Wagner - Tannhäuser

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 27 2004

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production and choreography: Jan Fabre. Hermann: Stephen Milling. Tannhäuser: Louis Gentile. Wolfram von Eschenbach: Stephan Loges. Walther von der Vogelweide: Daniel Kirch. Biterolf: Andrew Greenan. Heinrich der Schreiber: Donal Byrne. Reinmar von Zweter: Jacques Does. Elisabeth: Adrienne Dugger. Venus: Natascha Petrinsky. Ein junger Hirt: Anne-Catherine Gillet.

Don’t you often wonder why you keep going back to the opera? Second-rate music, dodgily performed by a second-rate orchestra and singers with not a clue about acting, fights for attention with latecomers, coughing, mobile phones, the clatter of programmes falling from knees, hunger, heat and a sore bum. But occasionally the magic happens: something gels, it all comes together and we are raised to a different plane; time stands still, your neighbours stop fidgeting (brutes though they are, even they sense something is happening), your bottom goes perfectly numb, and it makes sense after all. “In a zone” is the expression, borrowed from athletes I think, used by someone on CMG to describe these rare occasions.

I won’t say that the recent Brussels production of Tannhäuser was flawless, or the singers the height of vocal perfection, from end to end. But the three great Act III arias – Elisabeth’s, then Wolfram’s, then Tannhäuser’s – were in that “zone”: conductor, players and singers were at one, the audience held its breath, the magic happened. Wolfram’s “evening star” number was the most moving moment I’ve had in an opera house for some time. So grateful were we for most of that third act that it seems churlish to say any more.

But as you insist…

That Wolfram, then: Stephan Loges was clearly a lied singer, a fact his programme biography bore out. When not singing Schubert song cycles, he’s singing Bach and Haydn. His voice is a mid-weight baritone with a plangent, rapid vibrato that was very touching in his tournament song and that moving act three aria; but in more dramatic moments, when he was forced to sing louder, the vibrato became an unpleasant bleat.

As Tannhäuser, the American Louis Gentile was clearly no lied singer. His voice is worn by years of heavy roles and I’m afraid that at the end of the second act we joked he’d gone to Rome to find his voice. In loud passages it was threadbare and pinched and precarious indeed and his middle range was inaudible over the orchestra. But again, in Act III, allowed to sing quietly as a lied and act his part, he put in a moving performance.

Adrienne Dugger seemed almost a soprano from another age: matronly in stature and imperious of presence (being in Brussels we inevitably thought of La Castafiore in Tintin), with a generous voice used generously, the vibrato kept just this side of a wobble. Her high note in Act II, when she interposed to save Heinrich, would have stopped an army. It woke my neighbour. No sign of wear and tear here, but she too, in Act III, sang her prayer in a magical pianissimo that reduced La Monnaie to pin-drop silence.

Stephen Milling was an excellent Hermann and Natascha Petrinsky a glamorous Venus with beautiful, waist-length black hair (or wig) and a strong, brassy Slav sound.

The chorus was on the whole very strong, though less subtle than the Radio France group at the Paris Châtelet earlier this season, and orchestra was remarkably good under La Monnaie’s music director Ono. When I first heard them together in Elektra, I said they seemed to like each other, and that still seems to be the case. It seems to be a winning partnership.

Now, that production the papers made such a fuss about. It seems to me the journalists wanted to stir up a scandal; but there wasn’t a single boo from the conservative Brussels bourgeoisie, fresh from mass, via lunch, on Sunday afternoon. On the contrary. There were indeed naked, pregnant women, but none of us saw any masturbation: they were just grouped together in Cranach-like poses, lovingly caressing their abdomens as pregnant women do. The foetus was a scan projected at the rear of the stage. The nudity, to be expected in a Bacchanalia after all, referred variously to cave paintings, Pompeii, renaissance art or Rodin. Overall, this was a staging that referred variously to many things, all of them relevant to the work: love and sex, birth, life, death and rebirth; sin, scapegoats, sacrifice and redemption; Artemis and the Virgin Mary; the sword and the cross… The story played out basically as written, in gorgeous medieval costumes, lit like Caravaggios on a dark stage against a tapestry of interwoven allusions, occasionally distracting but sometimes very beautiful to behold: at the end of Act II, for example, the forest of swords planted by the departing knights in rows in the shiny black stage, the hilts like gilded crosses, hinting at war graves… So, no gratuitous Eurotrash here at all.

Shame on those journalists! An afternoon well spent.

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