Friday, October 25, 2013

Tannhäuser: dem unsren sei dein Lied nicht fern

Desire and the dangers of female archetypes: Tannhäuser Act III. Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt

I only made it into Thursday's performance of Tannhäuser by the skin of my teeth, nabbing the last rush ticket about four minutes before curtain. Frankfurt's house was packed, eager, and informed, respectfully silent during the performance, and busily chatting about this and other Tannhäusers during the intervals. The adrenaline rush of ticket-getting may have contributed to my sensitivity, but I found the treatment of the score by the orchestra under Constantin Trinks never less than exciting and compelling. Although I did not find all aspects of Vera Nemirova’s production equally convincing, it was both intellectually sophisticated and viscerally moving. Its greatest achievement was in handling Wagner’s presentation of dichotomous feminine ideals, exposing the perniciousness and inevitable violence of such attitudes. This was achieved by teasing out many of the other ideas in the score (Dresden version) and libretto. I appreciated that religious faith was not treated as intrinsically foolish or deluded, as I appreciated Nemirova’s refusal to treat the sentimental piety of the text as though it were both profound and axiomatic. Instead of a fictionalized thirteenth century, Nemirova creates a fictionalized 1960s for the drama of desire, conviction, and community. 

Sängerkrieg, Act II. Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt
In Nemirova's production, the otherworldly elements of Tannhäuser are minimized, to focus on a drama which is, at its heart, about the rules society sets for itself, the customs it cultivates, and how individuals can founder morally in conformity and rebellion alike. The scene was set during the overture, with a group of pilgrims whose religious fervor is all too easily replaced by an equal fervor for sexual gratification. I was glad to see the chorus thus treated as ordinary, hopeful human beings, easily stirred and easily distracted, rather than sharply divided into camps of saints and sinners. Venus is the leader and idol of the free love devotees, Tannhäuser her leather-wearing, guitar-toting boyfriend. The emotional dynamics of their relationship adhere closely to the libretto: he gives her the "It's not you, it's me" talk and leaves the peripatetic and semi-nocturnal commune. His emotional epiphany thereafter is precipitated not so much by the song of the pilgrims as by the simple friendliness and trust he is shown by the shepherd boy. The knights are an elegantly dressed vocal group managed by Hermann. Their suspicions of the sex-symbol's motives, and his reservations about rejoining them, are emphasized: this is the most fragile of reconciliations.

Elizabeth and Tannhäuser have just time for an awkwardly passionate reunion (in which they make poor Wolfram their mediator) before the Sängerkrieg: a televised, stage-managed, corporate-sponsored vocal competition. Attempts to smooth over Tannhäuser's protests against the artificiality of all this finally founder when he addresses, in his final outburst, not the goddess of love, but Elisabeth. That Venusberg. It is his attempted rape of her that paralyzes the hall with shock. The audience is thus placed on the side of the knights, instead of being allowed to deride them as prudish; Elisabeth pleads with us all for radical mercy. That this act is read, not as a complex mixture of faith and love and denial, but as angelic and uniquely feminine, tells us that Tannhäuser's actions are not as far from the society's ideals as they'd like to imagine, both seeing the female body as vehicle and vessel. This twisted ideology does, in the end, destroy Elisabeth. She prepares herself for suicide, and then begs Wolfram to kill her. Which--singing about her saintly expiration--he does. It is this desolation to which Tannhäuser returns, feverish, delirious with pain and exhaustion. The nymphs are hallucinated; Venus is ready to take him back, until she sees Elisabeth, whose eyes she closes with sisterly tenderness before fleeing the site of violence. Wolfram, shattered, embarks on his own pilgrimage to Rome; Tannhäuser has nowhere left to go. But: there is one last human miracle. Accompanied by the glorious triumph of the orchestra, the shepherd boy comes to the man gripped in wild grief, and with infinite gentleness takes him by the hand. And this, as the chorus sings, is no mockery of grace, but (Nemirova suggests) the highest possible act: to see our fellow human beings whole, and look on them, despite everything, with love.

Though it is only now I turn to a more detailed discussion of the orchestral and vocal performances, I have, in a sense, been talking about them this whole time; the dramatic arc of the staging would not have been compelling, would not have held the intellectual and emotional resonance it had, if not working in partnership with Wagner's music and with the Frankfurt forces' interpretation of it. The orchestra gave a really excellent performance: under the energetic leadership of Constantin Trinks, they were full of energy, subtle where subtlety was called for, but also absolutely shameless in the orchestral depictions of sexual desire and delight, unrestrained in its celebration of faith and hope triumphant. Audience enthusiasm (including my own) for the pit musicians grew more and more raucous as the evening continued. Dynamics and tempi were handled with an assurance that gave the appearance of spontaneity. I loved that the strings never seemed too weighty, despite the nobility of the cellos, and was impressed by how the colors of the brass conveyed differing moods even in fanfares. I don't know the score terribly well, but the motifs were brought out skillfully, as were the numerous moments of revelation, sudden and gradual.

The chorus had gorgeous tone, but I thought their diction could have been more precise; audience reaction suggested I was in a minority. The cast of singers was solid, with JunHo You a standout among the knights as Walther von der Vogelweide, with lyrically handled phrases and sweetness of tone. Andreas Bauer, as Hermann, seemed a bit dry at the outset, but delivered beautifully sonorous and emotionally sensitive bass singing in Act II. Tuija Knihtilä, in a role that marks her Frankfurt debut, made an exciting Venus. Both in dramatic commitment and in presence she was impressive. She has a large mezzo which seemed slightly unruly, but which she wielded with confidence; I was willing to overlook an occasionally off-center pitch from a Venus with this distinctive and powerful an instrument. Daniel Schmutzhard, as Wolfram, sang with secure tone and elegant phrasing; despite this, I found him slightly bland, but this may be due in part to the dramatic choices made concerning the character. His "Mir zeiget sich ein Wunderbronnen" was touchingly vulnerable, a personal confession to which the hearers are blinded by its public context. His Act III aria was elegantly sung, but expressive of resigned grief rather than more intense passion.

Tannhäuser & Elisabeth, Act II
Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt
Annette Dasch as Elisabeth radiated warmth that made it impossible not to find her sympathetic, singing (and acting) with great sensitivity. Her diction and phrasing were both very fine. Dasch sang securely across her range, and delivered a powerful "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau," as well as an ecstatically joyous "Dich, teu're Halle." Her voice lacks the dramatic heft of many Elisabeths, but she was only overpowered in the Act II finale. My first recorded Elisabeth was Elisabeth Grümmer, so Dasch's relatively light voice didn't seem problematic to me. As Tannhäuser, Lance Ryan succeeded remarkably well in crafting a character who was actually not entirely unsympathetic! Ryan sang strongly and acted well, communicating Tannhäuser's passionate sincerity and his dangerous vanity. His bright tenor I found pleasing, his agility was admirable, and and his stamina struck me as remarkable. I spent the second interval trying to figure out why, given all this, I wasn't warming to him more, and I think the answer must lie in treatment of text. I have absurdly high standards for German consonants, however. And Ryan's Act III was absolutely gripping: he is dangerously exhausted, his monologue filled with dangerous rage. His obsessive dwelling on the mortification of his flesh makes sense here: he has violated his body in an attempt to atone for his violation of Elisabeth's. His voice changes on her name, flooded with love, with relief, with release: she has always been ready to give him the infinite grace borne of love. Without her, he is left to learn what living with such grace means.

Curtain call photos:
Tuija Knihtilä, Venus

Daniel Schmutzhard, Wolfram

Annette Dasch, Elisabeth
Lance Ryan, Tannhäuser


  1. Diction in Germany is currently all over the map, which is why I keep commenting on it. It's hard not to be distracted.

  2. I'm wondering if/when we are going to see Lance Ryan in Toronto. He's one of a very small number of top Canadian singers who hasn't sung at COC.

    1. They simply do not invite him in time, I'm being told...

    2. The plot thickens! I was going to ask if it might have something to do with the amount of Wagner/Strauss Toronto does.

    3. I'm sure the relative lack of Wagner and Strauss is a factor though, if I understand correctly, the move to a six production season may help with that. Schedule, to some extent, I get but is Lance really that much busier than, say, Susan Graham?

  3. I have lobbied for Lance Ryan, whom I've seen many times in Europe and who I think is the very best heldentenor of our time , to come to the COC. Both replies above are also those that I've heard. Ryan is tightly booked many years in advance and the COC is hardly known for its German repertoire.


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