Valery Gergiev opens the second night of the Mariinsky Theatre season with an impressive Tannhäuser

Russian FederationRussian Federation Wagner, Tannhäuser: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 9.9.2021. (GT)

Mikhail Vekua (Tannhäuser) in the opening scene (c) Natasha Razina

Stage production – Vladislav Starodubtsev
Set design – Pyotr Okunev
Costumes – Zhanna Uzacheva
Lighting – Sergey Skornetsky
Choreography – Sergey Zakarin
Chorus direction – Konstantin Rylov

Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen – Vladimir Felayev
Tannhäuser – Mikhail Vekua
Elisabeth – Irina Churilova
Venus – Tatyana Pavlovskaya
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Pavel Yankovsky
Walther von der Vogelweide – Roman Arndt
Biterolf – Yefim Zavalny
Heinrich der Schreiber – Mikhail Makarov
Boy – Nikita Kaminsky

There has been a long and rich tradition of Wagner performance at the Mariinsky Theatre, and indeed the composer himself visited St Petersburg to conduct his own music, and the Ring cycle was performed here frequently until 1917. Parsifal notably enjoyed its Russian premiere in the city in 1913 with permission granted by the composer’s widow Cosima. During the Soviet period, Wagner was in and out of fashion. Initially his music was encouraged but more often in concerts of orchestral music from the operas, and interestingly Yevgeny Mravinsky in his last concert conducted ‘Leb’ wohl’ from Die Walküre in 1987. Since his appointment, Valery Gergiev has attempted to revive the Wagnerian tradition, unfortunately many performances were given in Russian thus the singing tradition was lost during the Soviet era. The Mariinsky singers have studied the unique style of singing Wagner and since which several well-received recordings by the Mariinsky have been made and often the company have toured with the Ring, including to the UK.

This new production of Tannhäuser was premiered in the White Nights Festival on 17 June this year. Tannhäuser occupies a special position at the Mariinsky Theatre: in just two years the same production team presented two totally different stage versions of this opera – one at the Concert Hall and another at Mariinsky-II. As in Wagner’s revisions of the stage work, there has been constant change and renewal in Tannhäuser since its inception: Wagner wrote it in 1845 and due to meeting the requirements of various theatres and based on his own convictions, Valery Gergiev has attempted to refine and perfect his creation. During Wagner’s life, there were several revisions, though Wagner never did dot the final ‘i’ and cross the final ‘t’ of his ideal Tannhäuser, declaring that in this regard he still ‘owed the world a debt’. In St Petersburg, the Dresden version has been used since its Russian premiere (sung in Russian) on 13 December 1874 at the Mariinsky Imperial Opera.

Khristina Batyushina of the Mariinsky Theatre explains the conception of Vyacheslav Starodubtsev’s new production – ‘ The universal nature of Wagner’s ideas has allowed the production team to abandon fairytale chivalrous romanticism and relocate the action in a more harsh contemporary reality, a reality that is not romantic at all: with stuffy backstage intrigue, a congress of a totalitarian party sect, a run-down urban district with a public house… Visually, the production is crammed with allegories over which it is interesting to ponder, while the provocative associative context is addressed to the personal experiences of the audience. the new Tannhäuser at the Mariinsky Theatre is bold, challenging and musically magnificent, just like the legendary appearance of its protagonist at a jousting competition.’

On this second evening of the new season, in the overture, the orchestral strings displayed extraordinary skill and wonderful woodwind to set the evening up promisingly. When the curtains were raised the opening scene of the Venusberg was sumptuous in its glorious red and gold colours, at the rear behind veiled curtains one could see the nymphs dancing in an ever-increasing erotic dance with lovers joining in the bacchanalian pleasures accompanied by off-stage singing ‘Come to the shore’ in the Sirens’ chorus. While in the foreground of the Hörselberg of Frau Holda, there was a bordello with two great golden bird cages on either side of the stage. One of the bird cages descended to allow a girl to be escorted away with her customer while in the other cage Tannhäuser consorted with Venus. The colour scheme was richly ambient with reds and pinks against golden bird cages and in the centre a clavichord was located with which Venus attempted to catch Tannhäuser’s attention by her seductive playing. The singing during this passage was top class, and the off-stage chorus sang heavenly. The wondrous moment was extended by Sophia Kiprskaya’s harp accompanying Tannhäuser’s ‘Let your praises be heard’. The spell was at last broken with Tannhäuser singing ‘My salvation lies with Mary’. With the disappearance of the Venusberg, the second scene, was dark and barren with a mood of desolation and we heard the shepherd’s cor anglais played marvellously by Ilya Ilyin (this would be one of the musical highlights during the evening), and there entered a boy personifying Tannhäuser in his youth carrying a toy plane, and Tannhäuser looked fondly at the boy, and they finally put the toy away in a suitcase, as if saying goodbye to youth? In the fourth scene, again in a darkened stage, clarion calls announced the sinister arrival of the Landgraf’s hunting party who are all attired in black leather coats, and following their interrogation of Tannhäuser, hunting horns call out, and suddenly the pilgrims rush in picking up song books from the Landgraf’s minstrels bringing the scene and Act I to a disconcerting close.

Mariinsky Theatre’s Tannhäuser Act II (c) Natasha Razina

In the second act, at the minnesingers’ hall in the Wartburg, there were two rows on either side of platform filled with people, and the scene is immediately gripped by Elisabeth’s glorious aria ‘Dear Hall, I greet thee once again!’ – Irina Churilova here revealed great presence and vocal power, and the momentum developed remarkably when Wolfram brings Tannhäuser into the song contest, singing, ‘O, Princess’. The Landgraf greets Elisabeth on her return, ‘You will be the Princess of the festival!’. The song contest in the castle is assembled with knights and pilgrims massed like a 1930s fascist rally with the men and women wearing grey trench coats on either side of the central plinth, this is offset by beautiful singing by the male and female choirs, but this is more like a ceremony for a political party or church gathering. In their duet Elisabeth and Tannhäuser were accompanied with lovely harp playing, the upbeat mood is quite unlike the location, however in Tannhäuser’s ‘To thee, goddess of love’, Venus enters as if she is to be initiated into the party, and it is clear to all that Tannhäuser has sinned and must be punished, but the attempt by Venus to enter into the proceedings is interrupted by a magnificent aria from Elisabeth ending in Tannhäuser being sentenced to death. During this passage, guards in leather coats prevent the pilgrims from attacking Tannhäuser or Venus. Tannhäuser prays, in a very moving passage, while Venus leaves in shame, and Tannhäuser is cast out accompanied by the Pilgrims’ Chorus, and finally the boy enters giving Tannhäuser his case to go on his pilgrimage to Rome.

Act III opens with the scene depicting what could be a Dresden tenement building and a car in front has a lady servicing her client while other prostitutes look on and walk along the pavement. Elisabeth appears in a window and Tannhäuser looks for her, yet Wolfram enters, followed by the pilgrims returning singing magnificently – another highlight of the evening. We heard a heart-rending aria from Elisabeth whilst surrounded by the ladies of the night who give her lipstick using it to disfigure her beauty grotesquely. Wolfram’s wonderful aria ‘O, thou, my evening star’ was accompanied by superb orchestral playing. Venus reappears – accompanied by an off-stage choir – and in a bizarre scene, the ladies advance undressing their outer clothing staring into the audience, kneeling with their pimps behind them, while the pilgrims sing in the background ‘Holy grace of god, is to the penitent given, who now enters the joy of heaven’.

For me, the outstanding performances were the Elisabeth of Irina Churilova, Tatyana Pavlovskaya’s Venus was excellent in her acting and fine vocal gifts, and the Wolfram of Pavel Yankovsky; while in the song contest the singing and presence of the Landgraf of Vladimir Felayev was very imposing and powerful, and the Tannhäuser of Mikhail Vekua was outstanding throughout – his acting as important as his singing, and special mention must be made of the young Nikita Kaminsky as the boy and who was making his first appearance on stage.

I thought the presentation in the first act was spectacular and impressive, the song contest was novel and disturbing, yet the final scene descended into meaninglessness. While it is always interesting to see the reinvention of old stage works, often one feels like closing one’s eyes for a while and just imagine the fields and mountains of Thuringia. Wagner’s Tannhäuser is so rarely staged that perhaps the public appetite for great Romantic opera could be assuaged in a more sympathetic fashion. Thankfully, there were no gruesome killings or crocodiles splashing around as in some recent Wagnerian productions. Throughout the evening the orchestra and choral singing were superlative and top class, all credit to Valery Gergiev.

Gregor Tassie

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