23 Aug 2009
Wagner's Tannhaüser at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Good directors don't always create good productions.
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What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
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Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
Good directors don't always create good productions.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff proved with his staging of Parsifal, preserved on DVD, that he can stay true to the core vision of a Wagner masterwork and yet bring new insights and a stark yet imaginative vision to the work. This Tannhaüser, filmed in 2008 in Baden-Baden, comes across as an over-designed, under-realized concept. Although the bonus feature of an hour-long documentary has a lot of talk - oh boy, does it ever - none of it really serves to make the production’s intents any clearer. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, are all spectacular. The viewer can admire all that effort and still feel unsatisfied, because the tone never becomes coherent. Does Lehnhoff see the opera as essentially silly? That nagging thought is the chief one his staging produced in your reviewer.
A huge spiral staircase/walkway dominates the set, the curve of which has a seductive, feminine shape. Waltraud Meier as Venus appears in the shadow of the curve, at first immobile in a huge hoop-skirt ballgown, and then stepping away from it in a more shapely black dress. The ballet almost never really works to suggest the erotic appeal of Venusberg, but Lehnhoff gets off to a very bad start here. In the choreography of Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn, dancers in clunky, head-to-toe white leotards mime the wriggling movements of worms or maggots. It’s silly when not repellent. And the worms turn up again at the end, of course, to spoil one of the more successful scenes of the production.
With a full head of shaggy hair and looking a little like a 1980s’ Bono of the rock band U2, Robert Gambill enters. In a role known as a tenor-killer, Gambill offers a lot. He doesn’t seem to tire, and his enunciation of the text struck this non-German speaker as sharp. The core of Gambill’s voice is a husky, masculine sound, with an effective if strained top. He doesn’t really have either the vocal or personal charisma for a memorable assumption of the horny hero, but Gambill is about as good as we’ve got at this time.
Only a few months before this summer 2008 production, Gambill had been in the same opera with Camila Nylund as Elisabeth in San Diego, where your reviewer caught their performances. Nylund is a gorgeous woman, visually perfect as Elisabeth (but even more stunning when seen in street clothes in the aforementioned documentary). She can sing her role, as Gambill can sing his. It’s just the lack of any special color or imagination to her phrasing that keeps her assumption from affecting the audience as it should. At least she doesn’t have to endure the wig catastrophe that Meier does as Venus, with a weird fan-shaped hedge of hair across the top of her skull. Lehnhoff relies on Meier’s considerable dramatic reserves to put her characterization across, but he gives her very little to do. Even when outside the prison of that satin gown, Meier seems locked away.
In Wartburg things get very goofy. Most of the men wear gold lamé suits, while the chorus enters in black suits and helmets with short antlers, or are they insect antennae? When the song contest begins, the contestants stride onto a platform with a standing microphone, strutting and posturing like rock stars. Tom Fox as Biterolf really gets into it. But when Gambill’s Tannhaüser rushes up, shoves Fox off the stage and sings in praise of Venusberg, Lehnhoff’s interpretation makes him look like a spoiled, bratty jock. There’s no interest in his redemption from that point. If we still care about Nylund’s Elisabeth, that is due to the commendable efforts of Roman Trekel as Wolfram and Stephen Milling as Hermann, two first-class singers who manage to preserve their dignity amidst the silliness.
One of several hundred young conductors making their names known today, Philippe Jordan leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a technically precise but soulless reading. He has more interesting things to say about the music in the documentary than can be heard in the actual performance.
The booklet does feature a very fine essay by Reiner E. Moritz, who covers the opera’s creation cogently and also finds ways of describing this production that make it sound better than it turns out to be. But where in the booklet essay is the credit for the wig stylist? The documentary interviews reveal that both Gambill and Trekel got the benefit of that artist’s best work. Meier, unfortunately, did not.
Finally, if a production goes for the non-traditional approach as this one does, then the subtitles shouldn’t be as fussy and outdated as those employed here. A lot of creative energy went into this production. In the end, it comes across as all design, no depth.