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.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Grand Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser is precariously balanced on the sacred and profane axis, both in its subject and in the tortured history of its productions in the musical capitals of Europe. The pure musical tradition of German song is contrasted with the decadent Grand Opera of Paris, with its focus on crowd-pleasing effects and Jockey Club-sponsored ballerinas. Wagner's theme may be redemption - his theme is always redemption - but his heart is in the spectacle. That's why I enjoyed this production so much; it turns renunciation and atonement into pageantry.

Musically this is quite outstanding. Daniel Barenboim, conducting of one of Europe's great orchestras, sets the stage for a great evening of theatre. In the overture and the introductions to Acts II and III the way that the camera pans through the orchestra, looking over Barenboim's shoulder, is as dramatic as anything on stage. When he stands to bring out a particularly thrilling phrase it's electric. The singing is really excellent as well, with a dramatically assured Peter Seiffert grounding the opera, between the two poles of slinky mezzo Marina Prudenskaya as Venus, and soprano Ann Petersen, radiant in a Grace Kelly gown, as Elisabeth. Rene Pape as Hermann, and especially Peter Mattei as Wolfram von Eschenbach are superb singers and equally good actors.

Wagner sweated bullets trying to integrate the ballet conventions of the Paris Opera into his story of Minnesingers. This production by Sasha Waltz (is there a better name for a choreographer?) is no where close to being consistently successful, but when one of her many dance or dramatic ideas works, it works big-time. The Venusberg Scene in Act I takes place within a metal tube that looks like an eye. Partially-clad dancers cavort inside, looking like something from the cutting room floor of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask. Then the lighting changes, and the scene is reminiscent of a James Bond credit sequence. But at some point things come together, and all of a sudden the scene becomes fabulously sexy and incredibly beautiful. What happened? I was just snickering a minute ago! When Prudenskaya and Seiffert come sliding down the tube, we have a moving presentation of Tannhäuser's long dream of sensuality.

This is such an eclectic production, and it's all the better for it. There's a natural shift from Venusberg to the Minstrel's Hall on the Wartburg, and Waltz sets us up in a brightly lit Art Deco Hollywood set that's full of one per centers looking elegant. Here is where the integration of dance really pays off. The story of the musical competition can come across as a dullish Medieval German episode of Glee, but Waltz turns on her inner Busby Berkley, and everything sparkles. I don't know if this is deliberate, but when groups of singers and dancers stand frozen for a while, I was reminded of Alain Renais's Last Year at Marienbad. Both that film and Wagner's opera ground their drama in deeply ambiguous dream states.

Waltz abruptly shifts the tone from the bright Hollywood/Middle European spectacle of Act II to film noir in Act III, monochromatic and misty on an empty stage, and all of a sudden mystical, with Wagner's soaring choral hymn of atonement and redemption. The dancing is once again sublime. When the stage turns blood-red with the return of the Venusberg music (and the welcome return of Prudenskaya), we have a superb example of the dramatic potential of dance.

I'm so pleased that BelAir Classique makes generous clips of their productions available on YouTube. This will give you a good feel for the style of the production and its high musical standards, if not the final excellence of the Blu-ray disc.

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