Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Santa Fe’s Celebratory Jester

Santa Fe Opera noted a landmark two-thousandth performance in their distinguished history with a stylish new production of Rigoletto.

Sibelius Kullervo, BBC Proms, London

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private.

Aïda at Aspen

Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.

Prom 53: Shostakovich — Orango

One might have been forgiven for thinking that both biology and chronology had gone askew at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday evening.

Written on Skin at Lincoln Center

Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing: William Christie conducting some Charpentier.

Pesaro’s Rossini Festival 2015

The 36th Rossini Opera Festival in Rossini’s Pesaro! La gazza ladra (1817), La gazzetta (1816) and L'inganno felice (1812) — the little opera that made Rossini famous.

Santa Fe: Placid Princess of Judea

Unlike the brush fire in a distant neighborhood of the John Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera’s Salome stubbornly failed to ignite.

Airy and Bucolic Glimmerglass Flute

As part of a concerted effort to incorporate local color and resonance into its annual festival, Glimmerglass has re-imagined The Magic Flute in a transformative woodland setting.

Glimmerglass Conquers Cato

Bravura singing and vibrant instrumental playing were on ample display in Glimmerglass Festival’s riveting Cato in Utica.

Energetic Glimmerglass Candide

Bernstein’s Candide seems to have more performance versions than Tales of Hoffmann.

Die Eroberung von Mexico in Salzburg

That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.

Scottish Sensation at Glimmerglass

Glimmerglass is celebrating its 40th Festival season with a stylish new production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Norma in Salzburg

This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.

The power of music: a young cast in a semi-stage account of Monteverdi’s first opera

John Eliot Gardiner conducted a much anticipated performance of Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo at the BBC Proms on 4 August 2015, with his own Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

Cold Mountain Wows Audience at Santa Fe World Premiere

On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Johann Botha as Tannhäuser [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House]
14 Dec 2010

Wagner Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Opera House itself is the star of this new production of Richard Wagner Tannhäuser. An intriguing twist on an opera that pits orgiastic excess against purity, pleasure against morality.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Venus: Michaela Schuster, Tannhäuser: Johann Botha, Shepherd boy: Alexander Lee, Landgrave Herrmann: Christof Fischesser, Wolfram von Eschinbach: Christian Gerhaher, Walther von Vogelweide: Timothy Robinson, Heinrich der Schreiber: Steven Ebel, Biterolf: Clive Bayley, Reinmar von Zweter: Jeremy White, Elisabeth: Eva-Marie Westbroek. Conductor: Semyon Bychkov, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Director Tim Albery, Choreography: Jasmin Vardimon, Set Design: Michael Levine, Costume Design: Jon Morrell, Lighting Design: David Finn, Movement Director: Maxine Braham. Royal Opera Chorus, Director: Renato Balsadonna. 11th December 2010, Royal Opera House, London.

Above: Johann Botha as Tannhäuser

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House

 

Perhaps Tim Albery’s inspiration came from the prize-singing contest. Dominating the stage in the First Act is a fake Royal Opera House proscenium, complete with fake velvet curtains and gold trimmings. It’s absolutely stunning. But beware! The fact remains, Tannhäuser is not Adriana Lecouvreur.

For Wagner, Tannhäuser is torn between extremes. Venusberg represents orgiastic excess and abandonment, Wartburg ascetic self denial. Wartburg wins. Venusberg doesn’t. If Albery thinks Tannhäuser is a metaphor for opera and for the Royal Opera House in particular, maybe he should get out more and see the real world. Prize song contests aren’t just about “singing”, as we know from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and it is even closer to medieval morality tales. For Wagner (who personally liked velvet and excess) what is at issue is a new sensibility built on rigorous conceptual thinking. Wagner’s deliberately distancing himself from Meyerbeer and what he thought of as feelgood, but brainless, glitz.

Hence, the ballet that portrays Venusberg. It’s a pointed dig against the kind of entertainment Wagner rejected, and at the kind of audiences who used to flock to see ballerinas’ legs, ignoring the music and drama. Here the ballet is presented completely devoid of irony. Once I saw a production where the ballet was a bondage orgy, the dancers inhuman beasts. Horrifying yet hypnotic, which is why Tannhäuser was enslaved. If Venusberg was as safe and wholesome and dull as this ballet, he would have long since died of boredom.

TANN-101208_2363-WESTBROEK-.gifEva-Marie Westbroek as Elisabeth

Albery’s Wartburg is post apocalyptic greyness. The Royal Opera House arch lies broken, twisted like rubble in the background. Visually, though this adds a vertical element to the horizontal flatness. The barrenness is valid, since Wartburg’s in crisis situation. If Venusberg’s no fun, Wartburg should be even less so. Physical movement in the First Act is slow to the point of being comatose. At first I thought this was to allow for Johann Botha’s disability, which would be laudable, but then remembered that excessively slow movement is a Tim Albery trademark. In Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer , Bryn Terfel spent much of the time appearing to pull a long rope suspended diagonally across the stage. (An echo of that rope appears in this Tannhäuser too.) Grunge aesthetic is an Albery thing, whatever the opera or the singer, and sometimes it works. Obviously directors have an individual language, as all artists do, but grimness for its own sake can become tedious if it holds up dramatic flow.

Tannhäuser is not a romantic hero. He left Wartburg in a pique and gave in whole-heartedly to Venusberg’s excesses. Thus Johann Botha’s portrayal is psychologically accurate. Wagner’s whole point is that the character is sated, almost destroyed by what he’s experienced, yet still has a spark of goodness that makes him worth saving. That’s why Elisabeth cares about him. Why redeem someone who doesn’t need help? Botha’s characterization was much more subtle and true to the role and to the opera than might meet the eye. On the ear, too, he was very good, totally justifying the casting, even if his voice flagged in the final Act. Much better that Botha sings Tannhäuser with a sense of his inner complexes. Conflict is central to this opera, and Botha’s singing expresses depth and complexity. It’s a difficult role, and less gratifying because the big showpiece song isn’t his, but Botha shows that he’s a hero in his own way. Perhaps Wagner knew that the Meyerbeer crowd would never understand.

TANN-101206_1539-SCHUSTER-A.gifMichaela Schuster as Venus

Tannhäuser might see Elisabeth as the Virgin Mary, but Elisabeth is a real woman with intense passions. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s singing brings out the wildness, even the sexuality in the role. Westbroek’s forte is bringing personality to the parts she sings, and here she turns an almost stereotype into a fully-formed human being,. A lesser singer would be trapped by the restrictions created by this costume and direction. Westbroek overcomes these obstacles by her innate artistry.

Three different people in the audience mentioned that Christian Gerhaher sings like a Lieder singer. This has become such a cliché that maybe it’s time to think what that actually means. Gerhaher got mauled by Fischer-Dieskau fans many years ago, so conversely I’ve listened to him with much greater sympathy than otherwise. I’ve got most of his records and been to most of his UK concerts. He’s an excellent singer, but the smoothness of his line is best suited to roles which reach beyond the fundamental grittiness of Lieder. He’s a perfect Wolfram von Eschenbach. Here his clean timbre creates Wolfram as an idealized symbolic figurehead, not quite of this world even though he was a historic figure. That, for me, is why Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sublime. The character itself is less important than what it represents. Wolfram is the embodiment of “die heilige deutsche Kunst”, something greater than mere mortals.

TANN-101208_2365-GERHAHER-A.gifChristian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach

Semyon Bychkov conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Very beautiful, emphasizing the lyricism in the score. The interludes uninterrupted by staging were excellent. Given Albery’s view that Tannhäuser operates at a critical post-trauma turning point, one might have hoped that Bychkov might have injected some crackling tension into the music. It’s not a comfortable opera. Wagner declares against Venus, after all.

At the end, another typical Albery touch. In his Der fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman’s haunting portrait was replaced by a toy boat. That’s acceptable, as an indication of Senta’s fantasist immaturity. In this Tannhäuser there’s no papal staff to burst into leaf. Instead a small boy, seated on the same chair Tannhäuser sat in, playing with what looks like a neon toy Xmas tree. Even if it’s supposed to be symbolic, it’s absurd. Reductionism can work extremely well in opera, but badly done, it turns to trivia.

Michaela Schuster, who sang the Princess in Adriana Lecouvreur, recently sang Venus. A sold cast all round: good support from Timothy Robinson, Steven Ebel, Clive Bayley and Jeremy White.

This production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser runs at the Royal Opera House, London until January 2nd 2011. For more information, please see the Royal Opera House site.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):