Monday, 12 September 2016

Tannhäuser – Theater Aachen – 6 March 2016

Venus (Sanja Radišić) emerges from the altarpiece. Photos: Wil van Iersel

Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016

Tannhäuser – Paul McNamara
ElisabethLinda Ballova
VenusSanja Radišić
Wolfram von EschinbachHrólfur Saemundsson
Hermann, Landgrave of ThuringiaWoong-jo Choi
Walther von der VogelweidePatricio Arroyo
BiterolfPawel Lawreszuk
Heinrich der SchreiberJohn Zuckerman
Reinmar von ZweterBenjamin Werth
Young ShepherdSvenja Lehmann

Chorus of Theater Aachen
Aachen Symphony Orchestra

ConductorKazem Abdullah
DirectorMario Corradi
Designer/costumesItalo Grassi
LightingDirk Sarach-Craig

A kneeling Hermann (Woong-jo Choi, left) pleads with Tannhäuser (Paul McNamara) to rejoin their
company as the other ‘knights’ look on.

Compared with Calixto Bieito’s Tannhäuser in Antwerp (reviewed in the last TWJ), which eschewed any reference to religion, Italian director Mario Corradi’s production of Wagner’s ‘Romantic opera’ for Theater Aachen gives the whole drama an ecclesiastical setting. Tannhäuser is a Catholic priest, and we first see him during the Overture celebrating Mass in Italo Grassi’s impressive, atmospheric church-interior set. But he is a priest with a troubled mind. As the music leaves the pilgrims behind and enters the world of the Venusberg, a visual transformation takes place: an angel sweeps down from the flies, Christ staggers in carrying his cross, Elisabeth takes an imprint of his face on a shroud and offers it to Tannhäuser and the congregation is magicked away – our hero’s mind is scrambling as ‘pure’ images give way to ‘impure’. Three stone pillars turn to reveal they house half-naked temptresses, who divest Tannhäuser of his priest’s robes. The chalice from the Mass becomes a vessel for an aphrodisiac potion and the incense an intoxicating perfume, and the confessional box transforms into Venus’s bower. As the Overture ends with a thud (the ‘Dresden’ version of the score is used throughout except for the ‘Paris’ version of the post-bacchanalian Venus-Tannhäuser scene – there’s really no need for the extra music of the Parisian Bacchanal here), Venus herself steps out of the altar-piece as the Virgin Mary and, removing her blue cloak, reveals herself as a Marilyn Monroe-like seductress, complete with dress-billowing-in-the-updraught effect. At the end of their scene together, Tannhäuser is found on his own in a faint and he is stretchered off as the Young Shepherd, an altar boy, sweeps up the last ‘evidence’ of the debauchery from the church floor.

After these theatrical coups, the rest of the staging is comparatively uneventful, but the consistency of Corradi’s narrative re-telling in this context is impressive. It soon becomes apparent that Tannhäuser is a priest torn between his vows of celibacy and the temptations of a vivid imagination, a mind that has an erotic fascination with the Virgin, in whom he sees Venus, yet also through whom is channelled Elisabeth’s purity. Elisabeth’s death in Act III, for instance, is movingly but unsentimentally portrayed as she dons Mary’s blue garb and is led away by the angel, while Venus makes her last-ditch attempt at wooing Tannhäuser wearing the same cloke. The closing image is of the life-size Marian statue finally revealed above the altar, with the sainted Elisabeth lying below. Further clues as to Tannhäuser’s state of mind appear when Venus provocatively saunters in during the song contest to tempt him and spur him on to his self-revelatory critiques of his colleagues – he is obviously the only person present who sees her. There’s also a telling moment earlier in Act II, after Elisabeth has delivered her second big solo to Tannhäuser as her confessor, ‘Ich preise dieses Wunder’, when he stops himself from kissing her head as she bows before him as her priest – for all his words about her purity, he obviously struggles to keep his relationship with her chaste, yet sees her as his salvation from his libidinous vice. So when, at the climax of the contest, he reveals he has experienced the ‘Berg der Venus’, he seems to be admitting not to a geographical dallying but to having actively broken his vow of chastity, making his need to seek penance in Rome for once plausible. He has broken the rules of the Church more than of society and follows – or at least attempts to follow – that organisation’s preferred route to forgiveness.

The one area where Corradi’s rethinking is less convincing is in the general societal context itself. Tannhäuser’s fellow minnesingers are also clerics, which makes the situation of a song contest rather peculiar, with the competitors’ offerings delivered from a lectern as if they are competing in a rather heated sermon play-off. Landgrave Hermann is the bishop, or other such church bigwig, with Elisabeth plausibly his niece (at least the original doesn’t have her as his daughter), but the ‘nobles’ are the common local folk, dressed 1940s-style in cardigans and twin-sets – the music of their ‘Entry’ sounds too grand to go with their simple queue to bow before Hermann and take their places in the pews. Incidentally, nothing seems to be made of this period setting per se, unless one is to read into it a parallel with a whole nation going through a process of penance in the post-war years, or to see it as a critique of the Roman church’s ambivalent relationship with the Third Reich, but I feel either is probably reading more into things than is intended. Instead, the setting allows the Prelude to Act III to be accompanied by archive film of a jubilee pilgrimage to Rome during the pontificate of Pius XII, which sets up the context for the ensuing denouement effectively as the pilgrims return to their home church after their journey. As well as the Marian tableau of the closing bars we also see the green sprouting of the papal staff winding up the altar’s columns like Jack’s beanstalk – a surreal but effective final image of rebirth, both virginal and Venusian.

The difficulties involved in casting of Tannhäuser are often cited as a reason for its relative scarcity among the Wagnerian canon on stage. German houses never seem to have a problem finding the singers for these demanding roles, though, and even the UK has had two productions scheduled this season, at the Royal Opera and Longborough. Aachen’s Tannhäuser was the Irish tenor Paul McNamara. He is not alone in appearing a little stretched by Act I’s often high-lying tessitura, but the rest of the role fitted his voice with natural ease, and he combined lyricism with dramatic heft and a convincing stage presence. Linda Ballova’s Elisabeth was a bit rough round the edges, but made a convincing case for a more pugnacious, forceful vocal characterisation of the role than we sometimes hear, a depiction that set up an interesting counterpoint with her demure stage presentation. Sanja Radišić’s attractively deep mezzo gave Venus her rightful allure, though rather flaccid diction meant the words – and especially consonants – tended not to come across. The staging played down Wolfram’s role more than usual (and certainly compared to the prominence Bieito gave him in Antwerp in the autumn), but Hrólfur Saemundsson made the part his own, bringing expressive subtlety and a warmly engaging tone. Woong-jo Choi’s sonorous Hermann was impressive, too. The Aachen chorus was excellent and made the climax of Act II and the very end of Act III spine-tingling moments. The orchestral balance was a bit uneven at first, with lower brass rather crowding everyone else out in the Overture, but Aachen’s General Music Director Kazem Abdullah eventually tamed them and his generally swift tempi lent an impressive coherence and dramatic cogency to the whole evening.

Tristan und Isolde – Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe – 17 April 2016

Isolde (Heidi Melton) and Tristan (Erin Caves). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg

Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016

Tristan – Erin Caves
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Kurwenal – Armin Kolarczyk
Brangäne – Christina Niessen
King Mark – Konstantin Gorny
Melot – Matthias Wohlbrecht
Young Sailor/Shepherd – Cameron Becker
Steersman – Mehmet Altiparmak

Badisches Staatstheater Chorus
Badische Staatskapelle

Conductor – Justin Brown
Director – Christopher Alden
Designer – Paul Steinberg
Costumes – Sue Willmington
Lighting – Stefan Woinke
Movement director – Elaine Brown

With this Tristan added to its recent Parsifal, and with its multi-director Ring cycle launching this summer and due for completion in October 2017, the southwest German city of Karlsruhe seems set to become something of a Badischer Bayreuth. As the brochure calling for donations towards its new Ring claims, ‘Karlsruhe ist eine Wagner-Stadt’. It certainly has some of the necessary credentials: Wagner himself visited seven times, Hermann Levi and Felix Mottl conducted early performances of his works there, Joseph Keilberth cut his professional teeth at what was his home-town theatre, and in more recent times the company has helped launch the Wagnerian careers of Deborah Polaski, Lance Ryan and Stuart Skelton. Now, too, it is attracting some of the bigger names in operatic production, and this Tristan was put in the capable hands of Christopher Alden, a director known for his ability to draw out unexplored facets of an opera’s essence.

With Tristan und Isolde, Alden isn’t interested in a specific milieu or even a strictly narrative telling of the story. Costumes are mid-20th-century and the single setting for all three acts is perhaps a lounge on a luxury cruise liner in 1920s modernist style – a light, bright environment for characters who constantly seek night and darkness. In a programme interview, Alden says he sees Wagner’s concept of love here as of an insoluble togetherness, and not simply a romantic attraction. He plays off this existential relationship between Tristan and Isolde with a more traditional, down-to-earth love-play between Brangäne and Kurwenal: during the Act II tryst they hover in the background, each in their own tormented world, until Brangäne plucks up the courage and makes a pass at her opposite number but is spurned; then, during the climax of the duet, as her warning flames almost seem to set the whole place ablaze, he finally attempts to return the favour but backs off. 

Meanwhile, Tristan and Isolde’s attachment is at different times physically distant (they greet each other at the start of Act II from opposite sides of the stage) and intimate – they spend Brangäne’s first warning dancing a slow, smoochy waltz in each other’s arms. Their physical engagement is therefore not nearly as cool as in Christoph Marthaler’s Bayreuth production (there are visual parallels, though, with the liner setting, the light manipulated by switches on the wall and the secondary characters often emoting in silence in the background), but their apartness is shown to be a crucial element of their interaction. For instance, they seem to spend a lot of time standing staring at each other without touching – as preceding the strikingly delayed consumption of the potion in Act I. Isolde is present on stage for much of the last act, in Tristan’s environment, in his mind, but each is unaware of the other’s physical nearness. Theirs is a world where being apart is to be alive and in agony, together is oblivion and ecstasy. Tristan’s wound, supposedly healed by Isolde’s magic powers, is an open one that like Amfortas’ refuses to heal, and in keeping it fresh he becomes the agent of his own demise. Brangäne had concocted the love potion from the lounge’s cocktail bar, following one of Isolde’s mother’s recipe cards, and in Act III Tristan hopes in desperation that by mixing his own drink from the same pool of ingredients he will find the poison that they had both expected and longed for. His death-wish is viscerally exposed throughout the evening, while Isolde’s ultimate fate is left open – she sings the Liebestod far from Tristan’s body and poised with a pistol in hand but unraised as the lights cut.

Alden also points up the formal similarities between all three acts. Each opens, after an orchestral prelude in each case, with an offstage contribution that defines the real world: the young sailor in Act I, the hunting horns in Act II and the shepherd’s ‘alte Weise’ in Act III. All three are visually suggested to be coming from a wind-up gramophone, hinting at an artificial intrusion into the imaginary, internal world that takes over for the rest of each act. Each also ends, like a stuck record on that gramophone, with the arrival of King Mark and his men, here a brutal lot who are happy to duff Brangäne and Kurwenal up in Act II and who, with Melot standing aloof above them on a balcony, maintain a menacing presence whenever they are on stage. Thus in each case, the ‘real world’, the world of ‘light’ and ‘day’, prevails. With these arching parallels and his fascinating, often provocative Personenregie, Alden’s conceptual exploration of many of the opera’s themes is thus impressive, and everything works consistently within the world he has chosen to present.

With no fewer than three Tristan productions staged within this quarter of southwest Germany inside of a month (the others were at Baden-Baden and at the regional theatre in Kaiserslautern) the call upon singers for the main roles has naturally been competitive. Karlsruhe hit lucky with two Americans, Erin Caves and Heidi Melton. Caves, who had previously sung Tristan in Stuttgart, doesn’t have a big voice, and at times struggled to equal the vocal power of his Isolde, but he gained in sonic penetration as the evening progressed and, apart from some unfortunate but forgiveable evidence of tiring in the latter stages, sang with both mellifluous and incisive command, and he threw his all into a highly physical presentation of the role. Melton, a former member of the Karlsruhe ensemble and who was due in London shortly after this performance to begin rehearsing the part of Isolde in English for ENO, was magnificent: a full, rich soprano with carrying power to match her lyrical and word-sensitive delivery. With the subsidiary roles double-cast during this six-performance run, this was the debut night for the ‘B’ team, who acquitted themselves generally positively. I had some caveats about the Brangäne of Christine Niessen, whose voice exhibited a rather large tonal divide between a somewhat shrill upper range and sumptuous lower one. Armin Kolarczyk, though, was a determined but sympathetic Kurwenal and his warm, subtle singing gave evidence of why he has been snapped up by Bayreuth for its new Meistersinger next year. Konstantin Gorny’s Mark conveyed the bitterness in the character’s sense of betrayal and Matthias Wojlbrecht’s Melot made his mark without resorting to clichéd villainy. Cameron Becker’s Young Sailor and Shepherd (and manipulator of the wind-up gramophone in Act III) was lyrical and sensitive, and Mehmet Altiparmak made a telling cameo as the Steersman. 

I can’t claim to have registered any differences, having read of the fact after the event, but the musical preparation for this production had had recourse to a copy of the score in the Staatstheater archives that bears annotations by Felix Mottl from the time of the Karlsruhe premiere of Tristan in 1884 – instructions conveying first-hand evidence of the Master’s wishes that seem to go beyond the stage-direction additions already present in the Peters Edition/Dover score and chiefly cover dynamic variations. Justin Brown certainly drew nuanced playing from the Staatstheater orchestra which, despite one or two smudged entries and links, had both suavity and fire, characteristics that also marked Brown’s interpretative decisions.