Christof Loy is a busy man. There he had the top job in opera direction this year, putting together Jonas Kaufmann and Anna Netrebko in Covent Garden’s La Forza Del Destino, and he didn’t even take a bow at the premiere. Loy was busy prepping his new Tannhäuser production at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. This is only Loy’s third Wagner after Tristan and Parsifal, but from numerous outings at Strauss, Loy has developed an esteemed way to handle these big scores.
The first thing we notice, is that Loy has continued his trend of setting the opera at or around the time of its composition, like he did with his (in)famous Frau ohne Schatten at Salzburg. The Salle Le Peletier at the Paris Opera was where Wagner would have rewritten his Tannhäuser to fit the infamous Paris requirements of the time- including the ballet. Splendid in 18th century Rokoko, with mute colours, large coloums and chandeliers to boot, it is one of the historical monuments to French ballet. Here, the famous members of the Parisian elite jockey clubs congregated and went after the ballerinas.
Loy puts us exactly in that world, with the Minnesingers, the Venusberg, the choir and the ballet team all part of the jockey-club-admirers or the ballerinas and with Venus as a daring temptress in their midst. After the (Christian) pilgrim’s chorus at the beginning of the overture, the Venusberg music is introduced in the orchestra. Loy lifts the curtain and puts us directly into the bamboozle of such a love orgy: Men and women gradually lose all their clothes, Men get with women, men get with men (Thanks to the queer director!). A true, drug-filled, mid-18th century impressionist Parisian orgy unfolds and flows over into the Baccanale music. Le charme operé.
Loy has the Minnesingers, (Heinrich, Wolfram, Walther, Biterolf, Reimar) and the Landgrave all participating in the orgy. He shows that the supposed elite society of the Minnesingers and their surroundings is pure hypocrisy to him. The message of Wolfram’s song about the high, noble love in act three is a farce to Loy. No, these people are all mere humans to him, with human urges and nothing else. All that high-society is just a façade to him. There is only one important transition from Venusberg to the realm of the Minnesingers: they get dressed. As soon as everyone is in top-hat and tails, the high laws of society reign and the unbridled lust of mere minutes ago is forgotten.
Loy works a lot with looks between characters in this staging. The person-based direction is surprisingly little and is, if ever, accorded to Tannhäuser. Otherwise, Loy does not think it necessary to build detailed personalities through movements. Instead he works on a grander scale, wants to build an image of society rather than individual characters. Sitting close to the stage is a real plus in this production, because Loy gives so much of his concept away based on looks the characters give each other. They reveal hundreds of relationships. Everyone has slept with everyone here. By the looks that the male dancers give her, Elisabeth has slept with half the male cast. And half the male cast has slept with the other half of the male cast. Tantalizing looks and gestures go around, a desperate hand on hair here, crawling and kissing there. When the Landgrave reminds Elisabeth to keep her secret in the second act, he clearly means much more than divine influence. That makes this production exciting.
At the end of act one, I have the slight fear that this could get boring though. The scenes towards the end are rather chamber-like, and Loy’s concept does not have the capacity to carry that intimate energy. It focuses on other things. Tannhäuser is often criticised for its most exciting scene coming literally right at the beginning. While that is true, Loy knows how to make something out of the rest of the opera despite there being no change to the setting. The singers contest has some wonderful ideas, including Loy introducing the four boys as four foreign museum assistants, complete with nametags and a particularly enthusiastic “Wolfram von Eschenbach, beginne!”
The one thing this staging does not deliver is the genuine emotions of the relationships that are going on. Loy’s well-known grand scale has disadvantages, and his portrayal of society as a raucous hypocrisy means that the love story is rather short. On the bright side, few audiences will ever have agreed so much with Tannhäuser as he interrupts Wolfram in the second act. The celebration ends abruptly, and only Elisabeth’s plea to save Tannhäusers life (with an old Roman painting of the Christ and the Virgin Mary in hand, symbolism here) allows the story to go on.
In act three, Tannhäuser, Wolfram and Elisabeth form a love triangle, with love going all three ways. The intimate gestures and looks between Wolfram and Elisabeth are the clearest evidence imaginable that something is going on here. The love between Tannhäuser and Elisabeth is obvious. And the way that Wolfram holds Tannhäuser in the middle of the Rome narration suggests that… Well, something must have gone on there at some point, no doubt about it. This helps the viewer through the slightly longer scenes at the beginning of act three. Elisabeth also dies slightly early, leaving the stage in a cloud of light. The reappearance of Venus then brings the entire chorus and dance company onto the scene, with the opera ending with the Christian pilgrim chorus and another rousing orgy happening on stage.
Let’s come to the singers.
For me, Björn Bürger as Wolfram is the secret highlight of the night. His character becomes that intriguing Hans-Sachs-like crossover between worlds: Through his friendship to Tannhäuser, he understands the urges to throw off society’s rules. But he also feels bound to play along with them, as seen during the singing contest. Bürger sings the role with precision and acting skills that remind of Michael Nagy and manages to carve out that unique position for himself. His diction is crystal clear (the cast is generally great on this point, largely made up of German natives). Bürger’s Wolfram shows humility and manages a wonderful Lied an den Abendstern, that treats the music with care and exhibits heartbraking pianissimi. Elisabeth dies in his arms during this aria, he plays this brilliantly.
Ekaterina Gubanova is the Venus of our time, she also is singing the role in the new Bayreuth production by Tobias Kratzer this summer. She carries with her the guttural energy of any true mezzo, but also manages what only true opera greats exhibit: Restraint. Gubanova’s Venus is not demonic, but cool and calculating. She is perceptive and does not show her emotions until the third act. The first act is pure enjoyment, as Venus calculates the chaos around her. Her Zieh hin! Is filled with the Venom any Venus should have, but Gubanova keeps her operatic soul in check, making her performance all the more powerful.
Stephen Milling is also getting ready to sing his role in Bayreuth this summer. Hearing both the Venus and the Landgrave of the Bayreuth new production is quite special, and gives us a taste for what Tobias Kratzer and Valery Gergiev will be working with this summer. I had heard Milling as an ice-cold King Mark in Berlin a few years ago under Rattle, the Landgrave suits him at least as good. Milling’s bass seems to me quite in the middle between the usual bass streams: Not heavy and slow (Greindl, Pape) and also not exactly light and declamatory (Groissböck, Zeppenfeld). All great singers, but I am confident that Milling will carve out a great role portrayal in the new Bayreuth production.
Daniel Kirch has to contend with the ever-existent problem of Wagner operas: Tenor sings- tenor sings- tenor sings some more- tenor sings even more- tenor sings a hell of a lot more- tenor still singing. Richard Wagner’s roles for high-pitched male singers are intense and long in the extreme. Rienzi, Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Tristan are Wagner’s toughest parts, and Kirch takes his time finding his way into the evening. In the beginning there are slight technical difficulties, particularly in the beginning of his notes and the technical stability to follow. His Tannhäuser not works through a certain vulnerability in expression or phrasing, but through the sheer stamina of making it through the night. And that in itself is a remarkable achievement, considering the role. The second act is then also much better, particularly with the help of the ensemble passages, where Kirch is not as exposed. And his excellent command of German Parlando is worthy of a first rate Wagner singer today. It is really an outstanding evening from Kirch. Coping with this role has never ever been easy, for any tenor. Kirch also gets some acting to do, Loy gives him some amusing imitations of other characters to do, particularly in act two during the party scene. Through both Kirch and Loy’s ideas, we have a prolific Tannhäuser.
Svetlana Aksenova sings Elisabeth with youthful energy. Always superior to the orchestra in her dynamics, she manages native-like phrasing in her diction and dies the spectacular death worthy of any opera diva. The intonation might be slightly clearer from a German native, but that is grasping at straws here. An exciting young singer, with everything from Elisabeth to Tosca to Lisa (Queen of Spades) in her repertoire.
Marc Albrecht conducts the Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchest, with the excellent Choir of the DNO singing on stage. Tannhäuser is a choir opera, full of ensemble pieces with rare scenes alone. The great choir comes on stage from two sides (with the dance company in varying stages of undress) and sings its passages without fault. Marc Albrecht leads with the knowledge of a veteran Wagnerian, though the singers sometimes fall victim to his sense of orchestral drama, particularly in act one. In act two though, the music allows for greater dynamics and the Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchest celebrates the signers competition in act two with all the transparent verve that I have heard previously from them in Parsifal and Tristan. Albrecht is a master at balancing out the orchestra in this young Wagner piece, of which we are hearing the early Paris version tonight. The pit masters the early orchestration and rounds off an outstanding Wagner performance in Amsterdam. Yannik Eisenaecher, 10th April 2019
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics