Tannhäuser, Oper Leipzig

A production that raises more questions than answered, backed by a fine and assured orchestral playing
Final scene. © Tom Schulze

1045 words · 5 min read

According to Cosima Wagner’s diaries, Richard Wagner claimed, towards the end of his life, that he still owed the world Tannhäuser, and for good reasons. Tanhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the singing contest at Wartburg Castle) is Wagner fifth opera and has a complicated compositional and performance history. First performed in Dresden in 1845, the subsequent revised version after the Dresden original performance is now commonly known as the “Dresden version”. In 1861, in hope to break through the then-capital of European opera scene, Opéra de Paris, Wagner produced a Paris version, which added a ballet scene that immediately followed the overture. The final version, the so-called Vienna version, was produced in 1875, the year before Der Ring des Nibelungen was performed in full at Bayreuth Festival, but he wasn’t happy with this final form either.

In an unfortunate parallel to the compositional history, another Wagner now owes us Tannhäuser: Wagner’s hometown’s opera house, Oper Leipzig, was meant to stage his great-great-granddaughter’s production of Tannhäuser in March 2018, but Katharina Wagner couldn’t finish the staging on-time. In the end, Oper Leipzig resorted to buying an existing production from Opera Vlaanderen and La Fenice, which premiered in 2015, and which they brought to Hong Kong, where, incredibly, the opera has never been performed until now.

The opera tells the story of Tannhäuser, lost in the hedonism in Venusberg for so long, decides to leave Goddess Venus and return to where he has come from, Wartburg Castle, where he reunites with Elisabeth (the character is perhaps inspired by St. Elisabeth of Hungary, who resided in Wartburg Castle in Eisenach), and participates in a singing contest on the topic of love, in which his crazed singing in approval of sensual love (as opposed to pure love, whatever that means) incurs the wrath of the community. He is expelled and asked to go on a pilgrim to Rome, but even the Pope finds him too sinful to be forgiven. At the end, it is Elisabeth’s sacrifice that redeem Tannhäuser.

Like some of Wagner’s other operas, Tannhäuser deals with the conflict between sensual seduction and more virtuous form of love (or abstinence, in the case of Parsifal’s resisting Kundry’s seduction), and redemption through death: Senta has to die to break the curse of the Holländer, Tristan and Isolde have to die in order to be united, the world has to end to correct Wotan’s. Does the world end in this production directed by Calixto Bieito? At the end of the opera, the chorus crawled from the back of the stage towards the audience, with their arms outstretched, as though they were zombies, while Venus stood in the centre of the stage, looking longingly at a distance.

Here, not only does Tannhäuser seem like an outsider, but also Elisabeth, trapped inside Landgrave Hermann’s court while at the same time belonging to elsewhere. Wolfram von Eschenbach wants Elisabeth, and every man wants a piece of Elisabeth, who only wants Tannhäuser. After Tannhäuser’s singing praise to Venus, the Landgrave and others demanded Tannhäuser go on a pilgrim to Rome. At this point, the hypocrisy of the Landgrave and the community at large becomes on full display, as they reject Tannhäuser’s praising of sensual love while turning a blind eye to whatever those men wanted to do to Elisabeth, which sure have a sensual intent. When Elisabeth dies to redeem Tannhäuser’s sin, does she pray herself to death, or does she kill herself with a scrawl, or does Wolfram von Eschenbach kill her because he can’t get her (or is she dead anyway? for she seems very much alive at the end of the opera)? It is as if the society has it backward: people who claim to uphold a high moral standard turn out to be the evil ones, and the only sane persons are Tannhäuser and Elisabeth, who are trapped in a world where the praise of pure love is much valued but rings hollow. Through this light, one questions whether Venus is indeed merely a seductress, or simply the freest person in that world, as symbolised by the forest scene in the beginning of the opera, where Venus ran and danced wildly alone on stage, like an uninhibited child. Quite unlike some of Calixto Blieito’s productions, his Tannhäuser didn’t take a whole lot risks, without any shocking imagery and gratuitous amount of nudity, which seems quite fashionable these days, and arguably justifiable due to the nature of the story: Sasha Waltz’s production at Staatsoper Berlin (Daniel Barenboim conducting) and Romeo Castelluci’s production at Bayerische Staatsoper (with the miraculous Kirill Petrenko conducting) come to mind.

The Venus of this production, Kathrin Göring, sang the part with subtlty, which contrasted with the Tannhäuser of the evening, Stefan Vinke, who sang one of the hardest tenor role in operatic repertoire with power and stamina, but with a monotonic forte throughout, without any shades of different dynamics. Elisabet Strid sang and acted the role of Elisabeth with emotional depth. One unfortunate incident occured in the second act, when Marcus Eiche, the baritone who sang the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach, fallen ill, and had to have his voice replaced by an understudy while he remained on stage, acting only.

Other than some small mistakes in the overture, the Gewandhausorchester, under the direction of Ulf Schirmer, performed with assurance and considerable beauty in its tone, with satisfactory coordination with the singers on stage, a testament to the musicianship of all the musicians involved, who played in an unfamiliar theatre with presumably only a few opportunities to rehearse. The interpretation was unremarkable, and it certainly lacked the glitter and perfection I have once witnessed in Munich with Kirill Petrenko in the pit, but for the first ever performance of this opera in Hong Kong, audience couldn’t have asked for any better.

Tanhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg

Composer and Librettist: Richard Wagner Director: Calixto Bieito Set Designer: Rebecca Ringst Costume Designer: Ingo Krügler Lighting Designer: Michael Bauer Chorus Master: Thomas Eitler-de Lint

Tannhäuser: Stefan Vinke Elisabeth: Elisabet Strid Venus: Kathrin Göring Wolfram von Eschenbach: Markus Eiche Hermann: Ante Jerkunica Walther von der Vogelweide: Patrick Vogel Biterolf: Randall Jakobsh Heinrich der Schreiber: Kyungho Kim Reinmar von Zweter: Sejong Chang Young Shepherd: Bianca Tognocchi

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Chor der Oper Leipzig Ulf Schirmer

1 March, 2019 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

 Live    8 Mar, 2019
 Opera    Richard Wagner  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist, short story writer, and a music critic who has lived in London at a time and now goes to Berlin semi-regularly for no good reason. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably playing with his cat, or listening to classical music, either at home or at one of the opera houses and concert halls in Germany. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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