Saturday, 14 May 2016

Wagner's Tannhäuser brings tears to the eyes

It might nearly be time for the Eurovision jamboree, but the only Wagner I was interested in on Thursday night was no inflated, blingy joke, but the real musical deal – even with a work that is far from perfect.

The Royal Opera House’s 2010 Tim Albery production of Tannhäuser is just enjoying its first revival – and if it’s flawed, then that’s little surprise, since the opera itself has serious problems. Yet for all its issues, the music is sublime – and this production has moments that made me feel as though I were having a religious experience.

First though, a very brief outline of the plot.

Tannhäuser is lured to Venusburg by the goddess Venus for a good time. However, he eventually gets bored and leaves for the real world and Wurtzburg, in spite of the protestations of the goddess.

Once there, he’s recognised by old friends, who tell him that his old love, Elisabeth, has effectively cut herself off from society since he left suddenly and inexplicably.

He agrees to compete in a singing contest – since he often won in the past and Elisabeth loved the contests before his sudden departure.

However, nobody knows where’s he’s spent the intervening time – and when they find out, through the singing contest, they denounce him as a blasphemer and threaten to kill him.

Though Elisabeth is devastated, she pleads to save his life, and instead of death, he goes with a group to Rome on a pilgrimage to seek salvation.

On the pilgrims’ return, Elisabeth cannot find him and dies of a broken heart. Tannhäuser then turns up, explaining that the Pope rejected his penance, and saying he’s going back to Venus. However, now in heaven, Elisabeth has pleaded for his soul and her pleas have been answered.

Okay – set aside the plot. Wagner himself made it quite clear that he did not mean it to be taken literally in a religious sense, but that it simply reflected his own despair with the (then) modern world of the 1840s.

If only he’d known the joys of social media and reality TV ...

Anyway, if the plot is not divine, the music is. It almost certainly includes the best music for choruses that he ever wrote. There are some stunning arias here too, with plenty of evidence (it it’s needed) that he did NOT just write ‘shouty’ stuff.

So what’s wrong with this production?

It's all about the sex – Venusburg
Albery decided to incorporate a ballet into the overture – a choreographed orgy.

Now it’s important to note that it isn’t actually completely out of place.

For the Paris version of the opera in 1861, Wagner was asked to revise it and agreed, on the grounds that he believed that success at the Paris Opéra was important for his career. The requirements included having a ballet, as was the tradition of the house.

However, Wagner being Wagner, rather than place it, as per convention, in the second act, he put it in the first, where it made some sense in the sensual world of Venus. And it was, in fact, a bacchanale.

It caused problems, though, since the moneyed members of the Jockey Club, who expected to turn up late, see the ballet (they were often dating dancers) and then bugger off, were peeved that they would either have to change their habits or miss it.

Thus they organised a barracking from the audience. At the third performance, the uproar caused a 15-minute hiatus. Wagner withdrew the opera and it marked the end of his hopes of acclaim at the centre of the operatic world.

He made further changes to the version that was performed in Vienna in 1875 – and it’s this version that is most often used today, albeit with the reinstatement of Walther’s solo from the second act.

Wagner was never completely happy with the work: he tinkered with it for the rest of his life, and just three weeks before his death in 1883, his wife Cosima noted in her diary that he was saying that he “owes the world Tannhäuser”.

But all of this said, I do not believe that the ballet works.

First, because the overture is beautiful and the dance interrupts it.

And second, because in emphasising sex over anything else, it also ignores what Venus makes quite clear is the other gift that she has given Tannhäuser – godhood.

Not only is sinful – it is downright blasphemous.

And at the same time, it is also a reflection of the nature of the artist.

Artists create – and within orthodox religion, an act of creation by anyone other than the Judeo-Christian God is heresy.

There are reasons that artists have long been outlaws in ‘civilised’ Western society.

Christian Geherer as Wolfram
Wagner himself has been mistrusted from his own lifetime on by people who realised that he created music that gave people an almost religious experience – people who believed that that was close to daemonic.

I had that in my mind as I watched, plus the obvious profane v purity theme, plus the duality of human experience, plus the entire idea of setting up paganism (Venus) against Christianity (Elisabeth is arguably a Mary substitute).

So there’s a bit of context – and also offers just one illustration of why a Wagner opera can be such an intellectually stimulating experience.

To add to the drama of our visit, though, our eponymous tragic hero was Peter Seiffert, a globally-celebrated Wagner tenor who recorded the role on a Grammy-winning version with Daniel Barenboim.

He was far from bad, but it’s fair to say he is not what he once was – few of us are.

Unfortunately, though, he couldn’t continue after the second act. Luckily, young (in opera terms) heldentenor Neal Cooper (the nephew of legendary boxer Sir Henry, who trod on my foot at a TV do once and was an exemplary gent in apologising) was in the audience with his wife – and stood in for the last act.

Never mind getting your costume and make up on, these singers have to seriously warm up. It must have been chaos backstage.

But he was wonderful, and has a really fine voice – and received a fabulous and completely deserved ovation at the end.

I very much look forward to hearing more of him.

After the orgy ballet, the staging is essentially simple – we have a theatre within a theatre (more to consider philosophically), but by and large, the music is left to speak for itself and that, I think, is really how it should be.

Of the rest of the cast, I thought that both Sophie Koch as Venus and Emma Bell as Elisabeth were superb.

But baritone Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram (who won an Olivier Award for his turn as Wolfram in 2010) was the real highlight – almost certainly the finest individual singing I have ever heard live; a voice of extraordinary clarity and warmth and beauty.

And the chorus – often offstage, giving the music a sense of the ethereal – gave me goosebumps from straight after the overture and were simply superb throughout. But it was at the act three finale that I finally had my first live Wagner religious experience, as my entire insides convulsed and I found the tears unstoppable.

This wasn’t sadness at the plot. It was a response to the extraordinary beauty of the music.

Wagner was a sorcerer. And more than a century and a half on, when it’s done well, his music can still cast a spell that leaves pretty much anything else looking pale by comparison.

So, the 207th performance of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden (the first one was on 6 May 1876) was certainly far from perfect. But as we’ve learned, the work itself is not.

Yet if I were still entertaining any doubts that I really ‘got’ Wagner, they were blown away on Thursday night by a quite wonderful few hours.

And it’s only just over a month until I see and experience more ...

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