Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera presents an excellent Don Giovanni

On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.

Tosca at Chicago Lyric

In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.

Henri Dutilleux: Correspondances

Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.

LA Opera Revives The Ghosts of Versailles

In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned composer John Corigliano to write an opera celebrating the company’s one-hundredth anniversary. It was to be ready in 1983.

La Traviata, ENO

English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).

Idomeneo in Lyon

You might believe you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera

I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking — and talking — about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations.

Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva

Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.

Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse

Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.

Arizona Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Arizona Opera presented Eugene Onegin during and 1999-2000 season and again on February 1 of this year as part of the 2014-2015 season. In this country Onegin is not a crowd pleaser like La Bohème or Carmen, but its story is believable and its music melodic and memorable. Just hum the beginning of the “Polonaise” and your friends will know the music, if not where it comes from.

Ernst Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall in Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. Matthias Goerne has called Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch the Winterreise of the 20th century. Boesch and Vignoles showed how Krenek’s Reisebuch is a journey of discovery into identity at an era of extreme social change. It is a parable, indeed, of modern times.

Anna Bolena at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new Anna Bolena, a production shared with Minnesota Opera, features a distinguished cast including several notable premieres.

San Diego Celebrates 50th Year with La Bohème

On Tuesday January 27, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. It is the opera with which the company opened in 1965 and a work that the company has faithfully performed every five years since then.

English Pocket Opera Company: Verdi’s Macbeth

Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.

Katia Kabanova in Toulon

Káťa Kabanová is, they say, Janáček's first mature opera — it comes a mere 20 years after his masterpiece, Jenůfa.

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):