Dresden version – but it is no mean achievement to hold Wagner’s structures together and to delineate them so clearly. Moreover, the playing elicited from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was often of a very high quality indeed. I was especially taken by the golden glow from the strings – more Vienna than Berlin, I thought – and by the purity of the woodwind, especially during the faux-archaisms, conjuring up, quite appropriately, a nineteenth-century world of ‘early music’.

An initial casting disappointment was that Stefan Siedler, the unusually credible ‘Tannhäuser double’ from the overture –incidentally, is it not a bit of an odd Bacchanale that does not include other men? – turned out to be just that, or rather not that at all. Just when one had thought that one might be able to believe in the stage presence of the central character, he was replaced by an artist of rather more ‘traditional’ build and countenance: a bit like Brad Pitt acting as a ‘double’ for me. Anyway, Stephen Gould did a very good job vocally as Tannhäuser. He could sing the role, which far from goes without saying in the Heldentenor world; he could shape his phrases; there was no appreciable tiring. Nadja Michael, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a variable Venus/Elisabeth. At her best, she provided just the dramatic credibility often lacking elsewhere. Presence and commitment were very much in evidence. There was too much wayward vocalism, however, to be able to ignore the flaws; some passages from the Venusberg were at best approximate in their tuning. Rather to my surprise, her Elisabeth was probably, on the whole, more successful than her Venus. It is not clear to me that, the production notwithstanding, it is really possible for one singer to do justice to both roles, but that is not Michael’s fault. Dietrich Henschel provided a Lieder-singer’s attention to detail as Wolfram, but his tone sometimes turned dry; I could not help but think that Fischer-Dieskau would have purveyed this sort of interpretation more successfully. I thought it a pity not to have a boy’s voice for the Shepherd, but Martina Welschenbach certainly sang the part well. The chorus, under William Spaulding’s direction, was most impressive throughout, providing both weight and clarity.

But why the Dresden version? Was this the director’s decision or the conductor’s, I wonder? Or should I stop posing either/or questions? I know that many, Christian Thielemann included, claim its virtue to be coherence, yet Tannhäuser remains problematical. Wagner famously told Cosima that he still owed the world a Tannhäuser, and if anything, what Carl Dahlhaus identified, in Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, as the works’ ‘abruptness …, lack of mediation … [and] casualness of motivation,’ is greater in the earlier version, since the later, often Tristan-esque music permits instead the case of Wagner’s music criticising itself, a dramatisation of the Elisabeth-Venus conflict in musical terms. I am certainly not saying that the Dresden version should never be performed, but so much is lost when one forgoes Wagner’s Paris additions: musically and in terms of the history of the work – with, it seems to me, little gained beyond fulfilling an interest in first thoughts. I have heard it responded that we should be quite happy with the Dresden version, had Wagner not made his revisions for Paris, but that is no response at all; one might as well say the same of Leonore and Fidelio, though the situations are different. At any rate, my lament is more a comment concerning current fashions than upon this production in particular. Would someone, somewhere kindly permit us to hear the Paris Tannhäuser?