Stephen Gould Leads a Superb Deutsche Oper Performance of Tannhäuser

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tannhäuser: Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Deutsche Oper Berlin, 15.11.2015. (JMI)

Deutsche Oper’s Tannhäuser (c) Bettina Stöss

Wagner, Tannhäuser


Direction: Kirsten Harms
Sets, costumes and lighting: Bernd Damovsky


Tannhäuser: Stephen Gould
Elisabeth/Venus: Heidi Melton
Wolfram: Markus Brück
Landgrave: Ante Jerkunica
Walther: Thomas Blondelle
Biterolf: Seth Carico
Heinrich: Paul Kaufmann
Reinmar: Andrew Harris
Shepherd: Elbenita Kajtazi

This is a revival of a Kirsten Hams production that I’ve seen a couple of times before, and my impression has not changed. Ms. Harms tries to do a lot of original things, but the aesthetics remain pleasing, although towards the end the narration becomes somewhat confused.

During the overture, Tannhäuser reaches the Venusberg and is greeted by its barely dressed inhabitants. At the time of the premiere, Nadja Michael as Venus was almost naked, but the current goddess is fully dressed. At the Wartburg the chorus of pilgrims are souls in Hell, guarded by winged monsters resembling Gothic gargoyles (the curtains of each act also depict the figures of gargoyles). The entrance of the Landgrave and his entourage takes place with all of them wearing armour and riding full-scale replicas of horses. The hall of the contest presents some 40 armored warriors who are then lifted to the ceiling, leaving the stage empty. The guests are dressed in medieval costumes, while the singers are armoured from head to toe. Finally, Act III takes place in a hospital for pilgrims, and Elisabeth is tending them. Venus and Elizabeth are interpreted by the same soprano which is endlessly confusing. Elisabeth does not exit the stage after her prayer, but remains there, covered by a sheet, until she gets up to do Venus’s final song. If you’re not very familiar with the opera and don’t know German, you may well believe Elisabeth has come back to the living world.

The sets, costumes and lighting are by Bernd Damovsky, and his concept is basically minimalist, with added props like horses, armor and beds. The costumes are spectacular in the singing contest. The stage direction offers no surprises or originality but just narrates the story.

Again Donald Runnicles was on the podium, and again we enjoyed his artistry. The version offered was the original from Dresden, and his conducting improved as the performance went on. If the overture was not particularly bright (as also happened two years ago), the last two acts were excellent, and Mr. Runnicles’ delicacy and inspiration were impressive. The orchestra was excellent under his baton. The DOB Chorus deserves a separate chapter: under their director, William Spaulding, they’ve achieved a level of exceptional quality. I would single out the Choir of Pilgrims in the third act, which was absolutely breathtaking.

One of the main attractions of this production is the presence of Stephen Gould, possibly the best Tannhäuser today, and he proved it again. All opera lovers know that Tannhäuser is one of the most difficult characters in the repertoire, and it takes a true heldentenor to master this score. Mr. Gould made a great display of vocal power, and he also sang the part, allowing himself the luxury of resorting to some piani in the narration of Rome. He had no problems at the end of the second act, where so many of his colleagues get into real trouble, and the same can be said of his singing in the Venusberg. Stephen Gould is in a splendid moment, and I hope it lasts.

American soprano Heidi Melton played the characters of Elisabeth and Venus. She caught my attention from the first time I saw her, in Bordeaux and also in the character of Elisabeth. Her voice is beautiful, wide, well handled and nicely suited to the part of Elisabeth. She was less convincing as Venus, and I think it would have been better to split characters.

It is always a pleasure to hear Markus Brück, a baritone who seldom leaves the Deutsche Oper although he is good enough to sing in the best opera houses in the world. I always wonder why his appearances in other theatres are so rare. His interpretation of Wolfram was magnificent  ̶  just outstanding.

Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica made a strong Landgrave, with a warm voice in the middle and singing with gusto and sufficient authority. His biggest problem lies in the upper part of the tessitura, where his voice becomes rather faded.

Thomas Blondelle did well in the part of Walther, with an attractive light-lyric tenor voice. Seth Carico was also good as Biterolf, though perhaps a little light. Paul Kaufmann and Andrew Harris were serviceable as Heinrich and Reinmar. Young soprano Elbenita Kajtazi showed a beautiful voice as the shepherd. 

José M. Irurzun


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