‘…und der Sängerkreig auf dem Wartburg’ – that full title seems to be the guiding motif for Tim Alberys new production, which concentrates more on the contest between artistic values than those involving lust and purity. It’s never easy to bring this work to the stage: some of the characters may be historically real, but they lived in that remote time of the early thirteenth century, when the rulers of Thuringia fostered the art of singing with competitions amongst the Minnesänger, whose subject was Love in its purest form.
Or are such things so remote? After all, in Act II, the line of black-tied hopefuls about to expound on their view of the ‘true nature of Love’ looked exactly like entrants in a Wigmore Hall Song Competition, and at that very moment in the world outside these hallowed portals, twenty million were watching the contestants slugging it out in The X Factor. Who wins? Both contests endure allegations of ‘fixing’ but in the case of the one on the Wartburg, the overall winner is the art of the opera singer, as displayed by the evenings Wolfram, Tannhäuser and Walther.
Of the opening choreography, I will only say that I could happily live without the Victoria Beckham Dancers, and as for Venusberg, I have seen more erotic Nativity Plays. That over with, the set is finely conceived, a replica of the auditorium the portal though which we enter the realm of sensual delight, observed rather than participated in by Tannhäuser, giving way to a somewhat war-torn ruined hall amidst which the Landgrave and his people seem to struggle to survive a cold and inhospitable world.
Johann Botha belongs to a tiny minority of tenors who are able to give ‘Dir Töne Lob’ the requisite ardour yet still sound fervent by the time of ‘Inbrunst im Herzen’. There are moments when more of an heroic, ringing style is missed, but his phrasing of the narratives, the attention he gives to small but telling moments and the steadiness and warmth of his tone compensate for much. I wished that Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth could have displayed some of the same steadiness in her first scenes, but she overcame her initial nerves for an intense ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ and a beautifully judged scene with Wolfram and the Pilgrims.
Michaela Schuster did all she could to create a Venus of smouldering sensuality, and if those final lines held any terrors for her she certainly did not let it show. Christoff Fischesser was a completely believable Herrmann, Clive Bayley and Steven Ebel shone as Biterolf and Heinrich der Schreiber respectively, and Timothy Robinson’s Walther covered himself in glory – an ovation after his aria would not have gone amiss. The chorus sang magnificently throughout.
Wolfram is of course the real hero of this work; it’s very often the singer who takes this role who has the greatest success with the audience – as it was here, and rightly so. The part lies beautifully for the lyric baritone voice, and Wolfram must be one of the most sympathetic figures in the whole canon. Christian Gerhaher is a much-hyped Lieder singer, and he shaped Wolframs lines as though they were intimate utterances, confiding in this huge audience as though in a tiny hall. ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ held us all spellbound, but it was ‘Wohl wüsst ich hier’ which really pierced the heart, ‘O heil’ger Liebe ewig macht!’ weighted with intensity and ‘O würd ihr Lindrung nur erteilt!’ followed by the kind of silence you normally hear only at the Wigmore Hall.
Semyon Bychkov led a lyrical, expansive, compelling account of the score, giving due attention to the weightier moments and never allowing the more intimate ones to become overwhelmed. This is a singers’ conductor, in the best sense of that term. Those put off by the staging – and I suspect there were many – could simply close their eyes and wallow in the glorious sounds from the pit. For the rest of us, Albery’s vision of a ‘stage within a stage’ is entirely appropriate for a work which deals with the nature of the creative artist and his part in society, and I’m sure it will be a huge success and be revived many times.
Perhaps there may even be, at some time in the distant future, a tenor who sings like Botha and looks like an athlete, just to please those who can’t seem to cope with anything else – but I wouldnt count on it. Take a look at photos of Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who was Wagner’s choice for Tristan, and to whom Botha bears a resemblance – now there’s a man who looks as if he could devour a couple of Pilgrims and then demolish a few annoying dancers for dessert.
A final word on the staging: the Shepherd Boy sings under a burgeoning springtime tree, which is later shown as a withered skeleton affording little protection to Elisabeth. After the wonderful defiance in which the Pope’s staff has bloomed, the boy brings on a sapling which he plants, and then solemnly sits over just as Tannhäuser had watched the rites at the beginning. The artist observes, rejects or is rejected, and nature and humanity strive on – as Wagner said, it is “absurd” to “insist on reading into my Tannhäuser a specifically Christian and impotently pietistic drift!”