5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Raymond B. Brown
- Published on Amazon.com
In defense of post-modern productions I try to show here what I believe this one adds to our thinking and feeling.
Other reviewers show more musical background and sophistication than I have, but visual expression now has so much complexity it requires another lifetime of study, and that is my background.
As I think we all know, Wagner can inflate nonsense and is laughed at when he does. Remember Melchior's "When is the next swan?" and his description of himself and an equally large soprano coming together like two blimps. In The Mikado a punishment to fit a crime is to "listen to sermons by mystical Germans".
When we look at photos of Wagnerian costumes circa 1900 we can't really take them seriously. The first costumes for the Ring had to create a Germanic mythical world with no visual examples. so they clothed the heroes in fur, leather, and Roman bronze hamlets (to steal a malapropism from Dizzy Dean). A recent German Ring makes fun of Sigfried's return to battle by having him strap fur to his legs and put on Brunhilde's armor, brass breasts and all.
The story of Tannhauser is so childish a paperback romance writer might blush to use it. (He deserts the arms of Venus to return to a pure and holy love, is rejected by his community for his great sin, becomes a pilgrem to Rome seeking redemption, feels rejected there, returns to the pure and holy Elizabeth, who dies, goes to heaven and miraculously saves Tannhauser.)
Wagner's music on the other hand is still profoundly serious and moving, and he can create intense and realistic personal expression for his characters.
This production integrates post-modern skepticism about pretentious authority and appreciation of personal feelings.
The set is beautiful to look at and the changing colored lights and colored costumes create beautiful tableaux. The set functions as a sculptural spiral that is impressive but neutral in allowing a fairytale world to transition to real and personal space.
Other viewers seem to have taken the first scenes totally seriously and have seen absurd costumes as attempts to be willfully different. (This kind of willfulness can appear in recent Met productions, like their Ring, which seems to me to try to be different in a big but amateurish way, imitating the appearance but not the spirit of European productions.)
First to appear on stage are dancers in skin tight costumes with bodies distorted into toys with Popeye calves and feet. (Something like the Pilabolus troop.) Their toy and insect movements turn more and more to sexual contortions around Venus, brightly lit in a 17th century Spanish court dress and a large wig. Tannhauser appears in an absurd long coat stolen from The Matrix. After some stationary singing, Venus simply walks out of the bottom of her dress, which stands there until later when Venus uses it for a bed.
By this time it is clear that Venusburg is not being taken seriously, but is presented as a cartooned fairytale concept.
Venus takes off her wig and sings beautifully and seriously with Tannhauser to end the act.
Tannhauser returns home to a male community in absurd red coats, part Nutcracker, part Flash Gorden to Startrek, and part monkey from the Wizard of Oz. From then on most costumes have a mix of reality and absurd fairy-tale. For instance, another reviewer laughed out loud when the essentially comic candidates in the singing contest appear in metallic gold suits, part tin man and part Munchkin. By this time in the third act most
of the now crowded stage is occupied by exaggerated costumes. Elizabeth, however is not caricatured, except as pure and pretty. The groupings are beautiful to look at, and grouped together appear more real and appropriate.
The reality of feeling grows as Tannhausser's sin is revealed. Individual grief and angry crowds morph into real people and real impact of ostracism. The combination of staging and beautiful music is powerfully affecting.
The last act isolates Tannhauser, returned after failure in Rome, mostly alone or with another person in an empty dark space. Personal torment is presented realistically, and if the miracle is absurd, that's Wagner's problem.
To reiterate, what is absurd fairytale and what is real personal feeling is presented visually in a consistently integrated form that is transformed from first act to last.
Another reviewer praises another production by this director. I think I'll check it out.
A note on "eurotrash". The word is meant to describe rich and vacuous jet-setters. No reviewer here is using it, but it appears often in criticism of modern and post-modern productions. The great art historian Leo Steinberg has pointed out in "Other Criteria" that new art with new criteria causes feelings of loss of what existed before. The loss leads to angry and defensive attacks (again, not in the other reviews here). Remember that Wagner wanted to upset everything.
Myself, I wish there was a great traditional Ring, and I think that the Met DVDs are the best attempt. Modern, I like the Barenboim Beyreuth. Post-modern, Madrid.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
There is a temptation to lay blame for the production's flatness on its visual monotony: with variation only in the lighting scheme, all three acts are staged on one unadorned, architecturally modern set with a winding staircase at its center. Raimund Bauer's design resembles nothing so much as the lobby of a place where one might go to *hear* a performance of TANNHÄUSER, that is, a music hall erected in the 1980s or later. In fact, even though director Nikolaus Lehnhoff seems to have consciously foresworn "atmosphere" in the traditional sense, his production might have succeeded in spite of its austerity. The redemption of the same director's controversial post-apocalyptic PARSIFAL (on Opus Arte DVD, conducted by Kent Nagano) was, for me, its detailed consideration of a group of psychologically complex individuals; the director's and actors' alertness to those people's personal torments and sorrows, the eccentricities of milieu notwithstanding. In this TANNHÄUSER, recorded in 2008 at Baden-Baden, Lehnhoff's imagination and initiative have largely deserted him. There is little here that even could be called distinctive, beyond the deliberate vagueness as to time (the costumes span from standard medieval garb to shiny gold sci-fi suits for the Minnesingers in Act II) and the symbolic sexlessness of the pink-bodysuited dancers in the Venusberg scene (they resemble mannequins or mummies). Elsewhere, the opera's subject matter seems to have cowed Lehnhoff into hackneyed mythical one-dimensionalisms, and the lameness trickles down to the cast, who do not so much "act" as display a series of unconvincing attitudes and postures. Their singing is not well served by that unvarying set, which creates the kind of wide-open, reverberant tin-box acoustic that is vocal kryptonite to singers. It conspires with close and harsh miking to magnify every vocal imperfection, and there are many to magnify.
The male principals fare least well. Roman Trekel's baritone never settles into steady tone; hardly a sustained note from this Wolfram passes without wide, uncomfortable oscillations. Robert Gambill's dark, almost baritonal Tannhäuser does not provide ideal contrast with Trekel, but this matters less than his ungainly phrasing and often strained production -- the role is so strenuous qua vocalism that he is hamstrung in his interpretation; there is little more than a generalized passion. There is no finer actress on the world's operatic stages than Waltraud Meier, but Venus is not a role that taps into what she does best (for a recent sample of *that*, see her scarifying Isolde on the Barenboim/Chéreau/Scala DVD issued by Virgin). Though Meier makes a dignified and alluring appearance, and almost anyone else would have looked much more foolish modeling the silly hairpiece forced on her in both Act I and Act III, the role is both too brief and too thin to give her the dimension with which to display her dramatic gifts. This leaves only the singing, and even Meier's admirers (of which I am one) never went to her for creamy, opulent vocalism. The best performance is given by Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth. What she is asked to do is no more or less boring than what the others are asked to do, but her instrument easily encompasses the role's demands, she is appropriately sympathetic and modest in bearing, and she comes closer than anyone else to battling the twin torture chambers of the set and the engineering to a standstill.
The young conductor Philippe Jordan goes in for some eccentric balances in the Overture that are not always agreeable to the ear. In particular, he lets his brass get unruly; someone hearing this piece for the first time would miss a lot of detail. Thereafter, as if his "moment" has passed and now the show must be turned over to the singers, Jordan seems to recede into a slick, casual routine. He never seems engaged in a true collaboration of musical phrasing with the singers. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin has been heard in better form elsewhere in recent years (such as, again, the Lehnhoff PARSIFAL DVD). Expectations were high, and there was certainly room at the top in the TANNHÄUSER DVD field, but this will not occupy it. The default choice at the moment remains the Colin Davis/Bayreuth/DG affair with Gwyneth Jones on double duty as Venus and Elisabeth. For consistently great singing, go audio (Solti/Decca; Sinopoli/DG).