Wagner, Tannhäuser: Soloists, Dancers, Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Schiller Theater, Berlin, 12.4.2014 (MB)
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – René Pape
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Peter Mattei
Walther von der Wogelweide – Peter Soon
Biterolf – Tobias Schabel
Heinrich der Schreiber – Jürgen Sacher
Reinmar von Zweter – Jan Martiník
Elisabeth – Ann Petersen
Venus – Marina Prudenskaya
Young Shepherd – Sónia Grané
Four Pages – Julia Mencke, Konstanze Löwe, Hannah Wighardt, Anna Charin
Sasha Waltz (director, choreography, designs)
Bernd Skodzig (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jens Schroth, Jochen Sandig (dramaturgy)
For the first night of the Berlin State Opera’s new Tannhäuser Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin fulfilled even this writer’s heightened expectations, with playing and conducting matching their peerless Proms Ring last summer. If proof were needed that Barenboim has passed from excellence to greatness, drawing upon years of experience both as pianist and conductor as well as inspiration from musicians of his youth such as Furtwängler and Klemperer, it was here in abundance. Barenboim’s ability to have the music ‘speak for itself’ should not be taken to imply ‘neutrality’, whatever that might be. There was no ‘interventionism’ for its own sake, but the Wagnerian melos, even in what we might consider the early or at least intermediate stage of ‘Romantic opera’, sang, developed, brought forth musical drama, founded as it was on the surest of harmonic understanding, the surest grasp of poem, music, and staging (such as it was), and above all, that Furtwänglerian long-distance hearing (Fernhören) of which Barenboim at his best is now as distinguished an exponent as any living conductor. A Beethovenian impulse towards forging the strongest and, crucially, most dynamic unity in diversity in no sense precluded definition of ‘character’ with respect to ‘numbers’, to the old operatic forms, which retain a strong presence within the greater whole of the through-composed act, indeed which help determine and ‘form’ that greater whole. Yet a balance, or perhaps better dialectic, needs striking between apparently competing demands, a dialectic revealing itself in the specificity of performance. In recent years, the dearth of good, let alone great, Wagner conducting in London has been mitigated by two Royal Opera appearances by Semyon Bychkov in Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Excellent though Bychkov was in 2010, Barenboim arguably exceeded that achievement, both in terms of dramatic engagement and greater stylistic variety – as pressing an issue here as in Der fliegende Holländer – within and towards the equally convincing whole presented by Bychkov. Estimable though Barenboim’s own recording remains, this performance indubitably exceeded that achievement too. There is now an urgent need for new recordings of Barenboim’s Wagner; this Tannhäuser and of course that Proms Ring would be good places to start.
The playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin would almost be reason enough on its own. All those necessary, apparently competing yet, in reality, mutually generative, qualities that combine to make a great Wagner performance were present: weight and transparency, golden and dark, rich tone, luxury and bite, sharpness of detail and the longer line. The ravishing tenderness and eroticism, grandeur and precision of the Overture and Bacchanale – we heard the familiar conflation of ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’, but at least sated ourselves on the post-coital, post-Tristan delights of the latter in the first act – offered a master-class in Wagner playing to any orchestra. Sasha Waltz’s staging enabled the magnificent horn section truly to take its place in the sun, marching across the stage as hunting-party in the first act. Onstage and offstage, the Staatskapelle’s brass excelled, quite the equal of glorious strings and woodwind. But neither players nor conductor mistook drama for brash crudity; drama emerged from within rather than being applied from without. Choral singing impressed throughout, partaking in the virtues of the orchestral performance.
An excellent cast also went to make this the finest Tannhäuser I have heard. Bar a brief instance of a cappella flatness in the first act, and a few tired passages in the second, Peter Seiffert’s Tannhäuser offered much. He may not be the most dramatically perceptive of singers, nor indeed the most accomplished of actors, but he can sing the role, a rare accomplishment in itself. Moreover, there was intimacy as well as vocal heft. Some might have cavilled over Ann Petersen’s vibrato, but the notes were focused; this was a vibrato that enhanced rather than obscured. She shared Seiffert’s blending of intimacy and heft, more often than not quite seamlessly, presenting a plausible human, womanly Elisabeth, no virginal cipher. Having heard Christian Gerhaher at Covent Garden, I feared that every subsequent Wolfram would disappoint. I am not sure that Peter Mattei’s performance did not prove Gerhaher’s equal. The two certainly shared an approach clearly born of Lieder-like marriage of words and music, likewise a beauty of tone that could not help but move one to tears. René Pape’s vocal beauty was likewise a thing of wonder. Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus was as imbued with dramatic ferocity as with timbral richness. And it was gratifying to see Sónia Grané, until recently a star of the Royal Academy of Music’s operatic offerings, successfully transfer to the world stage.
Alas, Sasha Waltz’s production failed to match the musical performances. I could not help but wonder whether she would have been better engaged simply as choreographer, this being her first staging of a large-scale repertoire opera. Insofar as there is a concept, it seems to be to present some sort of dialogue between opera house and opera, the designs for the song contest mirroring, subtly rather than gaudily, aspects of the Schiller Theater: for instance, the seats and the colour of the wood. Unfortunately, little is done with an idea of not inconsiderable metatheatrical promise. Elisabeth looks every inch the 1950s beauty in her second act gown, but again that is hardly enough in itself. Costumes and designs are stylish, and there is an undeniable transformation of visual as well as musical mood for the third act, David Finn’s lighting as important as Waltz’s surprisingly convincing, seemingly heartfelt Personenregie during Tannhäuser’s mourning for Elisabeth. Ultimately, this remains, however, more a work-in-progress than the finished article. Dancers, undeniably erotic in the Bacchanale – though it is difficult to suppress a smile as Seiffert’s less than lithe Tannhäuser awkwardly slides down to join them – work hard throughout. There is little respite for them, but nor is there for us, Waltz seemingly determined to have them do something all of the time, whether or no the drama demands, suggests, or even permits it. Moments of downright irritation are fewer than might have been the case, but they become more numerous, and there is a great deal that is at best unnecessary, however beautifully accomplished it might be. A production that – again, in metatheatrical terms – posited a problematical (yet fruitful?) relationship between opera and ballet might well have a great deal to say. This, however, was not it; opera won out, though not without loss.