Wagner - Tannhäuser

Paris Version (1861)

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, April 13 2004

Conductor: Myung-Whun Chung. Production: Andreas Homoki . Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert. Elisabeth: Petra-Maria Schnitzer. Venus: Ildiko Komlosi. Wolfram: Ludovic Tézier. Hermann: Franz-Josej Selig. Young shepherd: Katija Dragojevic. Walther: Finnur Bjarnason. Biterof: Robert Bork. Heinrich: Nikolai Schukoff. Reinmar: Nicolas Courjal. Radio France Chorus, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

Simple production, strong cast

Director Andreas Homoki was responsible for an excellent Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Châtelet 10 years ago and, more recently, an equally excellent Zemlinsky double-bill in Brussels. His approach to Tannhäuser in Paris didn't please everyone. Perhaps Wagner fans are fed up with Konzept productions and would like, for once, a more literal approach to their hero's (or god's) works. Homoki was booed on the first night. But as he didn't appear at the second, the loud applause went on uninterrupted, apart from a whistle or two (whistling is bad in Paris) for Venus and the odd boo for Chung. I'll explain why later.

Homoki's focus was on Tannhäuser as artist - composer and singer - in a world of musicians (the pilgrims, for example, sang from what Ms Martha would call sheet music). The message seemed to be that the apollonian and dyonisiac represented by Elisabeth and Venus, here played as muses, are both necessary and complementary sources of inspiration in the creative process. This was rubbed in, at the end, by Venus and Elisabeth joining hands to escort Heinrich off - to fame, creative heaven, whatever.

Anyway, it was a simple concept, verging on simplistic perhaps, which may explain in part the first-night boos. And it was simply and consistently carried through, in a production so uncluttered as to verge on semi-staging. Venus's sphere of influence was red: I mean, a large red sphere that emerged more or less from the stage depending on the degree of Venusberg influence at a given time; Venus herself wore a red evening gown. Elisabeth's sphere was a cube: a white hollow cube or archway, reminiscent of the Grande Arche de la Défense, through which the spectators at the singing contest could enter and in which they crowded to watch the proceedings. Elisabeth and the good citizens wore white. Tannhäuser had a black grand piano. The whole cast was extremely well rehearsed and the concept was carried through with impeccable logic and great professionalism. Though not earth-shatteringly original, it was not aggressively or stupidly Konzept and there was no real reason to boo. In a sense, it was, as one reviewer said in French "a handsome concert performance."

In other words, it didn't prevent us enjoying the marvellous cast. What a relief it is, on the rare occasions when it happens, to hear singers with large voices and plenty of breath sing their hearts out. I mean, I feared the worst. When you see Tannhäuser on your season schedule, you can't help an inward "Uh-oh..." You don't expect Wagner to be well cast these days. But Peter Seiffert is that rarity, a real Wagnerian tenor, with breath, volume, nuance, drama and stamina - and all the notes, no problem. The contrast with Wolfram was perfect. Ludovic Tézier was, until this production, a rising French baritone. He is now risen indeed. He has, apparently, gained the extra touch of power he needed (from what I heard in Lucie de Lammermoor and The Tsar's Bride), and has now a warm, strong, moving baritone voice. His set-piece arias reduced the audience (if not their numerous mobile phones) to silence. Wherever you are, you'll presumably hear more of Tézier, whose dark mediterranean looks should help him in his career.

Elisabeth was a Viennese soprano new to me, called Schnitzer. Presumably she's already been called "Wiener Schnitzer" many times, so I'll resist the temptation to make the joke. She scored quite a hit. Again, a strong soprano voice, silvery, a little hard on top. I admit, in my mind I was making the most odious comparison possible, being unable to cast from it Deborah Voigt's peerless concert performance (encored with a cry to the audience of "one more time!") of Dich, Teure Halle (also reviewed here). Schnitzer's voice was under rather less firm control, had less supreme assurance than Voigt's, but the comparison really is unfair. Ildiko Komlosi was a maturely voluptuous Venus in red, with a maturely voluptuous voice, the kind that has a wide vibrato verging dangerously on Jonesian wobble and is losing its top - hence the odd whistle. But, like Dame Gwyneth, full marks for commitment.

The supporting cast were remarkably strong - the kind you don't expect to get in second roles. The chorus of Radio France, the Rolls-Royce of French choirs, sang with an elegance not usually found on the opera stage and displayed previously unsuspected acting talent (they are rarely on stage, except at the rear of a symphony orchestra). The women were beautifully prim in white 60s cocktail dresses and long black gloves, the men in white tuxedos. Chung is a habitually noisy conductor (I remember his Turangalila was almost head-splitting) but on the whole I've nothing against noise, especially in Wagner. The overall noise level - a certain brutality, even? - may explain the sprinkling of boos.

There were, thankfully, no ballets. Pierre Bergé, Paris's answer, toute proportion gardée, to Vilar, declared the evening "extraordinaire." Well, as he'd financed it and filled the front row of the grand tier with local celebrities, giving the Paris public plenty to look at during the intermissions, I suppose he might be biased. But it certainly was a triumph, and I think the best thing we've had in Paris this season.

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