Sunday, 5 March 2017

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Venice, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Teatro la Fenice, Venice - 2017

Omer Meir Wellber, Calixto Bieito, Paul McNamara, Liene Kinča, Ausrine Stundyte, Christoph Pohl, Pavlo Balakin, Cameron Becker, Alessio Cacciamani, Paolo Antognetti, Mattia Denti, Chiara Cattelan

Culturebox - January 2017

There are a number of thoughts that come to mind as you try to figure out what the director Calixto Bieito is getting at in his 2017 production of Tannhäuser for La Fenice in Venice; few of them the kind of thing that usually comes to mind when watching this opera or even a Calixto Bieito production. As a director who usually takes a rather extreme reinterpretation of works, the minimalist expression of this Tannhäuser suggests either that he is seeking to strip back the work to its fundamental essence to see whether there's a deeper emotional truth to be found in it or else he is just lazy and running out of ideas.

And, as far as Tannhäuser is concerned, you wouldn't blame a director for thinking that everything that is to be said about the work has probably already been said. It's an early Wagner opera, one that was originally written in 1845 for Dresden, and continually revised by the composer through to its notorious performances at the Paris Opera in 1861. Wagner was never fully satisfied with the work and indeed some of the themes that run through it are revisited with considerably more insight, nuance, experience and ability in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Perhaps trying to find a coherent vision to work with, the Venice production takes Act I from the 1861 Paris version and Act II and III from the original revised Dresden version.

In comparison to Meistersinger, Tannhäuser is indeed somewhat heavy-handed in its treatment of the role of the artist in society, in the struggle between sacred and profane love, in the idea of the suffering artist achieving redemption for himself and furthering the progress of society. It certainly helps if you can find a way to express these ideas on the stage without all the high-flown poetic veneer that comes with the literal approach of Götz Friedrich. Robert Carsen, for example, would put the emphasis on the role of the conflicted artist by showing him as a painter rather than a singer in a Paris production. Claus Guth explored the idea of Wagner as Tannhäuser in Vienna, contrasting idealism with the reality. More recently, Sebastian Baumgarten's art-installation Bayreuth production explored art and the artist as the vital lifeblood of a fully functioning society.

The imperfection within the composition which lies partly within Wagner's blending of several different historical and mythological sources and a developing philosophy of his own, should nonetheless provide plenty of material for a director to work with. If nothing else, the viewpoints that Wagner expresses on the role of the artist within society can surely be tested for validity when exposed and contrasted with the present day. Calixto Bieito of course ditches the historical veneration of Wartburg, stripping it of any period costumes and elaborate realistic set designs and brings it into a more modern world setting. This time however he doesn't seem to impose any specific modern reading or context, but rather reduces it to its essence to see if it stands up and holds any truth or validity on its ideas alone.


Bieito's production of Tannhäuser then has more in common with his production of Halevy's La Juive for the Bayerische Staatsoper. There is something of a Grand Opéra aspect in common in the two works; a tendency towards overblown melodrama and musical overstatement that needs to be counteracted or viewed in a more modern light. There is also a religious sentiment in common in both works that Bieito sees to wish to avoid, at least in terms of conventional iconography, but still wishes to explore in terms of what it reveals about national character, fundamentalism and intolerance. As with La Juive however, it's debatable whether such an approach works or whether in fact it isn't actually missing the whole point of the works where the form is as much a part of the meaning as the content.

Still, it isn't too difficult to establish the contrasts between the three acts in fairly broad terms. Act I is hedonistic indulgence of the pleasures of the flesh; Act II is seeking to find an equivalent experience but one that serves a higher purpose; Act III is where the artist is able to reconcile the physical and spiritual sides of human nature and through them redeem society. Bieito's Venusberg in Act I, in contrast to the traditional idea of sinfulness and hedonistic indulgence, is seen rather more in terms of nature, with Venus wrapping herself sensuously in the hanging greenery that is just about the total extent of the scenery. The Wartburg of Act II and the singing contest is seen in a rather more rigid, structured form of frames. Act III's set is a combination of the previous two, but it's not a natural blend and rather seems to have destroyed society rather than united it. Perhaps the destruction of that society is necessary in order to rebuild.

Having established an understanding of the concept in broad terms, Bieito doesn't seem particularly concerned with imposing any other reading or emphasis on the work. Tannhäuser is no gentle work however and there is already emphasis aplenty within the conflicts of opposing natures and ideologies. It's here that Bieito lets the emphasis rest, rather than in some manufactured situation or in some elaborate scenery. Venus's sensual passions are seductively exaggerated by Ausrine Stundyte, Elizabeth's goodness and suffering is expressed fervently by Liene Kinča, leading to Wolfram inexplicably almost choking her in the third act, but primarily all of the conflict and passions and suffering have to be collectively absorbed and then transformed by Paul McNamara's intense Heinrich.


Tannhäuser takes his pleasures and his duties seriously throughout the opera. He indulges in physical love in Venusberg in Act I to such an extent that his willingness to submit to the demands placed on him by his minstrels of Wartburg is equally and wholeheartedly enthusiastic. There are no half-measures in Heinrich's world. In Bieito's direction, there is very much a sense that Heinrich believes that his self-mortification is a necessary stage that the artist must endure. He must suffer for his art just as he reveled in pleasure if he wants to fully explore the limits of being human and use the knowledge gained to question society and challenge its rules. These extreme views are not tolerated willingly by society when Tannhäuser expresses what he has learned in the singing contest of Act II. Nor are they tolerated by religion, as he finds when he submits to another 'trial' and undertakes his pilgrimage to Rome.

Act III then, following all the ferocious clashes of firmly held beliefs and ideologies, has wrought destruction on the once solid foundations of society, and Elizabeth's innocence is the price that has to be paid for it. With Wolfram and Elizabeth making wild empty gestures like they are in death throes, there's a post-apocalyptic feel then to this Act III of Tannhäuser that is less celebratory of the religious mysticism that is more commonly found there. Played this way, with the musical direction under Omer Meir Wellber slowing things down to an almost funereal pace, the tone felt closer to the final Act of Parsifal, emphasising similarities in the redemptive conclusions between the two works that I had never noticed before.

If that's the only revelation produced by Calixto Bieito's production then I suppose there is some method to the direction, even as it seems to work against the nature of Wagner's intent, if not so much the word. I think it might have been more successful an endeavour if it had singers of greater force of delivery than those cast for the La Fenice performances. It's not the kind of full-power singing you normally associate with the work, but the expression is nonetheless all there. Paul McNamara is mostly up to the challenge of the main role, performing with intensity and clarity. Liene Kinča's is equally as intense and gives an impassioned performance as Elizabeth. Ausrine Stundyte isn't quite up to the demands of Venus and struggles noticeably in her Act III scene. I thought I detected some murmuring of discontent from the audience at the proceedings of the first two acts (which wouldn't be unusual for this director), the production and performers are well received at the conclusion, so there's a sense that the power of Bieito's direction hit its mark.

Links: La Fenice, Culturebox