Saturday, 28 January 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Tannhäuser

27 January 2017

This Tannhäuser performance marked the start of what will be a drawn-out mini Wagnerthon in Berlin. I plan to catch the Deutsche Oper’s Lohengrin next week, then the final revival of its Götz Friedrich Ring and (at the Staatsoper im Schillertheater) Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal at Easter. Add in the Komische Oper Meistersinger and the Deutsche Oper Parsifal I saw before Christmas, and it means in six months I’ll have seen all the mature Wagner’s operas bar one, Der fliegende Holländer, here in the Hauptstadt—with Parsifal twice.

Tannhäuser (Act 2) at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Matthias Horn) 

It will be interesting to see how the messages of these works take on new significance as the world—the Anglophone world, specifically—continues its sudden downward spiral into intolerance and insularity. Does feasting on such riches represent escapism, or a small-scale act of resistance, sticking up for art in a world in which it is increasingly threatened?
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It’s difficult to say, and in any case Tannhäuser probably has less to say about politics than the other works I shall be seeing; certainly Kristen Harms’s 2008 production doesn’t probe in that direction. By contrast, the website blurb for Kasper Holten’s Lohengrin, awash with mentions of Putin, promises a ‘timeless political power struggle’. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself, on the day of their joint press conference, wondering about a staging of Tannhäuser with Trump as the errant minstrel and Theresa May as Elisabeth. Perhaps Teresa-without-the-h May could be Venus.

Bad idea: Tannhäuser is hardly one of Wagner’s most likeable characters, but that’s still to do him an enormous disservice. Maybe I should stick with an earlier idea for a Salome with Trump as Herod, Melania as Herodias and Ivanka as the Judean Princess.

Either way, this was a spiritually restorative evening when such a thing was sorely needed. The firm foundation was provided by Donald Runnicles’s conducting (of the Dresden version), instinctive, grand and often viscerally exciting; the flexible, burnished playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra; and the thrilling singing from the massed chorus and extra chorus.

I failed to catch these forces when they brought this same opera to the BBC Proms in 2013, but couldn’t help draw comparison with the far less solid musical standards at the Royal Opera’s revival of Tim Albery’s production at the end of last season. There really is nothing like an orchestra, such as the Deutsche Oper’s, that plays this repertoire regularly, and under a conductor, such as Runnicles, who has such a natural and instinctive command for the music. And the programme revealed a remarkable statistic: this was the 35th performance of the work at this house since the production was new in late November 2008—a Traviata-esque figure. 

Tannhäuser (Act 1) at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Matthias Horn) 

There’d been a bit of chopping and changing in the cast, which ended up being led by Robert Dean Smith’s Tannhäuser, reliable and often even elegant in his phrasing—the former quality always a relief in this most taxing of roles, the latter a real luxury. Dramatically he can seem a little tentative, but I suspected his performance here was further held back in that regard by lack of rehearsal—especially in his interactions with Camilla Nyland’s voluptuously sung Venus, where the production also went a little thin on ideas.

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There was a generous, pleasingly round-toned and intelligent Wolfram from James Rutherford, and Ante Jerkunica’s Herman was impressively resonant and imposing, even if I prefer my Wagner basses with a little more granitic focus. The other minstrels were excellent, and Nyland, doubling both lead female roles, was also a moving Elisabeth.

Such double casting has its obvious advantages—pragmatic and dramatic—but Harms’s production didn’t help clarify things when her prostrate Elisabeth simply stood up at the close to sing as Venus. Before that point, there was no shortage of memorable and moving visual spectacle, making use of some highly atmospheric lighting (Bernd Damovsky was responsible for lighting, as well stage and costume designs).

Magical appearances from the bowels of the stage and from the flies are a major feature, effects that are often choreographed with a very good ear for what’s going on in the music. The staging of the Venusburg music, during which a Tannhäuser in armour is lowered into a writhing group of buxom maidens in what might be a vast bubble bath, is probably one of the most successful settings of that music I’ve seen on stage (not, admittedly, saying much), and was all the better for the hint of humour it suggested.

Elsewhere things felt less successful: the arrival of Herman, Wolfram & Co at the end of Act 1 on some very noisy horses on wheels, for example; the questionable comedy medieval hats given to guests for the song contest; the decision to confine Act 3’s chorus to hospital beds. As with Philipp Stözl’s Parsifal at this house, though, nothing actively mitigated us forming our own interpretations, and, importantly, much in the staging served to underline and amplify the extraordinary power of the music—what a fabulous score Tannhäuser is!and the musical performance.

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