In Kasper Holten’s production, recorded at Royal Danish Opera in 2009, Tannhäuser is a poet torn between family and the conventional world of the Landgraf’s court and his creative processes symbolized by Venus and Venusberg. There are numerous visual clues that perhaps we are even supposed to identify Tannhäuser with Wagner himself. Far from being a young man, this Tannhäuser is middle aged, married to Eizabeth and has a son. He has withdrawn into a psychological world of his own and Venus, his muse, and Venusberg are in his imagination. Only after death is he recognized as a genius. Of the rest, how much is supposed to be external and how much internal to Tannhäuser’s imagination is a bit hard to grasp. If nothing else it goes some way to making the sixty year old Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser and the equally mature Susanne Resmark as Venus almost believable. The 1900ish setting works quite well for the sexually repressed court of the Landgraf von Thüringen though a chorus of pilgrims returning from Rome in full evening dress is a bit of a jar. The concept is quite interesting but really probably stretches further than the libretto can accommodate. This Venus isn’t remotely credible as a goddess of love and the matronly Elisabeth singing about being a pure, young maiden is just odd.
Performances are a bit mixed. Andersen is very lyrical in the title role. There’s a dramatically and musically committed, if visually unconvincing, performance from Resmark but Tina Kiberg’s Elisabeth is distinctly overstressed. Stephen Milling as the Landgraf and tommi Hakala as Walther turn in decent, if not exactly thrilling performances. Friedemann Layer gives a clear exposition of the score and chorus and orchestra are fine. It’s hard to get excited about it though.
The video direction by Uffe Borgwardt is heavy on close ups and often shot from odd angles. Perhaps this wasn’t such a bad idea as the production is quite dark and the longer shots don’t look particularly good. It’s definitely one of those productions where DVD quality is barely adequate. The sound is OK without being quite as rich as one might wish for wagner. the stereo is actually slightly better than the DTS surround track in this respect. There are no extras on the disk. The booklet contains a track listing, a generic essay on Tannhäuser and a synopsis of the work as Holten sees it which is quite useful if rather cryptic. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, Danish and Chinese.
Overall, it’s hard to recommend this disk. The Carsen production from the Liceu is much more interesting and one feels that there has to be a better version of this work out there somewhere.