|Venus (Sanja Radišić) emerges from the altarpiece. Photos: Wil van Iersel|
Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016
Elisabeth – Linda Ballova
Venus – Sanja Radišić
Wolfram von Eschinbach – Hrólfur Saemundsson
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Woong-jo Choi
Walther von der Vogelweide – Patricio Arroyo
Biterolf – Pawel Lawreszuk
Heinrich der Schreiber – John Zuckerman
Reinmar von Zweter – Benjamin Werth
Young Shepherd – Svenja Lehmann
Chorus of Theater Aachen
Aachen Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Kazem Abdullah
Director – Mario Corradi
Designer/costumes – Italo Grassi
Lighting – Dirk 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.