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.