Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Shear vulgarity

My favourite thing about ‘Eurotrash’ opera productions - radically political and elaborately trendy remixes of 18th and 19th century works that began life with breastplates, horned helmets, well-fed singers and real-life trees on-stage - is the YouTube comments that accompany the trailers. One complained about the ‘shear vulgarity’ of a new production (which I extravagantly praised) of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. This new Tannhauser will surely bring its own tsunami of outrage, but then outrage is nothing new when it comes to a work Wagner wrote with controversy in mind.

The culture wars have always been with us, and Wagner trolled the comfortable bourgeoisie with the best of them. The bait was always taken, though the biggest splash at the 1861 Paris premiere came from the Jockey Club, who objected to the ballet occurring at the beginning of the opera, rather than after the interval when their members usually arrived. Baudelaire saw Wagner’s not-too-well-hidden meaning right away, saying “…barbarity always has to have its place in the drama of love, and sensual enjoyment has to lead, by a satanic logic, to the delights of crime.” If the composer could see what’s happening at his sacred Festspielhaus in the 21st century of course he’d himself be shocked, but surely he would have been pleased by the strong response. This is, after all, an opera about sex.

I always like to go with the flow with these kind of spectacles. I tend to be open to experimental dramaturgy, and I like what’s happening here in that regard. Sebastien Baumgarten’s production, which centres around Joep van Lieshout’s imposing industrial installation, is focussed on Tannhauser as experiment. To go with this, though, musical standards must be high, and the singing especially needs to be strong. This production passes that bar easily, with outstanding singing and acting from Michelle Breedt as Venus, Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth, and especially Torsten Kerl as Tannhauser. Conductor Axel Kober provides more than capable support with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, and the entire experience is communicated with excellent sound, video, lighting and camera work.

So bottom line: I’m shocked just a bit, titillated just a bit, impressed a lot.

Salacious note: People buying this DVD without reading the comments (Caveat emptor!) might not realize what they're getting. Look at that cover above! Here's the good stuff: enjoy!

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