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Wagner, Tannhäuser:  Orquestra Simfònica and Chorus Gran Teatre del Liceu. Conductor: Sebastián Weigle, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona,29.3.2008 (JMI)

Co - production: Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opera National Paris, Tokyo Opera Omori.

Director: Robert Carsen
Sets: Paul Steinberg
Costumes: Constance Hoffman
Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet.


Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert
Elizabeth: Petra Maria Schnitzer
Wolfram: Markus Eiche
Venus: Béatrice Uria-Monzon
Hermann: Günther Groissböck
Walther : Vicente Ombuena
Biterolf: Lauri Vasar
Heinrich: FranciscoVas
Reinmar: Johann Tilli
Shepherd: Eliana Bayón

Based on legends and mythology as they often are, Wagner operas easily allow changes of period  on stage, which is why they have become an authentic gold mine for many of  today’s directors. These  transpositions sometimes work better than others, but from my point of view two Wagner operas are not so transposition-friendly, Die Meistersinger and, particularly, Tannhäuser. This opera has religious connotations which can  hardly be avoided, since both libretto and score state them clearly. Saint Elizabeth’s Prayer and the Pilgrim’s Chorus  are  a couple of examples, which do not make too much sense in their contexts are radically altered.

Canadian Robert Carsen, one of the more imaginative directors nowadays whose work often  offers  a good deal of  originality, begs to differ and has   decided to offer a vision of the work, which breaks away firmly from tradition. It is very interesting  in some aspects while in others there are   inevitable absurdities and much of what we see on stage has nothing to do with what we are hearing or read in the libretto. Tannhäuser himself is a contemporary painter, his studio becomes the Venusberg, the  Wartburg is an Art Gallery in which a painting contest takes place and the surrounding plain is once againahown as the Venusberg/Studio. Changing  singers for painters however, works far better than I expected and the whole thing feels better than Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth adaptation of Die  Meistersinger last year.

During the overture,  Tannhäuser is on stage painting a naked model, who is no other than Venus (a double, of course) and the Baccanale is  an orgiastic art exhibition.  But the contest in Act II is the most accomplished stage direction I have ever seen in an opera house and  Carsen  uses  the whole theatre for it. The guests and the painters enter through the stalls which is also the place from which  Elizabeth sings “Dich, teure Halle”. The Painters’ contest  is full of imagination and detail, in which each of the members of the chorus become individual characters. This is a display of stage management that should be seen a thousand times by less accomplished  directors who look only at  aesthetics in their work.

Imagination can  have limitations however and things begin to fall more or less apart in the last act.  Elizabeth enters stealthily into Tannhäuser’s studio and on seeing his bed, partially undresses to begin caressing herself while thinking of her absent beloved. Wolfram appears silently, more as a voyeur than as a friend, and on catching  Elizabeth in her intimate reverie, sings, “I knew I’d find her praying as usual. ” Sexual fantasy is one thing as a common enough activity, but  praying? The real problem is that  there  is no confrontation between sin (Venus) and virtue (Elizabeth) here. Both women welcome the painter in the much the same fashion and with their  combined support, he returns to the  reward of having his painting hung in the gallery alongside other masterworks. When this happens, the pilgrims sing loudly that  “Grace has been granted to the penitent”.  What?  I’ll remember the spectacular direction of the second act with some pleasure and I'll try to forget the third.

Musical direction was in the hands of Sebastián Weigle, who was much better than he was the  Holländer last season, even though this  was still not an outstanding performance.  During the first act some  things worked really rather badly, particularly the  bland  overture, while the second act achieved a much improved musical standard. Mr Weigle presented what has become the traditional version of Tannhäuser nowadays, Paris for the first act and Dresden for the second. The Liceu orchestra played decently enough, although still  not to  the level expected from a leading opera house. The chorus was very good  as usual.

Tannhäuser was  German tenor Peter Seiffert, one of the few currently  able to face up the role and its huge vocal difficulties. Seiffert is a tenor who has been developing  with time and who has arrived at this repertoire after many years in a lighter fach. He is a Tannhäuser who sings and never barks and  the tessitura present problems for him, not even in the scene with Venus nor at the  end of the second act, where he showed that he had enough strength left to face the third. His only problem is the customary excessive vibrato in his upper range, which while not dimming a  great performance, could perhaps become worrisome for the future.

Elizabeth (I do not dare to call her Saint Elizabeth) was Peter Seiffert’s  wife in real life, the Austrian soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer. She  was a convincing interpreter too but she does have a problem  with the tessitura, where her voice loses some quality. Her Prayer in the last act also lacked intimacy and emotion, but there she was  hardly  helped by the stage direction.

The young German baritone Markus Eiche replaced Bo Skovhus in the part of Wolfram. He has an interesting and homogenous voice, but he did not convince me with his interpretation. The Wolfram role is probably the baritone’s best gift  with such gorgeous music to sing. Oddly, there are not so outstanding baritones who are sublime as Wolfram (Roman Trekel for example) while others, like Eiche, with very interesting voices, do not move the audience in 'O,star of eve.'

Beatrice Uria-Monzon was a fine interpreter of Venus. She has an appealing appearance -  important in  this  role -  but the tessitura presents  her too with some difficulties, as  happens with most mezzo-sopranos.  Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was a good Hermann, the Landgrave or Gallery Owner here. He offered a voice of some real quality, although rather whitish in tone, and had some problems with projection in the higher register.

In the secondary roles I should point out the magnificent characterization of Biterolf as a  young painter. Estonian Lauri Vasar did it very well indeed. There was also a good performance from Vicente Ombuena as Walther.  The  theater was full and gave a very warm reception to all the singers. The best was awarded to  Peter Seiffert.

José M Irurzun

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