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WAGNER v. COVID-19

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TANNHÄUSER TO THE RESCUE

There may be no cure for CVID-19 yet but there is a remedy for the boredom that may result from social distancing and indeed social isolation. How about some operas by Richard Wagner?

No point in watching one opera once even if it takes a few hours. How about seeing five recordings of one work, say, Tannhäuser and see who does what to Wagner’s fifth and often derided opera? I can see you jumping up and down at the mere thought of the prospect.

The door opens with the Met’s offer of operas on demand where you can find a monumental, if old, production of Tannhäuser that was shown Live from the Met in 2015. It is Otto Schenk’s traditional staging from1977. Once you have seen that, you are hooked and will want to see as many recordings as you can lay your hands on. Right? I have only four recordings languishing on my shelves and taking my cue from the minstrels’ singing competition, it’s time to compare them.

In addition to the 2015 revival of Otto Schenk’s production mentioned above, I have its 1982 revival with Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser, Eva Marton as Elisabeth and Tatiana Troyanos as Venus again conducted by a youthful James Levine.

The Bayreuth Festival issued a recording of its 1989 production with Richard Versalle as Tannhäuser, Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth and Ruthild Engert-Ely as Venus conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli and directed by a member of the family, Wolfgang Wagner.

The Royal Danish Opera made a showing in 2010 with its production with Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser, Tina Kiberg as Elisabeth and Susanne Resmark as Venus conducted by Friedemann Layer and directed by Kasper Holten.

Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu offered a recording of its 2011 production with Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser, Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elisabeth and Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Venus with Sebastian Weigle conducting and Robert Carsen directing.

    
There are dozens of other recordings and if I tried to acquire, see and hear all of them I will be encroaching on eternity and bankruptcy. I demur.

I start with Otto Schenk’s production for the Met. The 2015 revival had a stellar cast with tenor Johan Botha in the name role, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth, mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung as Venus and baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram.

The greatest credit goes to James Levine who was clearly not well and was conducting the magnificent Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus from a wheelchair and had some difficulty moving his right arm. The orchestra and chorus delivered the lush music with such splendour that they kept you simply enthralled.

Botha as a singer had vocal control, stamina and beauty. It is a tough role and he had become a standby for any opera company that wanted a first-rate tenor for a Wagnerian role. But Tannhäuser is a heroic knight minstrel and Botha did not come close to being that. His limited acting ability and physique made it difficult to accept him as such, but his saving grace was his voice.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth stands in stark contrast to Botha’s Tannhäuser. She is statuesque, majestic, you may say regal with a commanding voice to go with her appearance. She dominates her scenes visually and vocally the way Botha does not and even though she represents purity, virtue and virginity from another world we still admire her.

Michelle DeYoung as Venus represents sensuality, carnal love and pleasure on a Wagnerian scale. As you know the goddess of love immigrated to Germany from Greece when conditions for deities declined badly and she brought with her nymphs, graces and cupids who are represented by muscular men and gorgeous women who dance with erotic wildness and Dionysian abandon to the ballet sequence provided by Choreographer Norbert Vesak.

Venus, however sumptuously attractive, sung by Ms. DeYoung cannot persuade Tannhäuser to stay with her past one year and he wants to return to reality to suffer, do penance and seek redemption for his sins. You have to see it to believe it.

I will only mention one more singer that is baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram. Aside from his impressive and expressive voice Mattei has real stage presence. He sings with ease and conviction and gives an overall superb performance.

The set designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen is traditional, effective and impressive. Venus’s grotto, the great hall of the castle and the road to Rome where we meet the pilgrims on their way to the papal seat are on a grand scale and fitting for the opera. It’s the type of production you need to see and consider it as probably what Wagner had in mind and then go on to different, more imaginative and perhaps even better productions.

As for the 1982 Met revival of Schenk’s production, I loved the sonority and depth of Cassily’s voice and Tatiana Troyanos was simply luscious both physically and vocally as Venus. When we first see Tannhäuser and Venus together they are mature lovers who are having a post-coital nap. The heroic effort that the hero has to make to abandon the boundless eroticism of a gorgeous deity for a puritanical and beautiful mortal surpasses all bounds. Cassily’s gives a heart-wrenching performance of his anguished visit to Rome

Eva Marton as Elisabeth does not achieve the aristocratic and puritan mien that Westbroek exudes in the 2015 production.    

The lighting is unsatisfactory especially in the first scene.

The 1989 Bayreuth production in many ways looks like a modest version of the more ostentatious Schenk staging. We start with the pilgrims walking silently in circles during the overture until they clear out and the sexually suggestive ballet starts in Venus’s grotto.

Ruthild Engert-Ely is almost virginal compared to Troyanos. No display of chest or legs or much skin for that matter. We want lust not modesty. Versalle has a light tenor voice like Botha’s and looks youthful.

There is little change between Venus’s grotto and the way to Wartburg where a circular set is used in both scenes. The Hall of the Minstrels is somewhat similar to the more ostentatious set in Shenk’s production, but its furniture and furnishing are very much run of the mill. During the entry of the nobles we see mostly their backs.

I could not warm up to the production. It was sung reasonably well but it generally lacked passion and conviction.

Robert Carsen had his own ideas about the opera when he staged it for Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. We arrive at Venusberg during the overture which happens to be a painter’s studio. We see a stark naked and voluptuous Venus (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) having her portrait painted by the painter Tannhäuser. He has a large easel and uses a brush with a long handle and paints with such vigour that I thought he was conducting the orchestra. It’s all dark but we do get a good view of Venus’s body within the bounds of good taste.

Dozens of paintings carried by dancers dressed in black or naked are brought on stage and aligned in front of a dark background. We only see the back of the canvases (I think) which have blobs of red paint much of it also spilled on the floor. Venusberg is a nudist artists’ colony but a pretty dingy joint.

Sadly, Venus covers up her body and inspects the back of the canvases, but as a place of sensual pleasure and carnal love this Venusberg leaves one cold. Venus should consider new furniture.

When Tannhauser decides that his salvation lies in Christian purity and virtue, a path opens into the studio and the Pilgrims march through laden with their sins. They each take a canvas. I presume they will not carry the paintings to Rome or burn them in the next valley.

Tannhäuser is left alone with his painting of Venus as the nobles of Wartburg enter the studio dressed variously in modern attire and pretend to find Tannhauser praying. The scene takes place on a completely dark background.

The Minstrel’s Hall looks like a stark museum room cordoned off with red easels which have covered paintings on them. An indifferently dressed Elisabeth sung by strong-voiced Petra Maria Schnitzer comes through the audience and sings in front of the orchestra pit.   Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser follows and she tells him to get off his knees even though he is not kneeling.

The entry of the knights, nobles and ladies into the Hall of the Minstrels to the music of a stately march is turned into a crowd of middle-class people going to an art gallery and meeting old friends. The singing contest becomes a display of art pieces as each contestant unveils his canvas that we never see.

By turning the rejection of Tannhäuser into a reaction to his painting I saw more censorship than rejection of a morality or religious objection. Yes, the libretto wants us to believe in the higher morality of Christianity versus the moral stance of sensual pleasure but that is subsumed by the violent reaction to Tannhäuser’s painting. Somehow it struck me as if it were Shostakovich or a Prokofiev facing the closed minds of Communist party faithful and forced to comply or else.

The final act is supposed to take place in the valley before the Wartburg where we find Elisabeth praying before a statue of the Virgin. Instead we are back in the empty studio where there is an easel and sketches are strewn over the floor. She takes her dress off, loosens her hair and lies sensuously on the platform where we met Venus at the beginning. Wolfram appears and starts sketching her.

Elisabeth does not seem to be looking for sacred love but, my wild guess is, she may well want Tannhäuser to do with her what he did with Venus.  

The pious pilgrims return from Rome carrying the easels without the canvases and we are told they have been granted grace and redemption from their sins.

Carsen has a fully formed modern view of the opera. But sometimes old wine is best served in old bottles.

And if you think that is unorthodox, you have not seen what Kasper Holten does in his production for the Royal Danish Opera.

The curtain opens during the overture revealing the interior of a spacious 3-story structure. A man wearing a velvet beret and 19th century suit and tie appears. A middle-aged blonde in a nightgown comes down the stairs and embraces him as does a little boy. Yes, the man does look like Richard Wagner.

A servant watches as the man and, yes, it will turn out that he is Tannhäuser. He is approached by a forbidding-looking red-haired woman in man’s clothing who serves him a drink. She is Venus who orders the servants to do their work, if that is the right word, and entertain Mr. Tannhäuser.

The middle-aged blonde is Mrs. Tannhauser (a.k.a. Elisabeth) and she goes to her husband (a.k.a. Tannhäuser). The young boy is Tannhäuser Jr. He is trying to write something, and his wife seems affectionate and helpful. He partially undresses her and writes on her forehead.  He writes on a servant’s leg, crawls on the floor and scribbles furiously. The servants undress partly, one of them throws a bucket of water over her head and they dance.

All this frantic activity takes place through the overture and the beneficial result is that if Tannhäuser had a writer’s cramp he overcomes it and he writes all over the stage.

One of the dancers thinks he is Fred Astaire and he walks on the ceiling.

Tannhäuser has written a novella which he proudly passes to Venus by the end of the overture, but he has not had any fun. He looks drunk, dozes off and falls on the ground.

Time has not been kind to Venus since she immigrated to Germany. One look at this Venus and you will head for your wife, if you have one, or a monastery. Tannhäuser sings her praises without ever looking at her.

With Mrs. T and T Jr. ever present we eventually figure out that much of what is happening is in Tannhäuser’s imagination or in his dream. T Jr. comes in handy as the Young Sheppard (Ioannis Marinos).

In Act II, Mrs. T and by now we know she is Elisabeth appears with T Jr. lamenting the fact that Tannhäuser abandoned her. Their love was not purely spiritual, and he left her, if I may be crude, for a better woman, a goddess in fact and the promise of carnal pleasure. Both are well past their prime and one could say he left his spouse for a trophy wife except that Venus is no prize at all.

By the way, Venus is in the Hall of Minstrels during the singing contest. Elisabeth describes herself as a spotless virgin. At 50 or 60 that can hardly be considered a virtue unless she is a nun, but we take her at her word and allow that she is deeply in love with Tannhäuser.

For the rest, use your imagination and see what you can come up with.

There is a way of enjoying the opera without the distraction of directors, designers, sets and paraphernalia. My way was simple. I took my four-LP recording conducted by Georg Solti in 1971, dusted off my turntable and performed the time-honored ritual of putting vinyl under the stylus. A young René Kollo is Tannhäuser and an outstanding Helga Dernesch is Elisabeth. Canadian baritone Victor Braun sings a sonorous Wolfram.

Everything is left to your imagination as the wondrous Vienna Philharmonic fills the room and the opera comes to life in the most appropriate place – your whole being. 

There is no coronavirus, no social distancing, no societal upheaval. For a few hours, there is only opera.