Thursday 31 July 2014

Tannhauser at Norwich, or, Aimless Wandering I Am Thinking

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance given on Sunday 27th July 2014.

According to the programme, fully staged Wagner was last seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich in 1997. Before anything else therefore, it is cause for celebration that the management have brought Wagner back once again. The musical strengths of this performance fully justified the decision though the staging was sadly (probably unintentionally) by turns baffling and hilarious.

The best of the evening was musical. The Opera Freiburg Chorus and Orchestra played and sang superbly. The sound in the stalls at the big choral climaxes was extraordinary, and overall the ensemble showed both quality and precision. The soloists also impressed. Okay, these are not singers of the calibre of Gerhaher and Botha (whom I had the privilege of hearing as Wolfram and Tannhauser in the Royal Opera production) but you really can't expect quite that standard and the soloists in this performance stood up well as representatives of the tier below those exceptional artists. Marius Vlad's Tannhauser had stamina and necessary power and was especially compelling in his Act Three monologue (one of the rare places where the production was temporarily not requiring a double of him to wander about). In an ideal performance I would have more beauty of tone in the softer passages, but he was not unpleasant to listen to, and power and stamina are the more crucial attributes for the part. It was more difficult to completely banish the memory of Gerhaher while listening to Alejandro Larraga Schleske's Wolfram, but that said (and despite having one of the worst directorial misjudgements visited on him in Act Three) he did have beauty of tone, if not of quite the same order, and an impressive stage presence. Among the smaller male roles I was impressed by the vocal heft of Shinsuke Nishioka's Heinrich and the combination of beauty and strength of Roberto Gionfriddo's Walther.

I was slightly less keen on the two women. Dana Burasova's Elisabeth had impressive power but is sometimes a bit harsh and, like others in the company, was not at her best in the quieter sections. Astrid Weber, standing in for the advertised Viktoria Mester as Venus was a much more seductive figure than Michaela Schuster in the Royal Opera production but the voice was a bit shrill and sour for my taste. Finally on the musical side Fabrice Bollon conducted with a good feel for drama and drive, and excellent balance of pit and stage. Just occasionally in the more intimate sections there was not perhaps that sense of the work as a total whole which a truly great Wagnerian might bring, but, as with just about everything else musically the positives outweighted the negatives to make for compelling listening.

Unfortunately, Eva-Marie Hockmayr's production was some way from living up to the musical strengths of the evening. Hockmayr's basic problem was that perennial operatic vice of busyness. There was virtually not a single moment in the whole performance when the stage was still. Had this constant movement served dramatic purpose it would have been forgiveable but as far as I was concerned it was a case of far too much aimless wandering. Hockmayr also didn't seem to grasp that less is almost always more in terms of gesture and facial expression – at least from top price stalls everybody on stage was over-emoting. The production also threw in a fair amount of projections to little purpose - the endless enlarged breasts were comprehensible in terms of the Venusberg if not particularly necessary, though I appreciate that it is very difficult to know how to solve that scene, the various faces that kept turning up elsewhere were rather more baffling. Also confusing was Hockmayr's use of doubling. Thus for much of the show there were two Tannhausers present. There seemed to be an idea that an older Tannhauser was remembering much of the action of Acts One and Two and indeed looking on in despair while his younger self makes all his unfortunate mistakes. But quite why we were being asked to view things from this perspective was unclear, and it either added nothing to the musical punch, or detracted from it. The same went for the lengthy sections of two-level dumb show involving various Elizabeths. There also seemed to be some sort of parallel being drawn between religious and sexual ecstasy – but as with much else it was not clearly thought out. Then there was the management of the chorus – it was never really clear who they were all supposed to be, their movement was ineffectively choreographed, and mood changes (particularly in the lengthy dumb show of the opening) were rarely convincing. It was also odd that a Pope-like figure was around at the beginning but did not appear at obvious points in Act Three and that everybody else except Tannhauser had a symbolic branch – though these occasions of directors abiding by some of the directions and not others always provide interesting pondering as one tries to work out why. Finally there were familiar moments of simple unnecessary directorial intervention (having Venus come on and try and seduce Wolfram during the song to the evening star) and straight contradiction of the text (most notably, and hilariously when Tannhauser announced towards the end of Act Three that he was going to descend to hell and promptly climbed up the steps of the pulpit). If I'd had the power to cut only one piece of set the ineffectively overused pulpit would have been top of the list.

One other point which deserves mention is the surtitles, which also became difficult to take seriously after one of my companions pointed out in the first interval that verbs were consistently being placed at the end of phrases (hence the title of this review). The intention may have been poetic, the outcome was not.

Overall, it proved to be well worth travelling to Norwich for the musical side of this performance, especially given the infrequency with which Tannhauser is performed in the UK. But it was a pity that it wasn't supported by a less frenetic, more coherant production.

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