Wagner's Tannhauser: Stig Anderson / Irene Theorin / Royal Danish Opera 
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Following the triumph of the Copenhagen Ring, the Royal Danish Opera celebrated director Kasper Holten return to Wagner with an innovative and startling interpretation of Tannhauser, presenting the drama as a tragic conflict between love and art.
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It would be hard to say that this bold concept is entirely convincing, although it did hold my interest throughout. The orchestra and singers perform well and the camerawork is good (apart from an editing mistake in Act 3). So, not a top recommendation.
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There is no Venusberg in this production; rather durinig the overture a great deal of action is taking place. The Act I set is that of a 19th century three story house with a great many stairways which will later be moved as the scene changes. Tannhauser is not a medieval minstrel but appears to be Wagner himself! Wearing the velvet beret, he is inspired by his Venus. Our Venus, however, as opposed to being seductive is quite zaftig and wearing men's drag. Susanne Resmark is about as far, visually from Gynneth Jones and Tatyana Troyanos as is possible, but she is still able to inspire our hero. She also appears in the singing contest emotionally egging Tannhauser on with his praise of carnal love. Also present in the overture and first act is Elizabeth as Frau Wagner (Cosima?) and I presume his young son (Siegfried?) but without his sisters. Clearly we are in a world quite apart from what Wagner was writing about. Indeed, the second act the Hall of Song; is merely the same (for all practical purposes) set as Act I with chairs for the attendees. The Elizabeth in the production is Tina Kilberg. She appeared in a Brunhilde in an earlier taping of the Ring that was apparently only available in Europe. Kiberg is somewhat mature physically for Elizabeth (the camera is a cruel friend) but she clearly has the measure of the role and enters into the director's concept as do all the artists involved. The Valley of Wartburg is the same seet altered but in no way resembling an exterior scene; hence Wolfram's Abenstern is sung indoors to a non-existent evening star. Tannhauseer/Wagner is closeted from the opening furiously writing what turns out to be the Rome Narrative (!) which he delivers to Wolfram and at one point he hands the "score" to him and would appear to be singing from this text.
The singing is generally of a very high level, notably our Tannhauser. It is a difficult role and Andersen has the stamina and the voice. Wolfram is sung by a Finnish baritone, Tommi Hakala. I wish I could say that we have another central European honeyed baritone like Herman Prey or Bernd Weikl, but such is not the case. More than adequate would be my judgment. The chorus and orchestra are first rate and match the performance they gave in the "Copenhagen Ring".
I enjoyed Holten's Ring and found the level of singing (with one exception: possibly the worst Hagen I have ever heard)exceptional. What was missing for me on a dramatic level was the element of the myth. The Ring is the stuff of legend and to a certain degree so is Tannhauser. After all how else can one accpet the Venusberg scene? Surely Wagner intended it to be mythic. Holten has now left Denmark and is toiling elsewhere but for this performance the audience was deliriously enthusiastic. Danes are said to be the happiest people in Europe; with this opera house and the artistic level it is capable of reaching I can see why.
The competition for a DVD of the opera is not large. The Met's production is conventional but quite beautiful. Marton gives one of her best performances. Cassilly's Tannhauser is very well sung even if his bulk and acting skills are less appealing. Wolfram is sung by Bernd Weikl who is excellent. The Bayreuth performance is somewhat dated. Jones sings both Venus and Elizabeth. While she is excellent at the latter she lacks the low notes for Venus although physically is has to be noted she she has what is necessary. The tenor is Spas Wenkoff, a Bulgarian who has both the looks and the voice. This was the first opera from Bayreuth to be taped; at times I thought is was lypsynched. Last year a new Tannhauser was released but it was scuppered by the tenor, Robert Gambil who simply is unable to sings the role. It is also a non-traditional concept.
Possibly some of this might be due to the fact that before watching it, I had another look at the traditional production from Beyreuth 1978 wonderfully directed by Gotz Friedrich with Gwyneth Jones, Spas Wenkoff, Hans Sotin and Bernd Weikl -- all at the height of their powers. But I doubt it, although with the exception of Susanne Resmark and Stig Anderssen in this production, the singing/acting was on a considerably higher level in the Bayreuth one -- and that might have left a mark.
No. The trouble is that the concept does not fit the libretto; and often feels shoehorned in, leaving not only some confusion, but also emotional distancing.
The idea that Tannhauser is a person caught between two poles is not a new one, and in fact is almost inescapable. The libretto and the music makes this abundantly clear as the opera progresses. But the dichotomy is between the world of sensuality, and static sterile but spiritual order. Neither world on its own is enough. Act I deals with Tannhauser's need for and influence by Venus and what she stands for, as opposed for his need to experience what he had before. This dichotomy is well represented in his music -- and it is only when there is mention of the Virgin Mary that he manages to escape. But the influence of Venus gets him into major trouble during the singing contest where he sings of carnal love and Venusberg; and he is only saved by the intercession of Elizabeth, who has been influenced by him and is in love with him and who saves him here. But he is compelled to make a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution. He agrees to do so, but only for the sake of Elizabeth. In Act III after the pilgrims return from Rome without Tannhauser, Elizabeth prays to Mary to take her own life in return for the salvation of Tannhauser -- and dies. Tannhauser returns, broken and deeply influenced by his experience and damnation by the pope. He is on the point of returning to Venusberg when he learns of the death of Elizabeth and sinks to his own death asking Elizabeth to pray for him. Then more pilgrims return bearing a sign of Tannhauser's redemption and the music swells with the pilgrim's hymn and with the rhythms of Venusberg. A final synthesis.
That, as I understand the opera, is what Wagner wrote.
The interpretation that Holten intended is made quite explicit in the directed action to the music of the prelude. We see Tannhauser wearing a Wagnerian beret and trying to write. The set is very ordered with an Escherian staircase in the background, servants and a middle-aged wife and teenaged son. He seemingly has writer's block. Then in comes Venus as the music changes. Tannhauser starts to write increasingly fervently until he is in a frenzy. The servants go nuts as well, bouncing around, removing bits of clothing, pouring water over themselves --supposedly to represent unbridled creativity, but really it is almost disorganised chaos. Little wonder that Tannhauser is exhausted and wants out. But in this interpretation, Tannhauser is never free of Venus. She sits behind him during the Act II song contest and encourages him on. Despite the libretto, he is continually rejecting of the influence of Elizabeth -- even when she saves him. Act III starts with Tannhauser, instead of going to Rome, writing, under the influence of Venus, an account of his putative pilgimage. When Elizabeth comes in, he is behind a locked door but in view of the audience still writing. After the pilgrims return, without Tannhauser, Elizabeth starts her prayer to a tabletop statue of Mary, but spends most of it in front of the door to where Tannhauser is writing after trying unsuccessfully trying to get in. When he comes out, and reads his account of his faux pilgrimage to Wolfram, the libretto has him state that he was sent by an angel who banished his sense of pride, and that he wanted to lighten the angle's tears -- this despite the fact that he still remains arrogant, and would not respond to Elizabeth when she was alive. Then just as he is about to return to Venusberg, seemingly healthier than when he left exhausted, Wolfram tells him that Elizabeth is dead. That stops him in his tracks, he goes over to her body and drops dead as the chorus comes in singing of redemption. The book of his faux pilgrimage is held up as a holy relic; and a sign is dropped stating that the grace of God is given to the penitent.
If my recollection and interpretation of what Holten has done is correct, then what does it all mean? Why the changed emphasis from sensuality to intellectual creativity? In view of the beret, can Tannhauser be Wagner himself trying to work out who he is and what he believes? That would explain the overriding influence of Venus and intellectual creativity, and the eternal woman who must die for the salvation of her man. Certainly that would mirror Wagner's life and beliefs. But Wagner was also a sensual person, and although his first wife was long-suffering, his second certainly was not. I confess I just do not know. Fortunately it is on DVD, so I can see it again and have another bash at figuring it out. It is a powerful performance, but I feel that the power comes from Wagner and not Holten. This director's concept does not fit.
So how many stars to give? The orchestra is very good, as are Resmark and Andersen and Milling. The rest are more than adequate. Tina Kiberg as Elizabeth is not. The concept is interesting but, I think, fails as a whole. So. three stars only.
However, I am glad to have experienced it. It has made me think about the opera; and that is a good thing and what art is supposed to do. But for sheer enjoyment of a complete performance, there is the Friedrich/Bayreuth 1978 remastered DVD.
August 11 I have had another look, and it still does not make much sense to me. The dichotomy that I am sure Wagner intended seems to be lost here. Tannhauser, in this interpretation, never breaks free from the influence of Venusberg. This is particularly marked in Act III where, rather than having been made more receptive to the spiritual compassionate aspects of life, he writes a fictional account of his pilgrimage behind a door locked to Elizabeth; and then arrogantly and almost exultantly reads it to Wolfram. He is then on the point of returning hale and hearty to Venus when for no other reason than the inescapable fact that the music and libretto demand it, he has a sudden change of heart when he hears of the death of Elizabeth. Mind you, the music makes it hard to resist as the chorus sings of how the soul of pure Elizabeth is pleading for mercy. Venus suddenly gives up and exits. Tannhauser, over Elizabeth's body sings: "Elizabeth, pray for me!!" and then dies as the music swells with both themes integrated.
Game set and match to Wagner, not Holten.