Schnitzer, Uria-Monzon; Seiffert, Eiche, Groissböck; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Weigle. Production: Carsen. C Major 709308 (2 DVDs) or 709404 (Blu-ray), 201 mins., subtitled
"I knew I'd find you here, praying," prim Wolfram tells Elisabeth in Act III of Wagner's Tannhäuser — a line that has never before sounded so incongruous, let alone comical, as it does here. At this point in Robert Carsen's staging for the Liceu in 2008, the heroine has been rolling on a mattress in an autoerotic exercise that suggests the range of her feelings for the absent Tannhäuser.
Yet this liberty with a character known as "Jungfrau Elisabeth" (virginal Elisabeth) is not willful provocation for its own sake. It typifies Carsen's liberating approach to a work usually defined in terms of rigid dichotomies, such as good and evil and, of course, the whore/madonna complex. At the end, the director contrives to keep both of the female prototypes alive, walking hand in hand, in identical strapless gowns. Harmonious integration has replaced Wagner's rigid Either/Or.
In Carsen's other major liberty, the work's medieval minstrels become modern-day painters competing, in Act II, at a glitzy gallery event. While illogical, the conceit has undeniable visual impact. Tannhäuser and the other artists each carry their canvases with them, even on the pilgrimage to Rome, and the chorus returns in the final act with the canvases stripped down to bare frames, "purged" in a vivid metaphor.
But in humanizing and resolving the opera's stark dichotomies, Carsen also risks trivialization. The happy ending feels superimposed, with some of the forced collegiality of a beauty pageant or the neat resolution of a drug-recovery biopic. Success, not salvation, is mimed to the final reprise of the pilgrims' chorus, as the hero and his once vilified painting of Venus are applauded; Tannhäuser's struggle has saved his career rather than his soul.
Bleak industrial sets (by Paul Steinberg) and corporate dark-blue suits (by Constance Hoffman), even for a yuppie Elisabeth, evoke a contemporary professional world in which everyone moves fast and failure is the deadliest sin. Carsen's intense direction of the principals excels in directness and realism, and fortunately the camerawork uses close-ups sparingly. The director's blocking also reflects the music's structure and movement, especially in the confrontations.
Sebastian Weigle conducts a lithe performance for the most part, maintaining momentum even in the big ensembles, and he pays closer attention than many conductors to minute tempo shifts. Soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer emphasizes assertiveness with her glinting tone, as an Elisabeth more effective in protest than in lyrical prayer. Glamorous mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon has some rough moments in Venus's outbursts in an otherwise persuasive performance. Günther Groissböck, as the Landgraf/CEO, excels among the Thuringians, and the bespectacled Markus Eiche deploys a light timbre with intelligence as Wolfram.
Peter Seiffert's hulking, mercurial Tannhäuser transcends the vagaries of the overall concept. Rodin-like in scale and demeanor, unsparing in intensity, he is an obvious outlier in this disciplined setting. Seiffert's many performances of the role over the years have not compromised the energy of his phrasing or his robust tone. Unlike portrayals that seem to see the character through Elisabeth's eyes, as a pitiable, reluctant victim of weakness or sorcery, this willful Tannhäuser is equally committed to his contending drives, an artistic ego eager to embrace everything.
DAVID J. BAKER
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