Tannhäuser at L’Opéra Bastille, Much to Admire

FranceFrance Wagner, Tannhäuser: Soloists, Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Opéra Bastille, 29.10.2011 (MB)


Hermann, Landgrave of  Thuringia – Christof Fischesser
Tannhäuser – Christopher Ventris
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Stéphane Degout
Walther von der Vogelweide – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Biterolf – Tomasz Konieczny
Heinrich der Schreiber – Eric Huchet
Reimar von Zweter – Wojtek Smilek
Elisabeth – Nina Stemme
Venus – Sophie Koch



Robert Carsen (director, lighting)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Constance Hoffman (costumes)
Peter van Praet (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)


My visit to Paris took in two German operas with special association for the city and indeed for the Opéra. Lulu, the previous night, received its first full performance at the Palais Garnier. The case of Tannhäuser is, to put it mildly, less unambiguously positive, though one should recall that, whatever the disgraceful scenes at the Salle Le Peletier, it is to Paris that we owe Wagner’s revisions, which render the work a still more fascinating proposition than in its ‘Dresden version’. As is usual for performances of the ‘Paris version’, Wagner’s further modifications for Vienna were followed here, but the crucial work on the opening two scenes had already been accomplished.

Whichever version or conflation is selected, there will remain a problematical element to the work: that is part of its enduring attraction, though it has troubled some, the composer included. Cosima famously recounted on 23 January 1883, just twenty days before Wagner’s death, ‘He says he still owes the world a Tannhäuser.’ Sir Mark Elder seemed most at ease with the new music for the Venusberg, the first act certainly the strongest so far as the conducting was concerned. Perhaps it was his recent experience of conducting Götterdämmerung with the Hallé that led him perceptively to highlight the intimations of that work, Gutrune’s music in particular: both looking forward, then, but also in its harmony recalling – arguably quoting – the opéra comique of Auber, still honoured across town from the Bastille, on the façade of the Palais Garnier. An estimable performance was to be heard throughout from the Paris Opéra Orchestra, the strings golden in almost Viennese style and the woodwind quite delightful, especially during the often lugubrious third act.

If the first act, however, could be heard more or less in a single span, with a nod to its necessary disjunctures, the second and third acts offered more of a bumpy ride in terms of overall direction. There may be a case for bringing to the fore Wagner’s debt to grand opéra, not least in Paris, but the Arrival of the Guests sounded less akin to Rienzi or even to Meyerbeer than to excessively-driven early Verdi. (Is it not in any case more interesting to look to the potential of Wagner’s musical drama than to reduce it to certain murkier aspects of its origins?) There were, moreover, glaring discrepancies between pit, stage, and off-stage brass. Wherever the fault lay, the responsibility is the conductor’s – especially by the final performance of a run. The (marked) tempo change near the end of the act, shortly before we hear the pilgrims, was excessive, coming as a jolt rather than an intensification, the hurtling onward that ensued chaotic in its fraying ensemble. Line frayed too in the third act, though Elder was commendably alert to its wandering hints of Parsifal. There will always remain tensions between the various musico-dramatic components of the work, but they register more meaningfully if a greater, or at least more successful, attempt is made to engender unity – or ‘totality’, as Adorno would doubtless have accused. Such was certainly the case in the Venusberg, the ‘new’ Tristan-esque music sounding involuntarily – that, at any rate was the impression – as a restless critique of Wagner’s earlier thoughts, musical and ‘dramatic’, however false the distinction. Last year at Covent Garden, however, Semyon Bychkov proved more successful in permitting the material to enact its own self-critique, rather than harrying it in the unduly interventionist, sometimes reductionist, fashion Elder favoured here.

There was much to admire vocally. Christopher Ventris, already an accomplished Parsifal in Bayreuth, Paris, London, and elsewhere, showed no evident strain as Tannhäuser. The role is difficult for a number of reasons, not least its lack of a personal voice, Tannhäuser tending more to adapt to the situations in which he finds himself. Ventris proved successful in that respect and many others, shaping Wagner’s lines with sensitivity and projecting them with strength. Sophie Koch was quite magnificent as Venus: probably the best I have ever heard: tonally (and physically) alluring, sweetly seductive and increasingly unhinged, dramatically truthful at no cost to the vocal line, taking full advantage of the greater scope the Paris version offered her. Kundry, rightly, did not seem far away. Nina Stemme, making her Paris Opéra debut, presented a sterling, untiring Elisabeth. Hers was for the most part an ‘old-school’ reading, eschewing the possibility, explored more recently by artists such as Eva-Maria Westbroek (for Bychkov), of a more evidently tempted – and tempting – character. If Elisabeth can probably be more interesting than this, the role is unlikely to be sung with more detailed attention to the text. After a somewhat uncertain start, Stéphane Degout grew into Wolfram’s part: it is doubtless unreasonable to expect anyone to match or even to approach the astounding Lieder-reading of Christian Gerhaher (for Bychkov), though I felt the lack of something that might elevate the character into something more than a stock character and plot device. There were, though, no real weaknesses in the cast, save for an apparently uncredited Shepherd, whose music soon passed into strange bitonal realms. Mention should be accorded to the sweet-toned, intelligently-voiced Walther of Stanislas de Barbeyrac: on this evidence, we are likely to hear much more from him.

What, then, of Robert Carsen’s production, first seen in 2007, now receiving its first revival? (A quarter of a century, incidentally, had passed between the previous production and this, a haunting similarity with this perplexingly unfashionable work’s absence from the London stage.) At its heart lies the substitution, predating that of Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger, of portraiture for song. Tannhäuser is a painter; the work that bears his name progresses from a host of attempts to paint Venus to the final hanging of his picture in a gallery of celebrated female nudes. (You name it, from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, predictably, to Manet and Picassomit is most likely present in reproduction.) It is strongly implied, through a final joint pose, that the final image draws upon both Venus and Elisabeth, though we never actually see Tannhäuser’s Meisterwerk, so that must remain supposition. Substitution of painting for music does no grave harm; perhaps it is intended to appeal to a city especially noted for its sympathy towards the visual arts. Nor, however, does it seem especially warranted: after all, the multitudinous references to song make more sense when actually dealing with Minnesänger. The Konzept is nevertheless carried through coherently and Personenregie is intelligently accomplished: two welcome contrasts with the Meistersinger bei Katharina.

There are moments, though, when Carsen appears to resort to ‘effect without cause’, Wagner’s celebrated accusation against Meyerbeer, which Nietzsche would then unconvincingly turn upon his antagonist. The appearance of Elisabeth in the amphitheatre at the beginning of the second act certainly startles: at a distance of five or six feet from me, I initially thought Stemme was a disruptive member of the audience. (There were certainly many of those too: in a nod to the Jockey Club’s revenge, barely a bar of the third act went uninterrupted by the bronchially assertive, the Song to the Evening Star almost obliterated.) Other characters followed suit, a practice for which there seemed no obvious justification. Occasional subsequent forays in and out of the stalls retained that sense of the arbitrary, heightening irritation. I wonder, too, whether it will some day be possible to see the guests arrive without an invasion of champagne flutes. Elisabeth’s trench coat is another slightly wearisome cliché. Carsen’s is a lively enough production, then, if not entirely innocent of veering towards the merely fashionable; yet it falls considerably short of this director at his dazzling best, for instance, the more convincing theatrical extravaganzas of his Salzburg Rosenkavalier and Munich Ariadne auf Naxos. Perhaps that was the point, a nod to the problematic nature of the drama, but, as with the score, critique proves more convincing if it emerges from within, rather than being imposed from without.

Mark Berry