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SCRUTINY | Letters From Munich: Tannhäuser

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Bavarian State Opera's Tannhäuser (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)
Bavarian State Opera’s Tannhäuser (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

One of the biggest draws of this year’s just-concluded Munich Opera Festival was the new production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Under Intendant Nikolaus Bachler, seasoned opera fans can count on the Bavarian State Opera to be on the cutting edge of Regieoper, the so-called director-driven opera productions. Of the five I saw on this trip, Tannhäuser was arguably the most enigmatic and conceptually challenging. It was directed by Italian Romeo Castellucci, a veteran designer and stage director of international stature, primarily in theatre, with occasional forays into opera.

If you leave the opera house not quite sure of what you have just witnessed, you are not alone. Castellucci is known for his provocative and highly personalized takes on the classics. Cases in point are his Moses und Aron in Paris (2015), or his Parsifal for La Monnaie in Brussels (2011). The Munich Tannhäuser is vintage Castellucci, reflecting his singular vision of everything he touches. Like his previous productions, this one has a surfeit of symbolism, translated into images that appear to have little or nothing to do with the actual story.

At the very beginning of the extended overture (the Paris version), 30 young women—nearly identical in height and length of hair, topless, with extravagant bows and arrows—shoot at a slowly evolving image that resembles the moon. It is so highly choreographed to the music that it creates impressive wave-like movements, with stunning fluidity that’s immensely eye-catching. Then we see a man costumed in black, presumably Tannhäuser, scaling the moon and entering it. In the Venusburg Scene, Venus and her entourage are depicted as corpulent, writhing masses of skin and fat. Given that Venus is supposed to be the epitome of beauty and seductiveness, the image one sees is completely shocking.

In Act 2, the minstrels slay a large animal and smear blood all over their own faces, including Tannhäuser’s, somewhat reminiscent of the Paris Moses und Aron. There is also a pile of bodies, covered head to toe in body stockings, writhing in unison on the ground. Here I was, sitting in the theatre witnessing these highly choreographed movements sprinkled throughout the opera, I had to resist the temptation of dismissing it as a type of “Busby Berkeley Meets Grand Opera” attempt. I am not trying to belittle Castellucci’s effort to interpret the story, but for me, it resembles “opera as performance art” more than anything else. If there is deeper meaning that illuminates the text, I failed to fathom it.

Bavarian State Opera's Tannhäuser (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)
Bavarian State Opera’s Tannhäuser (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Perhaps the most shocking directorial touch is in Act 3, with two caskets engraved with “Klaus” and “Anja,” referring to the two singers, Klaus Florian Vogt (Tannhäuser) and Anja Harteros (Elisabeth). During the extended final scene, a series of mannequins representing bodies of the two deceased, in progressive stages of decomposition, are brought on stage and placed on top of the caskets. In the end, two buckets of ashes are brought on, and at one point the ashes are mixed together. The implication is clear: the star-crossed lovers, denied happiness in life, are finally united in death. Actually quite a poetic moment in the staging. That said, all the background comings and goings tend to upstage the poor singers.

What can one make of Castellucci’s vision here? There is no doubt in my mind that he digs deep into his considerable creative juices to come up with these ideas. In an interview, he talks about how he reads the libretto carefully and then choose a word or a phrase and uses it as inspiration for his directorial concepts. It goes without saying that whatever meaning Castellucci attaches to the work, it’s through his own, unique, personal lens; one that is not necessarily transferable to the audience. In an interview, Castellucci says “Venus’s world does not represent beauty and pleasure, only the disgust and the horror of the flesh.” He’s also quoted as saying “Venus’s world for Tannhäuser is a terrifying and life-threatening place.” Castellucci bases it on Tannhäuser’s first words in the opera “Zu viel,” or “too much,” implying that Tannhäuser finds Venusburg a disgusting experience of the flesh.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this interpretation does not ring true. The story is one of spiritual love versus carnal love, of the sacred versus the profane. Tannhäuser has committed “carnal sin” by having had his jollies with Venus, and he’s regretting it. He feels guilty for having betrayed the spiritual purity of Elisabeth, who’s pining for him at home. A more logical explanation of Tannhäuser’s frame of mind is not one of disgust and horror, but one of guilt and fear, fear of being condemned to hell. That’s why he goes on his hands and knees to Rome for ask the Pope for forgiveness! To be sure, a director has the right to bring his/her own interpretation to the piece, but one should draw the line when such interpretation goes against the spirit of the original.

As is so often the case, musically this Festival-quality Tannhäuser was flawless, even transcendental. Kirill Petrenko is a great conductor, and he brought out the most sublime sounds from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. I recall with pleasure sitting there in the parkette, in a great seat, thrilled by the galvanizing sounds coming out of the pit. The soloists were incredible. Klaus Florian Vogt, with his bright, beautiful, lyric tenor devoid of baritonal heft, would seem an odd choice for the role. But it’s very well focused, with sufficient ping to carry into the far reaches of the National-theater. The Lieder-like intensity he brought to the Rome Narrative is forever etched into the memory bank.

He was well-partnered by the Elisabeth of Anja Harteros, the reigning German soprano of our time. Her “Dich teure Halle,” sung upon her entrance, might not be note-perfect, but later, after she has completely warmed up, her singing in the two remaining arias was resplendent. Elisabeth represents purity, so I don’t understand why her costume is superimposed with a painted-on nude body. Baritone Christian Gerhaher was a magnificent Wolfram, his “O du mein holder Abendstern,” sung with Lieder-like beauty, was breathtaking.

Russian dramatic soprano Elena Pankratova sounded fantastic as Venus, although she was unflatteringly made up and had to play her long scene “stuck” inside the mountain of skin and flesh with her cohort. She does not reappear at the end of the opera as is typical of most stagings, we only hear her voice. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld was a sonorous-voiced Landgraf. The chorus is extremely important in this opera, and the Munich choral forces, as expected, were truly magnificent.

There you have it: a striking, deeply felt—if flawed—take on this work. Since it was live-streamed, a DVD is likely going to be commercially available, or the stream might still be available. I urge anyone interested in this great opera to watch it and form your own opinion.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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