Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2017
Kirill Petrenko, Romeo Castellucci, Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros, Elena Pankratova, Georg Zeppenfeld, Dean Power, Peter Lobert, Ulrich Reß, Ralf Lukas, Elsa Benoit
ARTE Concert - 9th July 2017
There's a stunning display of imagery and evidence of a unique perspective in Romeo Castellucci's Munich opera festival production of Tannhäuser. Musically too the performance of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester conducted by Kirill Petrenko is lushly gorgeous and the singing from an impressive cast is jaw-droppingly good. It's everything we've come to expect from the Bavarian State Opera over the course of this current season. If there was something missing from the Tannhäuser production however, it's that indefinable quality that can be described broadly as coherence.
And perhaps it's not so difficult to pinpoint where the lack of coherence comes from, since that's the job really of the director. Romeo Castellucci's account of Wagner's opera however doesn't strictly hold to its traditional imagery or themes, but tends to revisit them from a more abstract perspective. As is often the case with Castellucci it's probably a mistake to try and think too deeply about the imagery or try to connect up all the dots and references into a coherent whole. On its own terms his visual representation of the opera is quite striking and unexpected. This is definitely not a case of a director nailing his ideas firmly to a single recognisable concept, but rather one that opens it up for the audience to apply their own interpretation.
It's hard for example to understand just what kind of statement the director is making upfront when a legion of topless Amazonian archers take to the stage during the overture and embark upon a synchronised ritual of target practice onto the projected image of a eye, which then becomes an ear. In Castellucci's mind, they are cupids, straight out of the libretto's description of Venusberg, their arrows representing love and the wounds it creates, but there's more of a Leni Riefenstahl Olympia character here and in other imagery that is reminiscent of propaganda art of the Third Reich. It could also be seen to ancient mythology of Diana, goddess of the hunt and nature.
It's an idealised image of perfection however that is ultimately shown to be corrupting to Heinrich, and Castellucci finds equally extreme imagery to represent this with the goddess Venus bubbling out of a mound of heaving forms melded together in pool of rippling flesh. As unconventional as the imagery is, it can be related to or seen as a response to the broad character of Tannhäuser, albeit with a little more sinister edge to it. That's certainly the character also of Wartburg when Heinrich returns there, with the Landgrave and his entourage shown out hunting in red robes, ritually washing themselves in the blood of a felled deer rather like a cult to Diana.
Thus far, you can relate the imagery, albeit tenuously, to themes in Tannhäuser. Heinrich, having seen more of the world, is reluctant to rejoin Hermann's order, which can be seen to be a perversion of nature - a slaughter and a circle of blood that is regarded with horror by the young shepherd boy. Elisabeth - Anja Harteros wearing a nude-print dress - represents a vision of purity that the singers aspire to but are too unworldly to be capable of attaining. The imagery turns ever more bizarre in an attempt perhaps to relate this to the ideal of a pure kingdom or nation, with flawless bodies moving behind a white veil in perfect synchronisation, suggesting some kind of body fascism that is just as disturbing as the fleshy imagery of Venusberg.
Sequence after sequence moves ever more distant not only from any conventional symbolism, but any kind of consistent rationale that you could apply. Disembodied feet litter the stage; a lightbox that presents the themes of the singers is obliterated from the inside by frenzied spraying of black paint; pilgrims carry a huge gold boulder and return with smaller sized gold rocks; monumental bases hold the rotting, disintegrating corpses not of Heinrich and Elisabeth, as hundreds of thousands of millions of years pass and they turn to ash, but are emblazoned with the names of 'Klaus' and 'Anja' instead. The image of the arrow is present throughout, but its symbolism changes according to the scene, representing wounding love one moment, the hunting of Tannhäuser the next, but primarily and significantly as the final image seen on the stage, it represents the flight of time.
It all looks beautiful and is visually engaging, but without extensive programme notes and explanations it would be hard to follow just what the director is reading from Tannhäuser. According to Castellucci, Heinrich is a figure who is doomed to never attain the perfection he seeks in either realm (Venusberg/Wartburg), but rather the quasi-religious perfection represented by Elisabeth/Maria can only be found in a dimension outside space and time. Even with that explanation it's a very unique perspective that hardly illuminates nor illustrates the opera in any conventional fashion. And, despite the apparent desecration of the work's high-minded ideals, it doesn't entirely overcome the sanctimonious tone that you sometimes find at the work's conclusion.
There are however rare pleasures to be found elsewhere. In terms of singing, Christian Gerhaher's warm, lyrical Wolfram steals the show and it's not often you can say that in Tannhäuser, and that's no mean feat either when up against singers of the class of Vogt, Harteros, Zeppenfeld and Pankratova in the major roles. It does make for an odd but interesting imbalance, since it makes Wolfram's ode to Grace ('Anmut') in the singing competition a persuasive and appealing vision against which Heinrich's reaction seem churlish. That's through no fault of Klaus Florian Vogt, who sings as purely and beautifully as ever here, although not quite with the same commanding conviction for this role as he can provide as Lohengrin, von Stolzing or even as Parsifal.
I had some minor reservations about Anja Harteros when she sang Elsa in the Salzburg Easter Festival Die Walküre but she is very impressive as Elisabeth here with some absolutely gorgeous singing, holding her line beautifully with a smooth legato. She seems at a bit of a loss what to make of Elisabeth and I suspect Castellucci didn't really give her a lot of direction here. It's a pity because Harteros is a fine singer/actor and could do a lot more, but her singing performance alone is good enough. Castellucci doesn't do Elena Pankratova any favours by burying her in a mound of prosthetic flesh, but the Russian soprano didn't let that deter her either from an excellent performance.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, ARTE Concert