Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the earliest of the canonical works. In some ways it’s very Wagnerian. It has screwed up theology with a heavy dose of misogyny and some recognisably Wagnerian music. On the other hand it is structured more like a French grand opera and some of the music definitely has more than a hint of Meyerbeer to it.The basic plot is that of the hero seduced into sin by the pagan love goddess Venus and then redeemed by the love (and death) of the chaste virgin Elisabeth.
Robert Carsen’s 2008 production for Barcelona’s Liceu turns this into an allegory about artistic fashion. The singing competition in Act 2 becomes a portrait painting competition and Tannhäuser is expelled from the Academy, presumably for being too daringly “modern”, though since we only see the backs of the paintings it’s hard to be sure. Following his redemption Tannhäuser’s painting is enshrined on the walls of Hermann’s gallery (he’s a dealer) amidst a positive panoply of canonical art works. Even here though the lights go down just as the painting is about to be unveiled and we never actually see it. Also, there’s some serious undermining of the virgin/whore dichotomy as the painting is carried in by the two ladies, dressed identically. Like other Carsen productions there are many other deft touches and I think the concept works even where it is taking huge liberties with the libretto. Maybe it should be read as self-referential on that level.
The performances are generally pretty good in a classic Wagnerian sort of way (more of that later). Peter Seiffert, in the title role, is a decent actor and a very competent heldentenor. He has a big voice and he uses it. I wonder though whether there aren’t places where he might be a little more lyrical (more bel canto, less can belto). Béatrice Uria-Monzon looks fabulous but has rather a wide and distinctive vibrato. Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elisabeth, Markus Eiche as Wolfram and Günther Groissböck as Hermann all give solid but ultimately not very memorable performances and the same could be said for conductor Sebastian Weigle.
So, the performances are, stylistically, very much as one expects mature Wagner to be. Is it the only way or even the best way? I don’t know. There were definitely moments when I really wanted some lightening up of texture and more lyricism. There’s been a lot of speculation in Toronto about how far one can take an HIP approach to 19th century opera following Opera Atelier’s quirky Der Freischütz. I’d pay good money to see them have a go at Tannhäuser.
Video direction on this disk is by Xavi Bové and it’s very effective. We get a clear idea of what Carsen is trying to say coupled with judiciously chosen close ups and no superfluous gimmicks. Picture and sound quality (DTS and PCM stereo) on DVD are pretty good though with a definite loss of detail in the longer shots. Blu-ray is available and I’m sure would be better. There are no extras and fairly basic documentation. Subtitle options are German, French, English, Spanish, Catalan, Korean and Chinese.
This is worth a look for Carsen’s production but I’m sure there are musically superior versions out there.
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