Ventris, Christopher


Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

MacbethDmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2002 | Alexander Anissimov, Stein Winge, Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris, Francisco Vas, Anatoli Kotcherga, Graham Clark, Juha Kotilainen, Yevgeny Nesterenko | EMI Classics

Written in 1934 and being subject to intense criticism after meeting with Stalin’s disfavour due to its perceived lack of moral character, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is however one of those operas that is groundbreaking as much for its content and means of musical expression as for its historical importance. Musically, it’s an incredibly rich opera that doesn’t hold to any distinct style or school of music, but mixes and matches styles to suit the content. What is even more remarkable is that it finds such a variety of tone and mood – from comic to tragic – within the narrow range of its subject, which indeed, as Stalin feared, doesn’t exactly show the best side of human nature or the Russian temperament.

So even when it deals with the boredom of Katerina Lvovna’s life, married to the rich merchant Ismailov who is unable to give her a child, and subjected to the unwanted advances of her father-in-law who is quite willing to do what it takes to have an heir, Shostakovich finds expression in the music for the nature of her personal situation and, through the raucous activities and interaction with the workers, the entrapment of her social position. The score goes on to cover the range of emotions and the journey she is about to undertake takes when she starts to flirt with Sergey, a handsome, womanising new worker who has just been hired. Much trouble can come out of boredom and it also nurtures a prurient interest in the activities of the Ismailov household that leads the police force in Act 3 to investigate the subsequent activities that arise around the deaths of Katya’s husband and father-in-law.

The production, designed by Stein Winge, plays up these elements well, capturing the harshness of the setting in the dark and sparse sets, working with the music as well as the libretto. Beds feature prominently in this particular production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, recorded in 2002 at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, even in scenes where they would not be expected to appear. Apart from the necessary fluidity that it allows in the sparse staging, there’s a continuity in Katya’s omnipresent bed in the first two acts, followed by the beds of the police barracks and the camp beds of the forced prison march on the steppes in Act 4, that suggests not only the sense of lassitude that exists, but also that bedroom activities are never far from the minds of the protagonists in an opera where sex and lust features prominently.

With all its passion, jealousy and murder, Carmen frequently comes to mind when following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but Shostakovich uses a greater variety of influences and references, including huge rousing Verdi-like choruses for the sense of wild abandon, drunkenness and licentiousness that is aroused in the general population, but also achingly intimate arrangements and musical interludes to touch on other aspects of the intensely fatalistic Russian character of the piece, without ever making use of traditional folk melodies or music of a conventional Russian nature. Along with a terrific performance from the orchestra of the Liceu, the singing and dramatic presentation, with a few personal quirks and touches, are all superb, in particular Nadine Secunde as Katerina and Anatoli Kotcherga as the father-in-law.

I don’t think there’s any beauty in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but there is a brilliance and a sort of terrible beauty in the way that Shostakovich finds expression for the darker side of human nature and the “huge black waves” that the Russian nature is prone to on a personal as well as a national level. As such this production allows the opera to work on a wider level than just being tied to a historical regime and period.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is released on DVD by EMI Classics a two-disc set. The video, although widescreen enhanced at 16:9, is slightly lacking, partly due to the darkness of the stage, but also due to an inability of some of the camera operators to be able to focus their cameras. It’s reasonably well filmed however, getting the impact of the stage setting across well and covering the actions of the performers. There are three audio mixes, LPCM stereo, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. All are excellent, with good dynamic range and clarity. The surround mixes in particular are strong, although the DD 5.1 is a little on the harsh side. There are no extra features on the set other than a showreel of other EMI titles, but the DVD insert contains details of the cast and production team and a PDF file on the disc has a short essay on the opera.