OPERA NEWS - Tännhauser
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Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

In Review Berlin Tannhauser hdl 714
Waltz's staging of Tannhäuser at Berlin’s Staatsoper, with Mattei, Pape, Jan Martiník (Reinmar von Zweter), Petersen, Seiffert and Tobias Schabel (Biterolf)
© Bernd Uhlig 2014

Sasha Waltz has a claim to being Germany's most important choreographer. The Berlin-based impresario has worked with Deutsche Staatsoper in the past on highly lauded "choreographed opera" productions of Purcell's Dido & Aeneas and Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze. So it was with heightened expectations that Berlin awaited her star-studded production of Tännhauser, which had its premiere during the company's springtime Festival Days (seen Apr. 12). Regrettably, this "Tanzhaüser," as the German press was quick to dub it ahead of the premiere, was a massive disappointment. 

This was the Staatsoper's first new Tannhäuser since Harry Kupfer's gothic, monochromatic staging from the late 1990s (last seen at the house in 2008). Waltz, whose most recent work for the Staatsoper was an exuberant ballet triple bill called Sacre (set to music by Stravinsky, Berlioz and Debussy) this past autumn, stumbled with her first foray into "heavy" German operatic repertoire. Insofar as there was a concept behind her production, it seemed vaguely inspired by the history and architecture of the Schiller Theater, the company's temporary home until 2016. The costumes worn by Wartburg society suggested the 1950s — the era of the modern Schiller Theater's construction — but aside from a few fedoras, thick-framed glasses and greased-back hair, there was little indication of anything specifically epochal. The set for Act II, two rows of suspended wooden planks that surrounded much of the stage, was reminiscent of the theater's interior, as was a grouping of red chairs. To what purpose, however, was anyone's guess. The mid-century Schiller Theater aspect of Act II was hardly consonant with Waltz's soft-core orgy vision of the Venusberg, or with the moody, fog-filled empty stage (her best and simplest inspiration) for the opera's finale.  

For Waltz's sake, conductor Daniel Barenboim inserted the expanded Bacchanal that Wagner wrote for Tannhäuser's 1860 Paris premiere into the otherwise intact Dresden version performed by the Staatskapelle. To this greatly extended ballet music, Waltz choreographed her eighteen half-naked dancers (the main dancers of her company, Sasha Waltz & Guests) around a white, slide-like tunnel onstage. They cavorted around the oculus nimbly, striking various attitudes and poses suggestive of Tinto Brass's Caligula.   

It was a pity that Waltz, whose innovative and genre-bending approach to dance-theater often marks her as a successor to Pina Bausch, failed to strike the right tone with Tannhäuser. She clearly refused to turn the work into a ballet, which was probably the right choice, and yet she often instructed singers to move with heightened sensitivity or sweeping gestures that were puzzling or downright lame. Sometimes, her choreography struck an unintentionally comic note, as in the minnesingers' entourage in the hunting scene, which twirled and leaped about like extras from Guys & Dolls or Newsies. During the singing contest, the dancers responded to Tannhäuser's endorsements of the pleasures of the flesh with naughty gestures (raising skirts and groping breasts), one of Waltz's few ideas that added an interpretive layer to the opera. Aside from this, the most effective dancing of the evening was the ritualistic pantomime of her corps (simply clad in gray tunics) during the pilgrims' chorus, which in Act III featured impressively statuesque dancers being borne aloft as Jesus and Mary. 

Luckily, the disappointments of the production were counterbalanced by its superb vocal qualities. The Staatsoper assembled an enviable cast for the premiere, and with few exceptions, the singers met the high expectations. 

Peter Seiffert was positively overwhelming in the title role. For my money, there's no Wagnerian tenor today who better combines vocal beauty, technical accuracy and dramatic engagement. In the past few seasons, he has sung riveting portrayals of Siegmund at this house, as well as breathtaking Tristans down the block at the Deutsche Oper, where he is a longtime ensemble member. (Incidentally, that company has a vivid and visionary Tannhäuser from its recently departed intendant, Kirsten Harms). His endurance at the top of his range and his stamina over the entire evening, culminating in a full-blooded and chilling Rome narrative, made Seiffert's performance the undisputed highlight of the evening. 

Flanking Seiffert and matching his intensity and commitment were the burnished and crepuscular voices of Peter Mattei and René Pape. As Wolfram, Mattei brought an exquisitely soft lyricism to an effortlessly powerful performance. With his bittersweet phrasings, he was several shades lighter than Pape, who brought a majestic solemnity to Landgraf Hermann (a role he sang on Barenboim's 2001 recording, which also featured Seiffert in the title role). Here, Pape sang with self-effacing modesty, turning his brief Act II exchange with Elisabeth — a moment that usually passes as unremarkable in performance — into one of the evening's high points.

On the whole, the women fared less well than the men. Russian mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya's Venus was banshee-like in her vocal fury and scorn, but she would do well to rein in her plush, vibrato-heavy instrument. Aside from this, her pronunciation was, at times, less than accurate. Ann Petersen, filling in for the originally announced Marina Poplavskaya, sang Elisabeth with the caliber of lividness and ferocity usually reserved for Isolde, another role in the Danish soprano's repertoire. Though undeniably agile and dramatically committed, she turned in a performance that was too undifferentiated in its brazen phrasings and articulations to be truly persuasive.

Barenboim and his orchestra provided much of the drama and direction that were lacking in Waltz's production. That said, there was little of a particularly revelatory nature about Barenboim's reading — unlike Tristan, Tannhäuser isn't one of the maestro's favorites — which was tarnished by some regrettable slip-ups in the horns, including wobbly opening notes in the overture. In the immediate wake of the premiere, the company tantalized Berlin operagoers by announcing that the centerpiece of the 2015 Festival Days will be a new Parsifal from the highly talented Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who furnished the Staatsoper's season-opener of The Tsar's Bride, and who is best known to New York audiences for his recent Met production of Prince Igorspacer


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