Saturday, August 6, 2011

Konwitschny's Tannhäuser in Dresden

Tannhäuser, Semperoper Dresden, April 22 2011

Musical Director ..... Peter Schneider
Staging ..... Peter Konwitschny

Landgraf Hermann von Thüringen ..... Michael Eder
Tannhäuser ..... Stephen Gould
Wolfram von Eschenbach ..... Christoph Pohl
Walther von der Vogelweide ..... Tom Martinsen
Biterolf ...... Tilmann Rönnebeck
Heinrich der Schreiber ..... Aaron Pegram
Reimar von Zweter ..... Tomislav Lucic
Elisabeth ..... Marjorie Owens
Venus ..... Tichina Vaughn
Ein junger Hirt ..... Christiane Hossfeld
Erste Edelfrau ..... Beate Siebert
Zweite Edelfrau ..... Ute Siegmund
Dritte Edelfrau ..... Barbara Leo
Vierte Edelfrau ..... Claudia Mößner

Sinfoniechor Dresden e.V.
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden

This review comes with much delay but since this production will be rerun many more times, this blog entry will hopefully remain pertinent.

Try and picture my initial surprise. I am in Dresden on Good Friday 2011 and the Semperoper scheduled:
  1. Tannhäuser instead of Parsifal
  2. A Peter Konwitschny production that is known to be not very gentle with Christianity
  3. The Paris version of Tannhäuser in Dresden.
Oh do I love surprises!

Semperoper Dresden from the outside (click to enlarge - as they say)

You would understand better the audacity of the above 3 points if you already visited Semperoper, where the folks are usually fairly snooty and very reserved, and knowing that Sachs are overly proud of their tradition the above surprise is really mind-boggling. Their glorious opera house is a constant high value that survived the centuries, the locals are proud of it and they are right to be: From the outside it is very beautiful. Inside it is very impressive too although a tad overdecorated for my liking, but that was a paragon of beauty in its time... so we like it!

Inside the Semperoper in Dresden

The tradition is indeed everywhere and the interior is filled with musical/operatic references (small paintings devoted to many different operas are inserted everywhere in the arcs where the walls meet the ceiling), busts of all their artistic directors are uniformly distributed inside the numerous corridors and halls. Here are some of them:

Four are easy to recognize but the third in the first row definitely isn't. Have a guess!

Auditorium of the Semperoper is large [I believe it's larger than the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich]. I actually believe that its size is perfect for the Wagner opera performances. The acoustics is fantastic.

Knowing that it was a Konwitschny show, I was ready for anything. I knew that Stephen Gould was going to rock the house [which he did] and I was keen to to see how Marjorie Owens would do as Elisabeth [and she was great]. The Staatskapelle Dresden are always brilliant and under the baton of Maestro Peter Schneider I knew the show should be of the highest possible level musically. But scenically...

Let me start with a tiny [conditionally] negative comment, as the most of what remains will be full of praise. Unlike many opera aficionados I never particularly liked the style of Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The actor direction of this show looked very much as if it was carrying the Lehnhoff etiquette -- especially in the large fraction of the first two acts. What I mean by that is that the actors are often in those "frozen positions", the geometry of the sets and a positioning of the singers with respect to the sets is often more important than the relational dynamics among characters -- just like Lehnhoff would do, with an occasional accessory that is supposed to carry a more profound director's message about the piece at hand. The major difference actually comes in Act 3 when the Konwitschny genius was plugged in and made this production fly away from the standards of Lehnhoff parades. [Hope I'm not being mean?!]

If I wanted to summarize it in a blunt statement, I'd say that by that Third Act Konwitschny basically said: God has no mercy!  Konwitschny obviously does it much more delicately, stealthily puts his fingers in the story. It is just a tiny shift in timings that changes everything.
Elisabeth waits for  pilgrims to come back from Rome, and when she realized that Tannhäuser is not among them she commits suicide on the stage while falling in the arms of heartbroken Wolfram. Tannhäuser eventually appears and [Konwitschny genius!] Wolfram hides Elisabeth's body by covering it with his cloak. Tannhäuser is devastated because he was not forgiven his sins by the Pope, Elisabeth cannot be his, and his only exit is to call back on Venus -- the idea that terrifies Wolfram. When Venus comes to forgive Tannhäuser for his unfaithfulness, Wolfram uncovers the body of Elisabeth and the physical impact on Tannhäuser becomes overwhelming and he too ends up committing suicide; dies next to his beloved Elisabeth. Ironically, only then the chorus praises God's mercy: too late! The interpretation of the God praising final chorus aria becomes an open issue for every one of us. In any case, the whole scene is too much for Wolfram to bear and he leaves the stage.

The crosses that pilgrims use are often used as swords, so that all in all this is not very Christian message for Good Friday, thus my surprise.  As for the rest of the show it is pretty much what you find in the libretto, but the scenic organization has some nice ideas. I liked the blind priests who weren't responding to Elisabeth's pray to Virgin Mary [to forgive Tannhäuser.]  Venusberg opening scene is fun too. Before the show began the stage was covered by the painting of Venusberg. At the same time --on that screen covering that painting-- is projected the very same picture of Venusberg. As the beginning of the show approached the projected picture was getting progressively out of focus which made a very disturbing effect on us in the audience: it happens so progressively that you don't recognize the illusion; you start thinking it's something wrong with your eyesight.  You obviously understand it when the out-of-focus effect becomes more obvious and you understand it is the prelude to the show that is placed somewhere in the blurred zone between the real and fictitious.
When the Venusberg is finally uncovered you see that spherical cross section [see video and pics below] and the Venus-girls appear to slide all over the place, like in a theme park. It is all somewhere in a dreamland of pleasure. As the pleasure needs to renew itself it  becomes more and more deviant, and ceases to be pleasure. To show that the Venus-girls in this production start playing with a puppet of Tannhäuser, and eventually rip it apart -- a scene that makes Tannhäuser doubt that Venusberg is the place he wants to stay. The rest of the story you, of course, know!

When I saw Stephen Gould singing the same role in Paris four years ago, I was totally blown away. To sing with such a tenacity a super-difficult role of Tannhäuser, in the vast hall of the Opéra Bastille, and to repeat it with the same intensity 8-9 times over a short period of time was truly a heroic job. In the meantime his Tannhäuser gained in maturity and now sounds even better. He now knows the role like the inside of his pocket and knows exactly where he can kick in some more of his amazing vocal power, without ever zapping or thinning a top note. At the same time, Stephen Gould is not a talented actor. When directed by Carsen in Paris four years ago, he was excellent because Carsen took care of it. If --in a given production-- he is not guided by the director, he has a tendency of staying still in a typical heldentenor position and waits to finish his part. There were several such moments in this production, that we did not see in Paris' Tannhäuser, but the sheer vocal power that he releases is so impressive that you forget everything else. I don't believe any helden tenor can come close to this level today [and I don't care if there was one in the past who could ;)].

Amazingly, the rest of the cast are all members of the ensemble of the Semperoper. Christoph Pohl is the local favorite and he delivered a beautifully sung Wolfram. Nothing was missing there: a lyric phrasing, impeccable pronunciation, impressive vocal broadness and a size of his voice was pleasant; that sounded healthy and strong throughout the show.

Remember when I was back from Dresden after that unforgettable Rusalka (with beloved Monogarova and Zeppenfeld), when I said Marjorie Owens must be great Elisabeth? Boy did I have a nose!? She is a superb Elisabeth, comparable with Nina Stemme or Eva-Maria Westbroek. Her voice is round and  beautiful across the registers. Her singing is powerful and she holds the notes impressively and brings the female vocal authority to the show. Excellent!
Here is my wish to see Marjorie Owens and Svetlana Ignatovich become big operatic names: quality level and talent of these two is rare on the operatic stages these days. Brava!

Michael Eder as Landgraf was very good, which completed a musical mosaic of the world's best level imaginable: better sung and/or orchestrated Tannhäuser is hardly possible.

The only exception was  Tichina Vaughn. While I loved her Jezibaba in Rusalka, I thought her Venus was OK but not great. The role is simply too big for her voice and she struggled in the first act right off the bat. However, she did come back fresher and stronger in the third act, to end her performance on the positive note.

Admirable conducting by Peter Schneider. It must be fun to conduct Staatskapelle Dresden who visibly enjoyed performing on that night.

Here is a bunch of production photos [all ©SemperOper] Some are with previous casts and some with this one:

My curtain call pics:

Super Stephen Gould: the helden-Tannhäuser of our time

La Force Nouvelle: Marjorie Owens

Wolfram for a reference: Christoph Pohl

Landgraf Michael Eder

Tichina Vaughn in the middle

Rocking trio: Elisabeth, Tannhäuser and Wolfram

Wagnerian Wolf: Peter Schneider

I shouldn't forget mentioning brilliance of the Semper Chorus!

and the trailer:

What can I say in the end?! If you see Tannhäuser back on the Semper Oper program [unfortunately not in 2011-2012], do go and see/listen to how good performed Wagner opera sounds and look like in a perfectly sized auditorium.

No comments:

Post a Comment