Elder, Mark


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.

Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.