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Opera Flanders

MOST OF CALIXTO BIEITO'S opera stagings have a mise en scène so different from generally accepted productions of the opera that the director’s reading constitutes a new scenario for the work. The best of Bieito’s productions, however, acknowledge the composer’s intent in all its complexity and then set out to debate that intent, setting it in a context appropriate for our time. Bieito’s production of Tannhäuser for the Flanders Opera (seen Oct. 7) is among his best. Venus is no lush Hans Makartesque beauty, but a waif-like tree-hugger in whom love of nature and sex are synonymous; her Tannhäuser is an uncultivated mountain-man who leaves her to return to his life as the henchman of a brutal Landgrave. The theme of the production is one that is worryingly relevant for today—the use of an appearance of piety to pursue violent ends and the embracing of nature as an antidote to this.

This theme was coherent, but it required some compromise with the letter of Wagner’s poem and score. It was difficult, for example, in Act I, to reconcile the generous melodies of Tannhäuser’s reconciliation with his erstwhile companions to the hoodlum mentality with which they were represented. In Act II, the brutal manhandling of Elisabeth by the knights seemed, initially at least, to be uncalled for, while the ending of the opera, which comprised a paean of worship to the nature-loving Venus is at odds with what Wagner had written. But in the end these are quibbles, as a troubled dialectic between nature and society unfolded with compelling power and was ultimately close in spirit to Wagner’s own beliefs.

Bieito’s production oscillated between intense, expressionistic depictions of the characters’ personal crises and the public spectacle of the Landgrave’s viciously hierarchical court.  In Rebecca Ringst’s sets, the creeping tendrils of the forest gradually encircled and decomposed the stark, icy pillars of the Wartburg, suggesting that social degeneration and collapse was necessary and desirable. This offbeat approach enhanced rather than reduced the splendor of Wagner’s score. 

Although Burkhart Fritz’s Tannhäuser was initially a pitifully dependent figure, in his struggle with the Landgrave’s court he developed a wicked sense of humor and an air of anarchistic wildness that both engaged our sympathy and complemented his stout, ringing tones. Despite the distasteful shabbiness of the Landgrave’s entourage, the knights all sang with marvelous decision and clarity. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Wolfram was a fine study in the curious relationship between intense aggression and craven adoration, while Walther von der Vogelweide and Biterolf were given perversely heroic dimensions through the fine singing of Adam Smith and Leonard Bernad. The Landgrave, while dramatically a questionable character was given massive stature by the impressive bass of Ante Jerkunika. But ultimately this was an evening for the women. The sweet light tones of Ausrine Stundyte’s lithe Venus, a child of nature clad in a slip, were, at the radiant end, refreshing after the awful oppressiveness of the court. But it was Annette Dasch as Elisabeth who carried the emotional burden of the production. A complex figure, she grew from a spoiled, self-regarding child through intense persecution by the Landgrave’s rabble to a completely mature woman; in the soaring voice of this charismatic woman one felt all the values and virtues that were appallingly absent elsewhere. 

Dmitry Murkowski conducted with great attention to the contrasts in Wagner’s score. As the version used combined Act I of the Paris version, with Acts II and III of Dresden, these contrasts were often disconcertingly apparent and made not only for one of the longer Tannhäusers of my experience, but gave a vivid sense of how this work occupied Wagner’s imagination for so much of his life.  —Simon Williams 

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