Tannhäuser, Staatsoper Berlin, April 2015

Having dancers in the Venusberg scene of Tannhäuser is quite normal, but dance company director Sasha Waltz, who created this opera production, took their use too far. It is fine up to a point to include dancers among the wonderful chorus of pilgrims, but by the second half of Act II they were getting in the way of the opera, and during sublime moments at the end of Act III to see them swaying around and waving their arms like demented schoolchildren was a regrettable distraction from Wagner’s music.

Venusberg with Venus and Tannhäuser, all images © Bernd Uhlig

Venusberg with Venus and Tannhäuser, all images © Bernd Uhlig

This was a pity because under the baton of Daniel Barenboim the music was given huge depth and commitment, inspiring superb performances from the singers. Danish soprano Ann Petersen gave a beautiful portrayal of Elisabeth, her shining voice matched by glorious singing from Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser, though he showed pitch problems in his Act I interactions with the dramatic voice of Marina Prudenskaya, so well cast as Venus.

Elisabeth at the Song Contest

Elisabeth at the Song Contest

No such problems in Acts II and III, and the marvellously nuanced singing of Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram was a treat as always. He manages the light and shade of this role to perfection, and with Kwangchul Youn’s sonorous bass as the Landgraf this was a superb cast. Very fine portrayals of the other Minnesingers, particularly Peter Sonn as Walther and Tobias Schabel as Biterolf, and Sónia Grané was a revelation in the small role of the shepherd.

Dancers with returning Pilgrims

Returning Pilgrims

Although the use of dancers was over the top, other aspects of the production succeeded. Bernd Skodzig’s intriguing twentieth century costumes: morning dress and glorious long gowns in Act II, plus hugely stylish suits and coats in Acts I and III making the Landgraf and Minnesingers look like Bavarian versions of ‘The Avengers’, worked well, particularly with David Finn’s atmospheric lighting. I loved the full house lights for the Minnesingers’ entrance in Act II where they happily came in signing autographs, giving an almost Hollywood feel to the occasion and with Elisabeth looking gorgeous in her beautiful long dress.

Tannhäuser haunted by the Venusberg in Act III

Tannhäuser still haunted by the Venusberg

Minimal sets provided ample space for the superfluous dancing, and I liked the clever partition in Act II where Wolfram could observe Elisabeth’s meeting with Tannhäuser. Clearly Sasha Waltz can direct opera, creating beautifully choreographed stage movement, but treating it partly as a ballet was a mistake — Tannhäuser the musical just doesn’t work. Yet in the end it was Barenboim and his musical forces, along with the chorus and principals that carried the day, despite the dancers.

This Tannhäuser production was new in 2014 Festtage at the Staatsoper. This year the new production was Parsifal — see my review in the Daily Telegraph.

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