Saturday, October 15, 2011

Carsen's Tannhäuser paints Elisabeth in Paris

Tannhäuser, Opéra Bastille in Paris, October 6th 2011

Robert Carsen, Sophie Koch, Mark Elder, Christopher Ventris, Nina Stemme

Sir Mark Elder ..... Conductor
Robert Carsen ..... Director

Nina Stemme ..... Elisabeth
Sophie Koch ..... Venus
Christopher Ventris ..... Tannhäuser
Stéphane Degout ..... Wolfram von Eschenbach
Christof Fischesser ..... Hermann Landgrave 
Stanislas De Barbeyrac ..... Walther von der Vogelweide
Tomasz Konieczny ..... Biterolf
Eric Huchet ..... Heinrich der Schreiber
Wojtek Smilek ..... Reinmar von Zweter

Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Robert Carsen is a very talented and highly accomplished opera director. Even if some of his productions can look tired (La Traviata, Eugene Onegin, Lohengrin - to name a few), there were so many brilliant ones that you cannot not appreciate his brilliance.  My favorite Carsen productions are Les contes de Hoffmann in Paris and Ariadne auf Naxos in Munich, but this Tannhäuser is definitely the one in which showed the best of his talent so far. This is the show in which everything looks freshly revised and cleverly fit together.
Plus this is the kind of shows that you should see and feel in auditorium: it cannot work on DVD or on any video. Carsen explores the space both on and off the stage. The public is really involved in "Dich, teure Halle".

If the libretto is dumbly illustrated, Tannhäuser necessarily looks shabby. You need to have some ideas to scenically keep it from falling to the cheesy story about the Christian forgiveness and about the Saint Elisabeth. Konwitschny did that in Dresden by implementing several fancy ideas and giving a final twist to the story that bugged the whole Christian celebration of the opera.
I guess the most straightforward way to modernize Tannhäuser would be to stage it as a Rap or Hip-Hop  contest/party. It would sound weird at first but I believe one could make it work quite well: early Rap and Hip-Hop were excessively misogynistic  but eventually they softened with their proponent artists became more mature. So the story could go along this line, with Venus being an object of  sexual desire to Tannhäuser, but later he discovers her personality, falls in love with her spiritually too, and that realization eventually make his art more accomplished...

No, Robert Carsen did not follow that road. His Heinrich Tannhäuser is a painter [NB this Carsen's idea before the Bayreuth production of the Meistersinger!] The story opens in Venusberg -- in his workshop, his atelier. He stands behind his easel and paints Venus who poses nude, on a mattress not far from him. His movements are sharp, quick, his passion is driven by his sexual desire for Venus -- and that's what he actually paints. The choreography for the (long) overture of this Paris Version of Tannhäuser is superbly constructed: dozens of dancers who resemble Tannhäuser bring many paintings. They dance to give more life to the artist's effervescent creative energy that sparkles on the sexual magnetism between the painter and his model, Venus. Each and every of his paintings is therefore personified: every dancer looking like him carrying on the stage one of his painting actually represents one part of Tannhäuser, his soul, of his artistic life.
And the key tragic moment of the romantic opera happens right there: he made too many paintings with the naked women that a sheer nudity does not represent a source of artistic inspiration to him anymore. That realization is a seed of doubt, it is a beginning of his suffering -- will he be able to  create ever again? What if his inspiration remains empty?
He leaves his atelier to look for a source of inspiration elsewhere. He will soon realize that Elisabeth has the qualities the women in his paintings do not, and that painting his relation with a woman should go much farther from nudity and a sheer sexual side.

In the second act, Elisabeth comes to open the exhibition in which the young artists are supposed to present their works. Each of 9 of them has his painting on an easel, covered by a drape. Her father is an influential person in the community (the owner of the gallery?!) Hundreds of snooty people will come for the vernissage [Carsen makes them enter from all sides of the auditorium and by going through the crowd they reach the stage.]
Wolfram will present his bluish painting (that we do not actually see -- we see the back of the easel on which the painting is placed; we see only its blue edge) when he sings about his dreamy, idealized love for Elisabeth. Biterolf, instead, will present his by making his description too rigid, approaching love in a too "rational" way. Tannhäuser will ridicule each of them, and finally present his own painting in which his woman is Elisabeth, and she's nude (we don't see the painting!)  The crowd is outraged, the  judgmental folks are appalled and want him to leave the place instantly. The artist in Tannhäuser is crushed: his art is not accepted, he is not understood, and his previous doubt about his art grows even bigger. All his clones are back --each representing a painting he devoted his life to-- and they all leave the stage.
The third act opens with Wolfram sitting in his workshop. The event at the vernissage and the banishing of his friend Tannhäuser had a huge impact on him. His dreamy way to see a woman as an unattainable divinity was shaken by Tannhäuser's audacity and explicit desire. There is a beautiful scene where he goes to the mattress on which Elisabeth has left her dress, and he starts fantasizing about her falls on a mattress and smells her dress. That's what art can do to you!
Elisabeth too is troubled by the event at the vernissage. She not only is in love with Tannhäuser but she also starts to be more aware of the role of her sexuality in the whole story. She actually is pleased by the fact that Tannhäuser fantasized about her and that he made it public. She undresses and fantasizes about him...

Long time later Tannhäuser comes back -- he had time to put his thoughts together, to re-examine his entire artistic life... All his paintings [frames carried by the guys looking like him] come back empty. Everything he's ever painted lost its sense, his life is a failure... well, all paintings but one, the one the public rejected, the one with Elisabeth depicted with all her classiness, modesty, intelligence, emotions, but nude! He cannot give it away, he still believes that this is his true piece of art but is aware that the public rejected it. He wants to see Venus but Venus would not come alone anymore. She comes but now with Elisabeth who's following her every step: Venus and Elisabeth are eventually two faces of the same woman. Isn't this a beautiful praise to all women?! Every woman has her Elisabeth- and her Venus-side, both being complementary but equally important. There is no Venus or Elisabeth alone!

Finally, as the time is the best judge, the very same people who once rejected him now embrace his art, they celebrate the artist and they even find a place for Tannhäuser's Elisabeth among the most celebrated paintings in history -- by artists who also celebrated different facets of women's beauty (Olympia by Manet, Nude and Still Life by Picasso, The birth of Venus by Botticelli, Elvira by Modigliani, L'origine du monde by Courbet, Judith by Klimt, and many more)

Sorry if I'm being too long, but I thought this was so wonderfully constructed, delightfully evacuated from the heavy religious tone, that I should give you a more detailed account of this [refreshed] storyline, that fits so well with the text, and brings a new meaning to the libretto itself. The apparent simplicity is given extra depth in every scene  through little gestures, tiny details that almost told a parallel story of an emotional voyage of each of the main characters in this opera. To me this is the best show by Bobby Carsen! Great job!

To make the things better, the Orchestra of the Paris Opera apparently has a thing for Tannhäuser. They sounded gloriously. It was never dry or too rigid -- it was more lyrical, yet lively and beautifully conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The tempi he chose for the opening of the second act were really surprising, but since they were so accurately performed, I surrendered totally and loved his conducting all the way to the end.

Ah the singers! Nina Stemme was superb during the final dress rehearsal, but was literally stunning during the premiere. Boy can that woman sing! Her voice is big, she hits all the high notes effortlessly, attacks every note from the top, and shows no weakness in any register of her voice. Bless her! Sophie Koch is a wonderful Venus. Like Brangäne, Venus is always a difficult role to cast. Sophie Koch is now up there with Ekaterina Gubanova: she sings big, has no difficulty to fill up Bastille, and her lyric background definitely brings an extra quality to her interpretation of Venus. Christopher Ventris definitely worked on his technique: he sings now with his throat more open which requires extra effort on supporting his breath, his timbre is as beautiful as ever, but the volume of his voice is much bigger than before. He has some moments where you could tell that he's taking the risks (second part of the Act-2), when he's pushing and pushing, but the result is wonderful! Christopher's Tannhäuser is excellent vocally and scenically. He is one of those rare gifted opera singers who could have made a successful acting career too. Stéphane Degout made his role debut as Wolfram von Eschenbach. We all know how beautifully he can sing but this was a notch above our expectation. He clearly prepared a lot for his first Wagner, for this difficult role and for the fact that he should sing it at Bastille: so yes, he sings it loud but with such a rare beauty. I once said that has that innate "Art du bon gout!" in his voice, and here he demonstrates it. Christof Fischesser, whose King Marke in Lyon last June was excellent, only confirms here that he's one of the world's leading bass voices today (remember this name!) Other four smaller roles were brilliantly sung too -- Tomasz Konieczny in particular.

Several pics following the storyline discussed above:

Venus saying to Tannhäuser that he's foolish if he believes he wouldn't come back to her...

Scene/Gallery before the beginning of Act-2

The invités have arrived: everyone is mingling, drinking champagne, nibbling the canapés, and waiting to see the new paintings unveiled

Elisabeth is crushed, Tannhäuser is defeated and has to leave...

That's how he left... humiliated

Third act: Wolfram in atelier... a new (Tannhäuserian light entered his world)

Venus is on the mattress, Elisabeth is coming to join her

After rejecting him and humiliating him, everyone now celebrates Tannhäuser...

In the end, what to say? This was one of those nights that reminded me why I love opera (precisely the opposite to what I felt after seeing the abysmal garbage-production of Faust in Paris only a few nights before Tannhäuser) It was wonderfully sung, excellently orchestrated, all embedded in a witty yet a moving production. Big thanks to everyone involved in this show!

The crowd went nuts in the end and greeted the artists with a big standing ovation [which in fact is extremely rare phenomenon at the Paris Opera. I've only seen it once -- after Werther with Kaufmann and Koch]

Robert Carsen and Sir Mark Elder

Elisabeth and Tannhäuser

... with Venus

Christof Fischesser, Stéphane Degout and Sophie Koch

Total triumph for Nina Stemme

Christopher Ventris enjoys his moment: the crowd at the premiere loved his Tannhäuser

Dancers: Tannhaüser clones (c.f. above)

Chorus of invités to the venissage at Mr. Hermann Landgrave's


  1. It's quite amazing that Carsen has managed to stage to shows in such a short period. Just in September there was a fantastic new Turn of the screw in Vienna and now this intriguing Tannhäuser in Paris. Carsen seems to be very prolific

  2. Hi Bogda! This is NOT a new production. It is a revival of the production premiered in December 2007.

  3. Dear mr. blogger, I attended the performance yesterday evening (derniere) and must avow: all were in wonderful form. But, a question to you: do you know whether this production is a staging of the Paris version or a mixture of the Paris and Dresden versions ?
    Kind regards, an Opera loving Belgian.