Review: 'Tannhäuser' Und Der Sängerkrieg Auf Wartburg, June 2010

By Richard Mason
Vienna Staatsoper – 16th June 2010 [opening night of a new production]
Johan Botha [Tannhäuser], Anja Kampe [Elisabeth], Michaela Schuster [Venus], Christian Gerhaher [Wolfram], Ain Anger [Landgraf], Gergely Németi [Walther], Alexandru Moisiuc [Biterolf], Marcus Pelz [Reinmar], Alois Mühlbacher [Shepherd]; Production: Claus Guth, Christian Schmidt; Lighting: Olaf Freese; Movement: Konrad Kuhn; Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst

This production was the last of the 19-year reign of Ioan Holender as Direktor, the longest in the history of the Staatsoper. It epitomised the era in many ways: confusing production, the casting a combination of inspirational and perverse.

Johan Botha has been preparing for the title role for many years, building up through a succession of heavier roles. This was his first Tannhäuser in an opera house. The voice had the superb combination of weight, beauty and elegance that one can normally only dream about in this role. The taxing 3-part aria in Act I was sung with full voice throughout and ringing tones. The vocal characterisation was superb, the acting just acceptable. Mr. Botha is generously proportioned, and moves around the stage slowly. A previous appearance in a new production as Otello was ruined by him being forced to continuously ascend and descend a set of stairs – the effort distracted from his vocal concentration to produce a dull result. A joke doing the rounds after the performance was that, to prevent a repeat, his contract for Tannhäuser stated “Mr Botha will stand at the front of the stage throughout, always facing the audience when singing. He will walk back and forth across the front of the stage no more than 3 times in each act. He will fall to the stage once only in each act. He will kneel, but only if he is assisted in rising by another cast member or a piece of furniture.”

A further inspired piece of casting was Christian Gerhaher, famous as a lieder singer but relatively new to opera. Apart from the odd occasion when he pushed the voice, his baritone was beautifully coloured, with fine phrasing, and a superb “Evening Star” aria.

Anja Kampe is a frequent Leonora and Senta. The main part of her voice is very expressive and colourful. However, the top part of the voice is piercing, harsh, and with suspect intonation. On the whole just about acceptable. She is tall and slim.

Michaela Schuster’s sole qualifications for Venus were that she is also tall and slim. The voice was harsh, loud and unspeakably ugly. Only in a few bars when she sang more softly was there any beauty. Certainly the most unseductive Venus I have heard: enough to make one flee the Venusberg with one’s fingers in one’s ears.

The boy soprano Mühlbacher from the St Florian’s Boys’ Choir was very fine, the first time a singer from this choir has performed a solo role at the Staatsoper. The other singers were fairly good: Ain Anger made a distinguished Landgraf, a surprise from a singer who often coarsens the voice for expression.

The conductor and music director-designate Welser-Möst performed his first Wagner since his controversial account of the Ring cycle. I did not like his Walküre – too loud and too fast. However, in Tannhäuser he redeemed himself, with a steady, weighty beat, speeds on the whole slightly slower than normal, with the gradual transitions required in Wagner. Unlike Die Walküre, he allowed sufficient room for the singers to be heard, although, as noted above, several sacrificed art to volume one their own account. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic horns were particularly noble and beautiful.

The production was an odd collection of various ideas. There was some link with psychoanalysis – Act III was set in a famous lunatic asylum, and there were doubles for Tannhäuser, Elisabeth and Venus. There were various colour symbols - Venus tended to wear green, and had red roses, whereas Elisabeth wore white and had white roses, but not in Act III when she wore a dowdy green dress. Venus and Elisabeth had similar figures and the same red shingled hair. There was a link with opera houses and performance – Act I started behind the opera curtain, and Act II was set in a recreation of the foyer of the Staatsoper itself, with 3 walls showing busts of famous composers. The middle bust was Rossini, and through this door Tannhäuser exited - to Rome (geddit?). Visiting the foyer in the interval, the missing fourth wall contained all the German composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn. Wolfram bore more than a passing resemblance to Schubert. The Act II audience was dressed in late 19th century costumes, although when the Landgraf appeared they all exited, to return in Venetian masques. Another persistent idea was that Tannhäuser was watching a giant cinema screen on which his past was acted out.

Make of all that what you will, and probably there is nothing to make of it. Booing for the production team outnumbered applause by around 2:1. Personally I do neither, and I believe it would be far more hostile for incompetent directors to be greeted by silence: most relish booing.

My test of such nonsense is whether it adds to or subtracts from my appreciation of the performance. In Act I, it added by placing Botha at the left front of the stage for his great aria, which was magnificent. In Act II it was mildly distracting, but did no damage. In Act III it subtracted three times: the pilgrim’s chorus was sung by twitching lunatics, Elisabeth’s aria concluded with her swallowing two bottles of pills and dying on stage, and Wolfram in his great aria kept fiddling with a gun, creating an absurd and inappropriate sense of tension. In all three cases I looked away, eliminating the contradiction between music and action.

On a final point, in an interview Welser-Möst indicated that in choosing future directors, he would be aiming to find productions that last a long period of time, abandoning the “contemporary” Eurotrash style where productions last only a few seasons, and therefore have to be (and certainly look) cheap. It is also interesting to note that in this time of austerity, horrible productions are failing the monetary test. In the current season a particularly offensive Macbeth had to be replaced by an Otto SchenkTraviata for the second half of its run, so bad were the ticket sales. Perhaps audiences are acquiring good taste and discrimination? One lives in hope.

As the applause for Botha started at the end of the performance, cameras and reporters from the 2 main Austrian TV news channels entered the auditorium. They commented on the audience reaction to the performance, and particularly focused on the booing for the production team. Can you imagine this in Sydney? Man sagt, nur in Wien.