Last night Charles and I watched a 2009 video of Wagner’s Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen, Denmark (if I saw that in a movie intertitle I’d probably joke, “As opposed to Copenhagen, Manitoba” or something), which turned out to be the sort of modern-day opera production in which a supposedly “brilliant” and “innovative” director takes a piece that was dramatically fine in its original design and setting and makes post-modern hash out of it. This time the “brilliant” director was somebody named Kasper Holten, who according to the blurb on the DVD box was coming off “the triumph of The Copenhagen Ring” — note the extent of the italicization of the title, as if The Copenhagen Ring were a fundamentally different work from the Ring of the Nibelung as conceived, written, composed, designed and staged by Richard Wagner. Judging from the hatchet job he did on Tannhäuser, it probably was; though I’ve seen modern Regietheater productions that were considerably worse than this one (including the Met’s current stagings of Traviata and Parsifal), this was still pretty silly. I’d made up in my own head an idea for a modern-dress Tannhäuser in which Heinrich Tannhäuser (at least as far as I can think of at the moment, he and Cola Rienzi are the only two Wagner tenor leads who have both first and last names!) is a drugged-out rock musician — the Venusberg would be a drug den and when we first saw him he’d have a needle in his arm — the song contest would take place under a giant neon sign reading “German Idol,” and in Act III Tannhäuser would be returning not from Rome but from rehab. Mine would probably be considerably less silly than Holten’s turned out to be: even before the actual opera starts, he has his shenanigans begin during the Overture.
It supposedly takes place in Tannhäuser’s home, which reveals him to be an upper-middle-class German Burgher of the 19th century (quite a few directors who don’t want to drag Wagner’s operas whole-hog into the modern era but don’t want to leave them in their actual historical or mythological settings either plunk them into the 19th century because that’s when Wagner himself lived) with Elisabeth as his wife, their two sons (the older of whom, played by Ioannis Marinos, gets to sing the shepherd boy’s song in the middle of Act I) and various servants, guests and whatnot cavorting around a big set representing the inside of Tannhäuser’s home. The set itself has three levels of steeply angled staircases for the participants to cavort on; Tannhäuser has a pen with which he is compulsively writing on just about every surface available, ranging from paper to the staircase to Elisabeth’s back (for a while I was wondering if this was going to be The Pillow Book: The Musical) to his kids’ collars. The people in Tannhäuser’s home also like to throw water, pebbles, sand or whatever on each other. Just as a point of reference, the plot of Tannhäuser as Wagner wrote it is a story about a medieval Minnesinger, Tannhäuser (Stig Andersen), who before the opera begins has been pulled away from his respectable colleagues — at least two of whom actually existed in history, Wolfram von Eschenbach (Tommi Hakala), who wrote the epic poem Parsifal on which Wagner more or less based his last opera; and Walther von der Vogelweide (Peter Lodahl) — and his nice girlfriend Elisabeth (Tina Kiberg) by the goddess Venus, who has seduced Tannhäuser and got him to live with her in her mountain redoubt, the Venusberg. There he pursues a life of sensual pleasure in fantastic realms Venus has conjured up for him, sort of like Sir Basil Elton in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ship,” until he gets bored and says he wants a normal, mortal life again, including seeing real nature, hearing real birds (the Minnesänger, medieval troubadours who were a generation or two before the Mastersingers Wagner wrote a later opera about, legendarily claimed to have learned music from the birds themselves) and hanging out with ordinary people again. Tannhäuser utters a prayer to the Virgin Mary — and the entire Venusberg disappears and Tannhäuser finds himself in a meadow where a shepherd boy is leading a flock of sheep and singing a song to “Frau Holda,” which is really another name for the Norse goddess Freia, who appears as an onstage character in Das Rheingold, two Wagner operas later. (So the plot of Tannhäuser is a Wagnerian mashup of Greco-Roman, Norse and Christian myths.)
Elisabeth doesn’t appear on stage until the start of act two (at least she isn’t supposed to appear, but like most Regietheater directors Kasper Holten thought he knew better than the original composer and librettist — who in Wagner’s works were the same person), where she sings an ode to the hall where the song contest is to take place, and then she confronts Tannhäuser for an odd duet in which he’s evasive about just what he’s been doing all the years he’s been away. The contest duly occurs and Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach sing deliberately dull songs about chaste, pure love — and Tannhäuser is so pissed off at their ignorance of the dark side and their hypocrisy about it that when it’s his turn, he scandalizes the fellow contestants and the audience alike by singing the love song he had sung to Venus back in Act I. The other Minnesänger draw their swords and are ready to kill him when Elisabeth intervenes, and she and Wolfram suggest that he can redeem himself by joining a band of pilgrims who are about to leave for Rome and asking the Pope for forgiveness. He does so, and at the start of Act III Elisabeth and Wolfram are waiting for him to return. When he doesn’t come back with the other pilgrims, Elisabeth sings a prayer of hope that he’s all right and Wolfram comforts her with the opera’s most famous excerpt, the Song to the Evening Star. Then Tannhäuser enters and in the opera’s most emotionally wrenching moment, he sings a scena, “Inbrunst im Herzen,” about how he essentially used the pilgrimage as a way of self-flagellation, walking barefooted over the rockiest routes and agreeing to carry the other pilgrims’ burdens, just to suffer as much as possible in order to expiate his sin of hanging out with Venus at the Venusberg. Only it didn’t do him any good because when he finally got his audience with the Pope, the Pope told him that no mortal who’d lived (and had sex) with Venus and been in the Venusberg could ever be saved. The Pope specifically tells Tannhäuser that he’s as likely to be accepted into heaven as the Pope’s staff is to sprout leaves. Well, given that clue you can pretty much guess how it’s going to end: Elisabeth dies of shock but her death redeems Tannhäuser, who also dies but is now in a state of grace — a messenger or something comes in with the news that the Pope’s staff has indeed sprouted leaves — and Wolfram is left alone, presumably to write Parsifal.
This plot got amended by Wagner when he got an offer to present the opera in Paris in 1861 and he ran into the Jockey Club, a group of young aristocrats who had managed to get jobs for their ballerina girlfriends/mistresses/whatever by insisting that every opera produced at the Opéra in Paris had to have a ballet in it. What’s more, the ballet had to be in the second act because the Jockey Club members always arrived fashionably late and missed the first act. Wagner pondered this and, rather than spot the ballet in the “logical” place for it — just before the song contest — decided to expand his musical depiction of the Bacchanale in the Venusberg in Act I beyond what he’d written for the earlier (1845) Dresden version of the opera and place the ballet there. Wagner also rewrote all the parts of the opera involving Venus because, having just completed Tristan und Isolde, he was not happy with the passages about lust as he’d been able to do them in 1845 and thought he could do better this time around. To keep the evening relatively short despite the expansion of the dance sequence in the Venusberg, he cut Walther’s song from the Act II contest — leaving Walther basically little more than a comprimario role. The Royal Opera production in Copenhagen followed the Paris version (which I generally approve of, though I’d want Walther’s song put back in because the more boring material we hear from singers prattling on about love without any idea of what it’s really about, the more credible Tannhäuser’s attitude becomes and the easier it is to sympathize with his punk-like disruption of the song contest), but Kasper Holten’s weird staging significantly compromised the whole piece. In this version Venus becomes one of Tannhäuser’s maids, with whom he’s presumably having an affair; there’s also a lot of business about a floppy velvet hat (a sort of hat Wagner himself wore — most drawings, paintings and photos of him during his lifetime show him wearing one) that gets passed from Tannhäuser to his son during the prologue (which doesn’t have anything to do with any of Wagner’s original libretto) and eventually turns up on Wolfram’s head during the Song to the Evening Star. Venus the Maid is made up to look like Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety except for her hair, which is a long wig dyed punk-red. She hardly looks like a personification of the Goddess of Love, and why Tannhäuser would go with her when Elisabeth is far better-looking is a mystery locked inside Holten’s head. Once Tannhäuser says his prayer to the Virgin Mary and the entire Venusberg is supposed to disappear and deposit him on a meadow (one of the 19th century theatrical special effects it would have been difficult but far from impossible to do on stage), in Holten’s production he’s still in the same house, only with a couple of prop trees dangling from the rafters to indicate “meadowicity.” (I joked that it was in a later Wagner opera, Die Walküre, that a character was supposed to have a tree growing through his living-room floor.)
The second and third acts aren’t as elaborately and infuriatingly misdirected as the first — indeed, I quite liked a lot of the “business” in Act II, particularly the behavior of the people who are supposed to be the audience at the song concert and who act as nervously and inappropriately as many of their real-life counterparts at a fancy musical event) — but they both suffer from Holten’s annoying insistence at putting people on stage who are carefully indicated as being off stage in Wagner’s libretto. Venus is shown in the middle of the song contest, physically nudging Tannhäuser to disrupt it (in Wagner’s original he does so on his own), and in Act III Tannhäuser is visible on stage, compulsively writing away in his little notebook. as Wolfram and Elisabeth are declaiming about how worried they are because they haven’t seen or heard from him in quite a while. (If they were any closer to him they’d trip over him!) Nor is the strictly musical end of things good enough to make up for the silly stage production; Stig Andersen was a tenor who mightily impressed me when the Met did Siegfried and Götterdämmerung with him in 2000, but by 2009 his voice had developed a nasty wobble and here he’s giving one of those performances where it’s clear the role isn’t in his voice anymore even though he’s an intelligent enough performer and a sensitive enough actor one can’t write him off completely. (Then again he’d probably have had an easier time portraying Tannhäuser’s anguish in a production that stuck to Wagner’s original concept and setting.) Overall the singers are competent enough without being truly inspired, though since most of them have Scandinavian names I’m presuming they are Danish opera “regulars” that work together often and thus are better able to come together in an ensemble than international “stars” flown into town and brought together for just one production. But they’re hamstrung not only by a ridiculous production but by conductor Friedemann Layer, one of those modern-day Wagner conductors who equates slow = “spiritual” and ponderous = “profound.” Layer is actually quite good in the parts of the opera Wagner intended to be played slowly — Wolfram’s two big solos and Elisabeth’s prayer — but “Dich, teure Halle” (Elisabeth’s ode to the Hall of Song at the start of Act II) isn’t the energy rush it should be and Tannhäuser’s disruption of the song contest with the Hymn to Venus doesn’t pack the dramatic punch it’s supposed to have, and does have at a faster tempo.
As I’ve been writing the above I’ve been playing a quite different version of Tannhäuser — the abridged recording British Columbia made at Bayreuth in 1930 (Act I is complete but Acts II and III are each shorn to about half their intended length), conducted by Karl Elmendorff, who wasn’t considered one of the great Wagnerians of the 20th century but has it all over Layer in terms of bringing dramatic power and raw emotion to the action. It also helped Elmendorff’s cause that he had a significantly better cast: his Tannhäuser, a Hungarian tenor named Sigismund Pilinszky, has taken his lumps over the years from reviewers of this recording but his voice is considerably more secure than Andersen’s c. 2009 (alas, clashing record contracts prevented the best Tannhäusers from 1930, Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz and Franz Völker, from being on these records!), and Maria Müller as Elisabeth is so far ahead of Tina Kiberg as both vocalist and dramatic actress they practically seem to inhabit different universes. Ditto for the Wolframs (Herbert Janssen in 1930, Tommi Hakala in 2009) and even the shepherd boys — I usually give producers points if they can cast an actual boy in a pre-pubescent role instead of putting in an adult woman in drag, but when the Shepherd Boy’s solo is sung as well as Erna Berger did in 1930 (“seven minutes of sheer perfection,” said a High Fidelity critic of a 1980 reissue), who cares that she’s an adult she instead of a pre-pubescent he? Ultimately the 2009 Tannhäuser makes its point more from the sheer grandeur of Wagner’s music, which overcomes a silly production, a dull conductor and professionally competent but not especially inspiring singing.