The Power of Nature: Tannhäuser at the Opera Vlaanderen

Wagner – Tannhäuser

Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen – Ante Jerkunica

Tannhäuser – Andreas Schager

Wolfram von Eschenbach – Daniel Schmutzhard

Walther von der Vogelweide – Adam Smith

Biterolf – Leonard Bernad

Heinrich der Schreiber – Stephan Adriaens

Reinmar von Zweter – Patrick Cromheeke

Elisabeth – Annette Dasch

Venus – Ausrine Stundyte

Ein junger Hirt – Member of the Kinderkoor Opera Vlaanderen

Kinderoor Opera Vlaanderen, Koor Opera Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Vlaanderen / Dmitri Jurowski.

Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent.  Sunday, September 27th, 2015

Based in the cities of Antwerp and Ghent, the Opera Vlaanderen is a company that innovates with exciting casting and a range of inventive stage directors.  The Ghent theatre is a jewel, intimate, with a highly immediate acoustic, getting to hear a work such as this in such a small space was certainly extremely welcome.  The quality of the chorus and orchestra would put many bigger houses to shame and the production values are very high.  Seat prices are affordable and Ghent is a wonderful place in which to spend a day or two – it has the beauty of Bruges but without the tourists and is a vibrant university city.  It certainly deserves a place on every discerning opera lover’s list of houses to visit.

Ausrine Stundyte & Andreas Schager © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
Ausrine Stundyte & Burkhard Fritz © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

In an interview in the extensive program book, Calixto Bieito mentions that Tannhäuser was actually the first opera he’d heard live, at the Liceu when he was 15 years old.  In a way, this staging revisits many of the themes that are common to his productions – the conflict of the individual against the masses, how man changes when in contact with nature, the corruption of power, and the relationships between men and women.  Yet, there’s an ambiguity to this Tannhäuser.  In many ways, I find Bieito an extremely visceral stage director – what he achieves with his singer-actors so often has extreme emotional impact on the spectators of his shows.  Here, I felt he left many questions unanswered and as a result I’m not sure if it’s his most successful staging.

The main tenet of the production is the idea of the relationship between man and nature, exemplified by the freedom of Venus compared with the uptight world of the Wartburg.  Rather than a mass orgy for the bacchanale (here Act 1 is given in the Paris version), we are initially given a ballet of dancing trees (impressive sets by Rebecca Ringst) and later we see Venus running around the forest, completely free, rubbing herself against the branches of the trees.   The relationship between Tannhäuser and Venus is highly sexual – her power over him is to make him want her and she is very much in control.  Elisabeth on the other hand is introduced initially in a similar dress to Venus but changes to formal wear.  She is seen as an object to be won and as the song contest descends into chaos she is manhandled by the men of the castle.  Interestingly, I saw the relationship between Elisabeth, Tannhäuser and Wolfram as a triangle.  It felt to me that Wolfram wanted Tannhäuser but felt that he had to control Elisabeth due to his jealousy of her love for him.  In the final act as Elisabeth opens up sexually to Wolfram, it seems to break him.

Burkhard Fritz © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
Burkhard Fritz © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

We are introduced to the Landgraf and his companions in the forest as they are dressed in hunting clothes.  In the environment of the forest they indulge in a highly physical ritual spreading blood on their naked torsos, whereas in the Wartburg they are dressed in formalwear.  This ideally sets up the dichotomy between the group letting out their animalistic nature in the forest and the uptight environment of the Wartburg.  As the song contest descends into chaos, the ensemble spreads blood over their faces, losing themselves to their inner demons.  During the course of the evening, the sets change from the forest of the Venusberg, to the clinical atmosphere of the Wartburg to the Wartburg being taken over by nature.  The closing tableau is highly striking, Venus standing supreme over society, nature overwhelming and thereby redeeming society, and yet what the precise nature of that society was and its future is deliberately left ambiguous.

Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

Bieito will never give us a conventional staging and everything he does is based in a reading of the text.  At the same time, I felt that in some respects his treatment of the role of religion in the work was somewhat underdone.  I’m not sure that he completely answered my questions about why Tannhäuser was sent on the pilgrimage, why Elisabeth turns to religion and whether it was indeed a bad thing that the Pope rejected him.  If I think back to his Komische Opera Soldaten last year, the hypocrisy of organized religion in the sustaining of oppression was put to the forefront; here I’m not sure it was dealt with as successfully or even as fully as it could have been.  That said, the idea of a corrupt society being redeemed by the power of nature, rather than the power of religion is a highly potent one.

Musically, this was an extremely strong performance, testament to the outstanding musical values of the company.  The fine house orchestra played very well for Dmitri Jurowski.  The tuning in the cellos could have been tighter but the depth of string tone that he achieved was impressive.  The winds and brass were superb.  Tempi felt relatively swift and the bacchanale was wonderfully unhinged.  The song contest dragged, as it so often seems to, but otherwise the reading was very well judged.  The chorus was outstanding.  Yes, the off-stage interjections from the ladies at the start were not quite in tune but in Act 2 they gave us singing of glorious amplitude, fearless attack and splendid unanimity of tone.  Instead of the war of vibratos that we get with so many other opera choruses, here the tone was fresh and nicely blended.  The bass sound in the pilgrims’ chorus was marvellous.

© Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
© Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

Believe what they say about Andreas Schager because he really is the real thing.  His Tannhäuser was deeply impressive.  The sound is absolutely enormous, his tenor ringing and tireless, ending the show as fresh as he was at the start.  He’s not just about the volume though, he shaded the music with wonderful delicacy when required but had much in reserve for the final act.  The vibrations were even, diction was crystal-clear and he is a superb actor.  He is a major artist.  During the run he is sharing the role with Burkhard Fritz.

Ausrine Stundyte confirmed the very positive impressions she made in Berlin in April.  Her Venus was sensational.  Her soprano is rich and dusky and her attack fearless.  She sang her music with languid tone and yet had real power in reserve for Venus’ rages.  The bottom of the range perhaps lacks the ultimate weight needed but hers really is an exceptional account of the role.

Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

In the Wartburg, I found Annette Dasch’s Elisabeth more problematic.  Hers is a penetrating sound that carries well but the tone seems shallow and she spends a lot of time on the underside of the note.  She is certainly able to ride the ensemble and carry the long lines however.  As with her colleagues, she threw herself with fearless dedication into the role and Bieito’s vision of it and she is an engaging actress.  Daniel Schmutzhard’s Wolfram was interesting.  The voice carries well but I found the tone tight and it sounded as if he would have appreciated a slightly swifter tempo for his big number which he did sing with genuine feeling and pointing of the text.  The vibrations are also somewhat loose threatening to turn into a wobble.  The quality of the instrument is undeniable though and he’s a fine actor.  Ante Jerkunica sang the Landgraf with wonderfully resonant low notes, the tone warm and generous.  In the supporting cast Leonard Bernad’s young bass promises much – I have the impression that his instrument is going to ripen into something very special in a decade or so.  There’s a striking warmth to the sound and if it’s slightly hollow at the moment this is a voice that will surely bloom nicely.

Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns
Ensemble © Opera Vlaanderen/Annemie Augustijns

Musically this Tannhäuser is worthy of the biggest international houses.  The staging has much to say about the nature of society and our coexistence with each other and with nature.  If it isn’t one of Bieito’s most sharply drawn stagings, it is a highly stimulating piece of work that is a thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of the opera.  It’s also worth seeing for the sensational performances of Schager and Stundyte, the strong ensemble and excellence of the chorus and orchestra.

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