Sunday 5 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (6) - Tannhäuser, Staatsoper Berlin, 2 April 2015

Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) and dancers in the Venusberg
Schiller Theater

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Kwangchul Youn
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Walther von der Wogelweide – Peter Soon
Biterolf – Tobias Schabel
Heinrich der Schreiber – Florian Hoffmann
Reinmar von Zweter – Jan Martiník
Elisabeth – Ann Petersen
Venus – Marina Prudenskaya
Young Shepherd – Sónia Grané
Four Pages – Julia Mencke, Regina Köstler-Motz, Antje Bahr-Molitor, Verena Allertz

Sasha Waltz (director, choreography, designs)
Pia-Maier-Schreier (designs)
Bernd Skodzig (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)

Jens Schroth, Jochen Sandig (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

First, the bad news. Sasha Waltz’s production – if one can call it that – of Tannhäuser has not improved over the year since it was first staged. Last time around, I wrote, with undue hesitation, that I ‘could not help but wonder whether she would have been better engaged simply as choreographer’. The idea that, because an opera contains a ballet, it might be better staged by a choreographer is a very odd one. That is not, of course, to say that someone cannot do both, likewise a film director, or indeed anyone else. However, the mania of some opera houses to enlist almost anyone but an experienced opera director is odd, to say the least, and more often than not, misguided. A year ago, I wrote: Insofar as there is a concept, it seems to be to present some sort of dialogue between opera house and opera, the designs for the song contest mirroring, subtly rather than gaudily, aspects of the Schiller Theater: for instance, the seats and the colour of the wood. Unfortunately, little is done with an idea of not inconsiderable metatheatrical promise.’ That is to perhaps to have put it mildly. Now, whether on account of modification, or the loss even of anticipation, dance – needless to say, far too readily present – seems all the more invasive. It is all well done on its own terms, and I mean no disrespect to the dancers, but I found myself wishing they would leave the singers alone. (Apologies if that makes me sound like an operatic reactionary, but here I stand…) As so often, attempts to mix the two troupes – Ariadne, anyone? – do not come off happily. It is perfectly clear who is who, and the singers’ moves inevitably appear for the most part leaden by comparison. Moreover, we really do not need the end of the first act to be danced by all concerned; still less, do we need male dancers exaggeratedly to shape their female partners’ breasts during the Song Contest. It is again more or less impossible to suppress a smile as Peter Seiffert’s less than balletic Tannhäuser awkwardly slides down to join the Bacchanale dancers. The Benny Hill shows unintentionally evoked, at least our hero seems to be having a good time. Seriously though, if dance and opera are to be combined or indeed placed in context, it needs to be done with greater thought than this.

The other news, however, is unambiguously good. If Daniel Barenboim’s conducting and the orchestral playing did not perhaps quite reach the heights of last year’s superlative performance – this was, after all, a revival, and more time will have been allocated to Parsifal, to Boulez, etc. – then this remained a performance that would have done enormous credit to any house. (Whether it meshed so well with the dance is another matter, but in the circumstances, that would have been an impossible dream to chase.) I wrote in some detail on Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin last year; suffice it to say that, save for Barenboim’s unaccountable favouring of the Dresden version with Paris Bacchanale, no one would have been disappointed if he or she closed his eyes. This remains one of the world’s greatest Wagner orchestras – and, it hardly needs to be said, perhaps the world’s greatest Wagner conductor. Line never deserted him, but nor did the ‘French’ ear for colour on which I have often had cause to remark. Debussyan and indeed Boulezian lessons have long been learned and internalised. What we hear is a Wagner full of possibilities: the Wagner so hated by those who claim to ‘protect’ him from indecent, ‘modern’ influences.

Bar a certain, perfectly understandable tiredness at the end of the second act, Seiffert offered a triumphant sung portrayal of Tannhäuser. His sheer volume often astounded, but that is not to say that his singing was crude. Yet again, we can only be thankful that there is someone who can sing this cruel role. Ann Petersen offered a beautifully sung, properly human Elisabeth; we seem, let us be thankful, to have moved decisively away from the days of the blandly virginal. Moreover, her way with Wagner's words delved far deeper than anything we saw on stage. Last year, I wrote: ‘Having heard Christian Gerhaher at Covent Garden, I feared that every subsequent Wolfram would disappoint. I am not sure that Peter Mattei’s performance did not prove Gerhaher’s equal.’ This year, I am not sure that Gerhaher did not even improve upon himself. The sheer beauty of his voice is something truly to be treasured; so too is the ability to combine the best of both Lieder and operatic worlds. Kwangchul Youn’s Landgrave was no match for 2014’s René Pape in terms of vocal beauty, but his was a thoughtful reading, clearly springing from the poem. The dramatic commitment of Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus was undimmed, her lower range especially rich. Once again, the chorus proved the equal of any starrier participant – well, perhaps with the exception of Gerhaher. Chorus master, Martin Wright has accomplished his task very well; if only our director had approached him, let alone Barenboim.