Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the earliest of the canonical works. In some ways it’s very Wagnerian. It has screwed up theology with a heavy dose of misogyny and some recognisably Wagnerian music. On the other hand it is structured more like a French grand opera and some of the music definitely has more than a hint of Meyerbeer to it.The basic plot is that of the hero seduced into sin by the pagan love goddess Venus and then redeemed by the love (and death) of the chaste virgin Elisabeth.
The Copenhagen Ring has been dubbed the feminist Ring with good reason and we’ll come back to that in looking at the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. It might also be called the drinkers’ Ring. There’s an astonishing amount of boozing going on. It was there in Rheingold with Loge’s hangover and Alberich staggering drunkenly after the Rhinemaidens. It’s back in Die Walküre. Hunding and Siegmund knock off the best part of a bottle of Bushmill’s Malt (Add a few cigars and this scene would be perfect for Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson), Wotan has a flask in his pocket and the Walkyries; Ride is like a sorority party. Actually it reminds me a lot of Denmark so maybe it just seemed natural.
I seem to be in the middle of a run of operas full of dodgy theology. First it was the Met’s Parsifal where Wagner à la Girard dished up a puzzling mixture of misogyny, sacred wounds, centuries long curses, bastardization of the Eucharist and weird holy weapons. There’s a really good conversation about this over at Likely Impossibilities. Today I was at Opera in Concert’s semi-staged production of Massenet’s Thaïs. (My review of this should be in the summer edition of Opera Canada). So today was more misogyny, hairshirts, lots of penance and the idea that the road to sainthood is to be a tart until one’s looks start to go and then torture oneself to death in an appropriately aesthetic manner. Also, showing empathy for anyone not exactly like oneself leads to doubts, expulsion and damnation. Coming up soon, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in which salvation is achieved by rejecting anything to do with the Enlightenment and being guillotined. There’s a Salome in there too somewhere though I’m not sure there’s anything that could be called coherent theology at all in that.
Blessed are the cheesemakers… Really.
This 2006 Copenhagen production of Wagner’s Ring has been written about a lot. It’s been dubbed “the feminist Ring” and a lot has been made of the frequent camera cuts and odd angles. Actually what struck me most about it was the comparative goriness. The video direction (by Uffe Borgwandt) didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. I’d say it was better edited than a typical Halvorson Met broadcast but not so terribly different in spirit. The main difference is that this is very much presented as a film rather than a documentary record of a live performance. Oddly it begins very much in live performance mode with footage of the Queen of Denmark taking her seat and of the conductor (Michael Schønwandt) complete with miniatures of his decorations on his tail coat going to the pit. From then on though we get anything but what the audience in the house saw.
Yesterday’s Met Live in HD broadcast of Parsifal was one of the best I’ve seen. The production is highly effective, the starry cast lived up to the hype and the video direction was sensitive and true to the staging. Any reservations I have about the experience are due to the work itself but that may be matter for another day. It certainly reinforced my belief, consolidated by seeing Tristan und Isolde twice recently that these big Wagner operas are high risk, high reward. When they come off they are incredible. When they don’t it’s six hours of one’s life gone missing.
Last night the lemur and I braved the biggest snow storm in several years to catch Tristan und Isolde at the Four Seasons Centre. It was the same production I saw last Tuesday but with Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray replacing Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in the title roles. I was also sitting at the front of the Orchestra Ring which is a very different sight line than the back of Ring 3. There’s no way to avoid saying this, it was hugely disappointing and especially so as it was the first time the lemur had seen the show and I had been talking it up excitedly since Tuesday. Baba and Wray sounded underpowered and under-rehearsed. The big Act 2 duet, O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, that had left me literally shaking on Tuesday merely left me shaking my head. What had been a glorious, transcendent, hypnotic wave of sound had turned to mush. It was a relief when Franz-Josef Selig, King Marke, took over. At last we got some Wagnerian singing of style and class. Act 3 wasn’t much better. To be fair, the rest of the cast was just as good as on opening night and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest and longest applause of the night. But Tristan und Isolde needs, as Isolde points out, Tristan and Isolde.
After seeing Peter Sellars on Monday night I decided that (a) I had to see Ben Heppner as Tristan and (b) I couldn’t wait until next Friday when I have tickets to see Michael Baba in the role. So, I skipped out of the office yesterday morning and with a little help (thanks Sergey!) scored a standing room ticket for last night’s opening. (At $12 for nearly five hours music this was a remarkable bargain!). I’m back at my desk on five hours sleep and I’m still in shock. This will go down in legend.
I’d only seen Tristan und Isolde once before, in a disastrous MetHD broadcast, which had been so irritating that the music left little impression. Other times I’d attempted it on DVD I couldn’t get past the nothinghappensness of it. Last night I finally got it. In Sellars’ production not much happens on stage. The singers, in non descript monochrome outfits, come and go or stand around in square light spots. They gesture in characteristically Sellarian fashion but it’s almost classic “park and bark”. But, and it’s a huge but, behind them there is a giant screen on which videos by Bill Viola play more or less continuously and through them he evokes time and place and we see the inner journeys of the characters. It’s really hard to describe but it works brilliantly. To counterpoint the long meditative sections, when there is action it often happens off stage. The chorus sing off stage from various parts of the house and characters, too, appear on the orchestra apron or high up in the Rings. These action moments are often accompanied by lighting that encompasses the auditorium and implicates us in the action (but not the dark inner journey of Tristan and Isolde). It’s great. (1)
Last night Peter Sellars, in town directing Tristan und Isolde at the COC, made an appearance at the Toronto Reference Library. It was billed as an interview with The Star‘s Richard Ouzounian but bar a couple of questions at the end and a brief set up by Ouzounian it was pretty much a 75 minute monologue by Sellars. Like the man himself it was fascinating but very hard to pin down.
Surprisingly perhaps I started out liking this 1986 recording of Lohengrin from the Metropolitan Opera quite a lot. It’s a very traditional, literal and 70s/80s dark production but the orchestra and chorus are great, the P-regie seems pretty well thought out and the singing in the opening scenes is great. Unfortunately it really rather goes downhill once Elsa, Lohengrin and Ortrud make their appearances.
Martin Kušej’s production of Der fliegender Holländer for De Nederlandse Opera recorded in 2010 is high concept and it’s worth looking at the interviews with the cast and conductor before watching the main event. Certainly the essay in the booklet will do little to prepare you. For Kušej, Daland’s ship is a cruise ship or pleasure yacht full of expensively dressed partygoers. The Dutchman’s “crew” are refugees or desperate economic migrants. The Dutchman himself has made his pile in human trafficking. The framework of the “outsiders” wanting a share of the “insiders’” goodies is the backdrop for the interpersonal drama of Senta, the Dutchman and Erik.