Tannhäuser

Semyon Bychkov
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Date/Location
22 December 2010
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
HermannAndrew Greenan
TannhäuserJohan Botha
Wolfram von EschenbachChristian Gerhaher
Walther von der VogelweideTimothy Robinson
BiterolfClive Bayley
Heinrich der SchreiberSteven Ebel
Reinmar von ZweterJeremy White
ElisabethEva-Maria Westbroek
VenusMichaela Schuster
Ein junger HirtAlexander Lee
Gallery
Reviews
Telegraph

The show’s star was the wonderful German baritone Christian Gerhaher, whose singing had a quiet poise, gentle warmth and sincere musicianship. Rating: * * * *

In my 20-odd years as an opera critic, I have only once before encountered a British production of Tannhäuser. Yet, in Wagner’s lifetime, it was his most popular work, focused on that favourite Victorian dichotomy: prim lubricious eroticism and sin redeemed in death. Although Wagner repeatedly revised the score, he never got it right, and, alongside flashes of his mature genius, there remain passages in each of its three acts that remain either clunkingly overwrought or plain dull. But at Covent Garden, thanks to the magic wrought by conductor Semyon Bychkov, the opera for once seemed like an integrated dramatic whole.

Weighty, measured, slow-burning, and lit from within by superb orchestral playing, Bychkov’s interpretation has a sense of gravity that pays long-term dividends and makes even the mismanaged climax of Act 2 seem purposeful.

Johan Botha is that rare thing, a true Wagnerian tenor, and his Tannhäuser was marked by clarion tone, firm intonation and the stamina to make the character’s final remorse urgent, rather than merely exhausted. His massive bulk unfortunately precluded the conveying of any sense of the character’s suicidal impulsiveness.

As his beloved Elisabeth, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang vibrantly – in her arias, perhaps too vibrantly – and provided, as always, an enthralling stage presence. Michaela Schuster was a passably seductive Venus. A huge male chorus sounded magnificent as the returning Pilgrims.

But without doubt the show’s star was the wonderful German baritone Christian Gerhaher, whose singing had a quiet poise, gentle warmth and sincere musicianship

that made his Wolfram the opera’s tragic centre. What a marvel Gerhaher is – he must return to Covent Garden soon.

I don’t have much to say about Tim Albery’s production, designed by Michael Levine, Jon Morrell and David Finn, which fashionably evokes in an abstract manner the ravages of a modern eastern European war zone and makes play with the idea of theatricality (Venus is a prima donna, who performs on a stage within a stage).

This is all very well, but the more pressing theme of the struggle between sensuality and spirituality doesn’t register, and the deliberate avoidance of any Christian imagery reduces rather than expands the opera’s archaic but still potent implications.

It is Bychkov and Gerhaher who give Wagner’s vision authentic life.

Rupert Christiansen | 13 Dec 2010

Opera Today

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 | 14 Dec 2010

ClassicalSource.com

So much hangs on a proscenium arch. The velvet drapes beckon us in with the promise of unseen delights, yet the solid frame keeps us firmly outside. “Crime scene – do not cross”, it shouts. As director Tim Albery contemplated the feast of crimson that adorns the Royal Opera stage, such a paradox may well have kindled his ideas for this new production of “Tannhäuser”. For Albery’s Venusberg – the lair of the goddess – lies behind an exact replica of that same curtain, right down to the gold leaf “ER II” (which begs a question or two about divine sovereignty). As virtue gains the upper hand over Venusian vice, so the arch crumbles and rots to nothing, leaving only a void of drabness and decay. It’s a most ingenious paradox.

Albery’s rejection of Wagner’s central tenet – that fleshly delights are the trappings of Hell, and only purity and virtue can save us – leads him take the boldest of production decisions: he directs the entire opera against its plot. This makes for an intriguing evening of narrative risk-taking; and if some of his ideas recall Stephen Daldry’s work on J. B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls”, not least his decision to close the opera on a note of hope for the children of tomorrow, his daring approach goes a long way towards saving a broken-backed opera from itself.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth (Tannhäuser, The Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda To modern ears the problem with “Tannhäuser” lies in Act Two, where the dramatic motivation for our hero’s ostracisation is highly questionable. It is founded on the hypocrisy, wholly unchallenged, of fallible men who sit in judgement over one of their number and casually consign him to a hell of their own making. We can smell Wagner’s own double-standards here; moreover, as we now know, the high minds who ruled the 19th-century moral roost frequently kept a nasty Venusberg of their own hidden behind closed doors.

Albery’s Venusberg, on the other hand, is a place I wouldn’t mind dropping anchor. Lithe, attractive dancers writhe and couple in a way that seems to have a spiritual purity all its own. Although Jasmin Vardimon’s athletic choreography runs out of steam after a brilliant start, it is still a joyful experience – less an orgy than a celebration of life – and it lifts the spirits. Venus herself, although under-characterised by Michaela Schuster and somewhat blandly sung, is plausibly good-natured, more Tannhäuser’s mentor than his bawd. Contrast this colourful bacchanal with the machetes and Kalashnikovs wielded by God’s soldiers in Act Two, or with the joyless trudge of the miserable Pilgrims in Act Three, and the production’s message is unmistakable.

Johan Botha as Tannhäuser & Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth (Tannhäuser, The Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda Albery’s Achilles-heel is his overly static direction. Planning meetings with his splendid design team of Michael Levine (sets) and David Finn (lighting) may well have been rich experiences, but although creativity is not lacking, good stagecraft is. Maybe the limited mobility of Johan Botha, a colossus of a Tannhäuser, led Albery to eschew the opera’s possibilities for dynamic action. Perhaps he reasoned that too much stage-energy amongst secondary characters would undercut a hero who is constantly reaching for a chair (“Nimmer kann ich rastend stehn” – I can never be still, he fibs in Act One). But a failure of imagination also blights the ‘filler’ activities during Wagner’s orchestral passages, where the director resorts to the ritualised removing of coats and a v-e-r-y gradual arrival of the chorus in Act Two. Such dramatic poverty is as surprising as it is disappointing in the context of an otherwise carefully conceived production.

If the evening belongs to anyone, it is to Semyon Bychkov. He conducts Wagner’s massive score with such sweet blend and momentum that it could be chamber music, yet the music’s majesty blazes through in every phrase. Each section of the orchestra (with a particular nod to the brass) shines for him in a balance that is well nigh ideal. Tempos, too, are well chosen, faintly on the speedy side but only occasionally feeling rushed. Bychkov is well served by the members of an enhanced Royal Opera Chorus, its singers relishing every moment of a score that must be a chorister’s delight.

Michaela Schuster as Venus (Tannhäuser, The Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda There are no seriously weak vocal performances (although it might have been wiser to engage a soprano rather than a treble as the Shepherd Boy). Eva-Maria Westbroek is not to blame if her virtuous Elisabeth out-dulls even Don José’s Michaëla in the pallid stakes; that is Tim Albery’s intention, after all. Westbroek sings her part with great conviction and as much beauty of tone as the writing allows. Johan Botha sustains Heldentenor magnificence for the first couple of hours; but it’s a tough old sing, and by the second interval he is dipping into the reserve tank, while in Act Three he’s running on empty. Botha is musically trumped and dramatically trounced by the Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher, a subtle, compassionate presence whose sincerity and vocal eloquence transcends a production that reduces his role to that of an unsympathetic do-gooder. If Gerhaher has been in a battle with the director, he’s won it hands down.

Mark Valencia | Saturday, December 11, 2010

Guardian

Tannhäuser has been described as the “most boring of all great operas”, and it remains a work that separates the truly committed Wagnerites from the merely interested. But while it would be wrong to claim that every minute of the Royal Opera’s new production – the first here for more than 20 years – is edge-of-the-seat stuff, in fact it is never boring, thanks most of all to the exceptionally high musical standards of the performances under Semyon Bychkov.

Different aspects of the plot could be seen as prototypes for both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, all overlaid with the noxious mix of sexual guilt and religion that fuels Parsifal, too. Tim Albery’s production plays it pretty straight, though, and after some terrifically sexy choreography of the opening Venusberg scene by Jasmin Vardimon, presents the opera in a rubble-strewn contemporary setting (by Michael Levine) that more than anything else recalls the house style of English National Opera during the Powerhouse era of the 1980s, even down to the greatcoats and Kalashnikovs. It could be the Balkans in the present day, although the opening image is a replica of the Royal Opera House’s own proscenium arch and red velvet curtains, through which Johan Botha’s Tannhäuser, right, watches the entertainment provided by Venus’s retinue.

How much Albery’s approach was governed by the dramatic limitations of the cast he was working with, and how much by his own determination to lend the sometimes overheated work a certain neutral detachment, is hard to say, but there is generally very little interaction between the protagonists, who tend to address empty spaces in front of them rather than the characters they should be speaking to. Even Tannhäuser’s scene with Michaela Schuster’s strikingly statuesque Venus, left, is a pretty remote transaction, and only Christian Gerhaher’s profoundly conflicted Wolfram seems aware of what is going on around him, that he is taking part in a staged performance of this opera rather than just a concert version.

Vocally, too, Gerhaher is the pick of a fine cast. It was marvellous to hear him bring the shading and care with words that are the hallmarks of his Lieder singing into the opera house. Botha’s singing is a marvel of a kind as well, for what it lacks in subtlety and variation it more than makes up in clarity (every word perfectly audible) and sheer consistency. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth seemed a bit two-dimensional, however; her sound was convincing but her stage presence was not, leaving a hole at the emotional core of the work.

It’s Bychkov, though, who consistently sustains the drama and does his best to supply what’s missing elsewhere. Complemented by some superb orchestral playing and great choral singing, he lays out the score with the same sense of spaciousness, grand ceremonial and intensity he brought to his conducting of Lohengrin at the ROH last year. His contribution, together with those of Gerhaher and Botha, make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Andrew Clements | Sunday 12 December 2010

Rating
(6/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
Premiere, PO
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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 475 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
Broadcast (BBC 3)
A production by Tim Albery (2010)
The role of Herrmann was acted by Christof Fischesser and sung by Andrew Greenan.