Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Passenger – Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen – 2 March 2017



Lisa – Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir
Walter – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Marta – Ilia Papandreou
Tadeusz – Piotr Prochera

Opera Chorus & Extra Opera Chorus of MiR
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen

Conductor – Valterri Rauhalammi
Director – Gabriele Rech
Set designer – Dirk Becker
Costumes – Renée Listerdal

Having missed Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger at ENO in 2011 and only seeing David Pountney’s much-travelled premiere production on film (via YouTube) this week, this was my first proper encounter with the opera. Its story is now reasonably well known, but a quick resumé: Weinberg’s composed his opera based on Zofia Posmysz’s semi-autobriographical novel of experiences at Auschwitz in the mid-60s. But its subject matter was too strong even for the Soviets, and it didn’t see the light of day on stage until Pountney mounted it at Bregenz in 2010, since when it has been seen in the UK, the US and further afield. It had its German premiere at Karlsruhe in 2013 and, thanks to Gelsenkirchen’s new production it is swiftly on the way to becoming a repertoire work.

The opera’s plot – about Lisa, a former SS officer at Auschwitz’s supposed re-encounter with one of her charges in her new post-war life – is suffused with the ideas of memory and remembrance and these are brought to the fore in Gabriele Rech’s perceptive production at the Musiktheater im Revier. Rather than the split-level set called for in the libretto – 1960s ocean liner above 1940s prison camp – she and Dirk Becker have set the whole work on board the luxury ship on its way from Europe to Brazil. Thus the implication is that Lisa’s sighting on the voyage of the former inmate Marta – whom she presumed to be dead – ignites all her memories of her time at the death camp, and we see everything through her eyes. We never quite know if it is Marta, anyway, or just a lookalike who sets off Lisa’s reminiscences as she first admits her shady past to her diplomat husband, Walter, and then goes on to seek to come to terms with it by reliving her experiences. Arguably this approach sanitises the Auschwitz scenes, since it doesn’t give a sense of the environs, bit it puts the onus on the characterisation to convey something of the conditions.

This the Gelsenkirchen cast did impressively. From the looks on the faces of the singers at the subdued final curtain calls this was obviously a draining experience for them all. Ilia Papandreou was an intense, keening Marta, a character wanting to be equal with everyone but through no choice of her own picked out by Lisa for special treatment along the lines of divide and rule. And Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir’s Lisa got to grips with a woman trying to reconcile her past in her attempts to argue that she was only doing what everyone did at the time, and that she was one of the ‘good ones’ in her treatment of the prisoners. As her husband, Kor-Jan Dusseljee sang with clarity and finesse, and Piotr Prochera’s Tadeusz – Marta’s lover – impressed not only for his eloquent singing but also for playing on the violin – creditably – the opening of the Bach D minor Chaconne that sets his fate. The distinction of the smaller roles did credit to the theatre’s ensemble – more so, as it happened, than in the subsidiary roles of the following night’s Tristan premiere (review forthcoming in The Wagner Journal). The chorus sang with force and the brass-and-percussion-dominated orchestra played incisively under Valterri Rauhalammi.

But we are left with the issue of the music itself. However much one can believe the sincerity of Weinberg’s utterances, there’s no getting away from the fact that he lacked a truly personal voice – so much of the score, as elsewhere in his output, comes across as sub-Shostakovichian. The score of The Passenger certainly hangs together, and its ideas are often striking, but there are just too many echoes, unabsorbed, from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and its final gulag march scene in particular.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Die Herzogin von Chicago – Theater Koblenz – 12 December 2016

As reviewed for a forthcoming edition of Opera Magazine.

Mark Adler (Sandor) & Emily Newton (Mary Lloyd)

Mary Lloyd – Emily Newton
Sandor Boris, Crown Prince – Mark Adler
Princess Rosemarie – Haruna Yamazaki
James Bondy – Peter Koppelmann
Count Bojazowitsch – Marcel Hoffmann
Marquis Perolin – Christof Maria Kaiser
King Pankraz XXVII/Benjamin Lloyd, Mary’s father – Wolfram Boelzle
Count Negresco – Sebastian Haake
Baron Palssy – Tobias Rathgeber

Opera Chorus & Extra Chorus, Children’s Chorus, Ballet, Statisterie
Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie
 
Conductor – Rasmus Baumann
Director & Scenery – Michiel Dijkema
Costumes – Alexandra Pitz
Choreography – Steffen Fuchs

Emily Newton (Mary Lloyd, centre)
Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago managed an initial run of 242 performances at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1928 and, although it subsequently fell out of fashion (it failed in off-Broadway try-outs), in recent years it has become one of his more revived later works, especially since its recording by Richard Bonynge as part of Decca’s Entartete Musik series in the late 1990s. This winter it has taken to the stage of Theater Koblenz in an imaginative and well-paced new production directed and designed by Michiel Dijkema (costumes by Alexandra Pitz).

The operetta is very much of its time, blending American jazz with the native Hungarian style around a plot that stages the ‘battle’ between the Old and New Worlds – not a hundred miles away from the theme of Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf, which had swept Europe the previous season and which can’t have gone unnoticed by Kálmán. Moreover, the operetta’s character of a black saxophonist, Bobby, went on to become the ‘poster boy’ of the Nazis’ cultural propaganda in the late 1930s, while its Hungarian-Jewish composer fled to the USA itself.

An American millionaire’s daughter, Mary Lloyd, rises to the challenge set by her peer group (the likes of Edith Rockefeller, Maud Carnegie, Daisy Vanderbilt, even a timely late addition for the Koblenz production, Emilia Trump) to outdo each other in buying up old Europe. She lands herself the estate of an impoverished royal family in the Balkans and inevitably falls for the hereditary prince, but there’s a problem: he won’t dance the Charleston with her, only the csárdás. It’s slender stuff, and the denouement, in which the impasse is saved by the arrival of a Hollywood director demanding an American-style happy ending, seems too glib. But the show is saved by its music, a succession of numbers that cleverly sets off the two competing styles of dance, and which the Koblenz performers had down to a T.

Texan soprano Emily Newton, guesting from the ensemble in Dortmund, is becoming an experienced hand in this kind of repertoire, and has the starry sense of presence to hold the stage, a convincing way of rounding out stock romantic leads and a subtle and lyrical vocal command. She also obviously had fun with the text’s cod-American-German, as did Peter Koppelmann as her private secretary James Bondy, an original character name that seems set up for latter-day allusions to 007. Mark Adler proved a fine lyric tenor as Prince Sandor and Haruna Yamazaki’s sonorous mezzo as the rival love interest, Princess Rosemarie, bodes well for her upcoming Octavian with the company. The chorus was its usual powerful self (an impression garnered from last season’s Peter Grimes), the children’s chorus excelled, the ballet corps added its own pizazz and the orchestra, though light on strings given the need to fit a sizeable wind section into this bijou theatre’s diminutive pit, had bite and suavity under the energetic direction of Rasmus Baumann.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Distant Sounds’s top tips for 2017


A somewhat Austro-German selection of highlights from the rest of the current operatic season, many of which I hope to see and review here, or for Bachtrack.com, Opera or The Wagner Journal.
Lulu (Oper Hamburg, February) – a new production by Christoph Marthaler of Berg’s opera with Barbara Hannigan in the title role.

Tristan und Isolde (Musiktheater am Revier, Gelsenkirchen, March) – Catherine Foster, Bayreuth’s current Brünnhilde, sings Isolde opposite Torsten Kerl’s Tristan (alternative cast takes over from April).

Mathis der Maler (Staatstheater Mainz, March) – a new production of Hindemith’s opera launches a bumper year for the composer, with stagings to follow of Die Harmonie der Welt (Linz, April) and Cardillac (Pforzheim, May).

Doktor Faust (Staatsoper Dresden, March, & Theater für Niedersachsen, Hildesheim, April) – Busoni’s masterpiece receives two new productions.

Elegy for Young Lovers (Gütersloh/Detmold, April/May) – Landestheater Detmold’s staging of Henze’s opera launches in the composer’s birthplace, Gütersloh, before moving to Detmold itself.

Das Lied der Nacht (Osnabrück, April) – a belated revival of an opera by Hans Gál from the 1930s.

Die schweigsame Frau (Aachen, May) – a new production of Strauss’s Ben Jonson comedy.This has now morphed into Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos

Das Rheingold (Deutsche Oper am Rhein, June) – Düsseldorf launches its new Ring cycle directed by Dietrich Hilsdorf.

Der Ring des Polykrates (Heidelberg, May) – a rare outing for Korngold’s early one-act opera, coupled with Weinberg’s Wir Gratulieren.

Die Gezeichneten (Bayrische Staatsoper, Munich, & Oper Köln, July) – two productions, one new (dir. Warlikowski, for the Munich Opera Festival), one revived, of Franz Schreker’s magnum opus running concurrently.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Distant Sounds's ten most memorable operatic experiences of 2016

It’s easy to come up with my top 3, less easy to put the rest in any meaningful order, so I’ll leave it at that. Titles hotlink to my original reviews where they appear online, on this blog or at Bachtrack.com (two, the Rheingold and Lohengrin, won’t appear until the March 2017 Wagner Journal).

1 Der Ring des Nibelungen – Bayreuth Festival
(dir. Castorf)

   My first return to Bayreuth after a quarter-century's absence was made by the fourth year of Frank Castorf’s ‘post-dramatic’ Ring – a gripping monument to contemporary theatre, superbly cast – especially the Brünnhilde of Catherine Foster and Wotan/Wanderer of John Lundgren – and conducted with fire by the veteran Marek Janowski, belatedly making his Bayreuth debut.

2 Der Traumgörge (Zemlinsky) – Staatstheater Hannover

A rare revival of Zemlinsky’s long-forgotten second opera was given a memorable staging by Hannover Opera, with Robert Künzli (left) magnificent in the title role and some glorious playing from the pit.

3 Faust – Oper Stuttgart
(dir. Castorf).

Yes, more Frank Castorf, and very much from the same cut as his Ring. Another miracle of stagecraft and rethinking, completely changing one’s view of Gounod’s French Romantic warhorse. 



And in no particular order:

Oedipe (Enescu) – Royal Opera House, London.
A first staged encounter with what must be one of the major operatic achievements of the 20th century

Simplicius Simplicissimus (Hartmann) – Independent Opera @ Sadler’s Wells, London. Triumphant first UK staging of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s hard-hitting 1930s opera.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Barry) – Royal Opera @ Barbican Theatre, London. Hilarious revival of the ROH production.

Das Rheingold – Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe (dir. Hermann). Karlsruhe’s four-director Ring launched with this opener that manages to tell the whole story of the cycle.

Elektra – Landestheater Detmold
My first introduction to this company – a high-powered performance in a tiny theatre.

Lohengrin – Aalto Theater Essen (dir. Gürbaca)
The first production by Tatjana Gürbaca that has worked for me, with first-rate musical contribution.

Otello – Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf (dir. Thalheimer).
Minimalist staging that gets to the heart of the tragedy.

And finally, two turkeys:

Holofernes (Reznicek) – Theater Bonn – an overblown production of a very poor piece.

Der König Kandaules (Zemlinsky) – Flanders Opera – an even more overblown production that spoilt a very fine piece.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Landestheater Detmold – 16 October 2016

The Act II riot is imminent: the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly, foreground) watches as David (Stephen Chambers) accosts Beckmesser (Andreas Joren). Photos: Kerstin Schomburg


Hans Sachs – Derrick Ballard
Walther von Stolzing – Heiko Börner
Eva – Eva Bernard
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andreas Jören
David – Stephen Chambers
Magdalene – Gritt Gnauck
Veit Pogner – Christoph Stephinger
Kunz Vogelsang – Ewandro Stenzowski
Konrad Nachtigall – Markus Köhler
Fritz Kothner – Insu Hwang
Balthasar Zorn – Markus Gruber
Ulrich Eißlinger – Norbert Schmittberg
Augustin Moser – Uwe Gottswinter
Hermann Ortel – Haeyeol Han
Hans Schwarz – Michael Zehe
Hans Foltz – Bartolomeo Stasch
A Nightwatchman – Michael Zehe
A Goblin – Gaëtan Chailly

Chorus, Extra Chorus, Statisterie & Symphony Orchestra, of Landestheaters Detmold

Conductor – Lutz Rademacher
Director – Kay Metzger
Designer – Petra Mollérus
Lighting – Henning Streck

Hans Sachs (Derrick Ballard)
As Hans Sachs reflects on the riot of the previous night in his Act III ‘Wahn’ monologue, he suggests ‘Ein Kobold half wohl da!’ – ‘A goblin must have helped!’ It’s a cue for director Kay Metzger to enmesh Wagner’s comedy with the magic of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, framing the whole action of the opera as the work of a mischievous, silent puck-like character. This Kobold directs more than just the Act II mayhem: he is responsible for misplacing the items that give Eva the excuse to stay back to converse with Walther in Act I; he ensures that when Stolzing tries to wow the Masters with his song they are put under an intoxicated spell; he orchestrates the pratfalls and knocks that accompany Beckmesser’s clandestine exploration of Sachs’s workshop in Act III; and unseen by the humans he constantly cajoles, teases and reacts. Both Meistersinger and Dream centre on a midsummer night of confusion and unexplained happenings, a Polterabend indeed, and to further the link, Shakespeare’s drama is sometimes known in German-speaking countries as ‘A St John’s Night Dream’, while Wagner’s Johannistag itself dawns with Walther’s own Morgentraum, his ‘morning dream’. In short, imagery from Shakespeare’s play infuses Wagner’s libretto. The composer referred to the opera as a kind of ‘cheerful satyr-play’ to his thoroughly serious Tannhäuser, yet the result here is a different kind of comedy from the one we normally expect from Meistersinger, and despite the over-egged antics of the Kobold (energetically played by the diminutive dancer Gaëtan Chailly), which can distract and frustrate as much as amuse, there is a charm about the thing that suits the intimate, small-scale nature of the staging and the theatre in which it sits.

The Act III Quintet
As if to counter the supernatural imposition, Petra Mollérus’s designs put us in the very real world of reconstructed postwar Germany in the 1950s, from the bland rebuilding of bombed-out Nuremberg to period furniture and clothing. Within this setting, Metzger is able to poke fun at the nationalist sentiments that surface in the text: Sachs’s infamous ‘Deutsch und echt’ speech is accompanied by a tableau of a little wooden summerhouse – of the kind seen throughout the country in its ‘Kleingarten’ allotment gardens – with David raising the modern German flag, a neat, ironic deflation of the portentousness of music and text. The new postwar ‘nationalism’ is only for a cosy, patriarchal domesticity, a point made earlier during the Quintet when the two women, Eva and Magdalene, don house coats as they prepare to defer to their new husbands-to-be against a backdrop of mod-con imagery. There are other nice touches that colour the period setting, from the church service at the start refashioned as choir practice, to the Apprentices as believable schoolchildren, to the obviously newly planted tree in the street in Act II. The human drama is played without over exaggeration of character – Beckmesser is a believable older suitor rather than a caricatured figure of fun, and Sachs, visibly mourning over the mementos of his late wife one minute, then has a difficult time rejecting Eva when she throws herself at him with particularly amorous intent. But it is the Kobold who has the final ‘word’ as he joins Sachs, who is seated with his legs hanging over the front of the stage at the very end, and they crack open beers with a conspiratorial ‘job well done’ salute.

Detmold’s Landestheater is a beautifully intimate space in which to experience the full force of Wagner, and this is only the latest of his works to appear there in recent years, following on from Tristan, Parsifal and a complete Ring – not bad for a place that only seats about 640. Some years ago, the pit was enlarged to cope with these demands, and descends beneath the stage, almost in Bayreuth fashion if without the covering cowl. Even sitting right at the front the sound emerged well blended, at least until the ‘onstage’ trumpets and side drum occupied the stage box right next to me for their two blasts in Act III (Beckmesser’s lute/harp was also positioned there but was less distracting). Lutz Rademacher, who impressed in Strauss’s Elektra last season, took the Overture at quite a lick, but his pacing overall was apt for the context, and he even suggested a Mendelssohnian lightness in some of the dreamier episodes – it made one wonder if Wagner subconsciously aped the MND chords at the start of Walther’s ‘Dream Song’.

David (Stephen Chambers) is manipulated
by the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly)
Derrick Ballard’s Hans Sachs was on loan from Staatstheater Mainz, where he debuted in the role in 2015. His was a highly sympathetic portrayal, with his wavy locks looking not inappropriately like a latterday Dürer, and he sang with plenty of noble tone and variety of colour, ably recovering towards the end from an obvious tiredness, or dryness, during the Quintet. He had his match in the wonderfully detailed and vocally distinguished Beckmesser of Andreas Jören, the Detmold ensemble’s leading baritone. Heiko Börner was also a known quantity to me, having been heard as Peter Grimes and Zemlinsky’sDwarf elsewhere in Germany last season. His singing as a mature-looking Walther was a little strained by Act III and his stage presence needed more sense of involvement, but it was a capable assumption. I was not so enamoured of Eva Bernard’s less than elegantly sung Eva, and Christoph Stephinger was a wooden Pogner, with poor diction and a plodding delivery that added an accent to every note. Gritt Gnauck’s Magdalene was also more stilted than her impressive Klytemnestra in the spring, but Insu Hwang, also a member of the Detmold ensemble, and a Cardiff Singer competitor in 2015, made a strong impression as a burnish-voiced Kothner, and Stephen Chambers was a lively and winning David. The choruses – small by Meistersinger standards, but big for this diminutive theatre – sang their all and capped what was undeniably a superb company and ensemble achievement.

In repertoire until May 2017, and touring to Schweinfurt, Paderborn & Wolfsburg

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Die Frau ohne Schatten - Hessischer Staatstheater, Wiesbaden - 15 October 2016

Andrea Baker (Nurse)
Photos: Karl & Monika Forster

Emperor – Richard Furman
Empress – Erika Sunnegårdh
Dyer’s Wife – Nicola Beller Carbone
Barak, the Dyer – Oliver Zwarg
Nurse – Andrea Baker
Spirit Messenger – Thomas de Vries
Voice of the Falcom/Guardian of the Threshold to the Temple – Stella An
Hunchbacked brother – Benedikt Nawrath
One-eyed brother – Alexander Knight
One-armed brother – Benjamin Russell
Vision of a Youth Aaron Cawley
Voice from Above – Karolina Ferencz

Choir & Youth Choir of Hessischen Staatstheaters Wiesbaden
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden

Conductor – Eckehard Stier
Director – Uwe Eric Laufenberg
Revival director – Gisbert Jäkel
Costumes – Antje Sternberg
Lighting – Andreas Frank
Video – Gérard Naziri


Guardian of the Threshold (Stella An), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress)
The first revival of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, originally mounted in the Strauss anniversary year of 2014, has maintained much of its initial casting. It’s a fairly straightforward staging – if anything about this opera can be straightforward – and, rather like Laufenberg’s Bayreuth Parsifal, tells the story well enough without really suggesting any great insight or rethinking of the ideas behind the symbol-heavy fairytale. A vertically shifting set moves effortlessly between the spirit and human worlds, one white and clinical (though some of the structure was looking grubby with use), the other dingy and dishevelled. Characters are well delineated – the first human scene is particularly affecting, with Barak’s sexual advances rebuffed by his wife to his own bewilderment. The quality of the acting is truly first rate. Laufenberg does little to temper the sickly sweet denouement, fielding crowds of children and adults to drum home the opera’s message of pro-creation – a little irony would not have gone amiss here, let alone some of the pessimism expressed in Staatstheater Kassel’s far more thought-provoking First World War retelling from the same anniversary year. My other main caveat was with the gratuitous torture scene in which at the Emperor’s behest the poor Youth is castrated rather than divulge his complicity, while the Empress has her nightmares of other things.

Nicola Beller Carbone (Dyer's Wife), Oliver Zwarg (Barak), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress), Andrea Baker (Nurse), chorus
The casting was mixed in its effectiveness. Erika Sunnegårdh as the Empress and Nicola Beller Carbone as the Dyer’s Wife were the highlights – both characterisations full of musical and dramatic insight and vocally contrasted enough to complement each other. Andrea Baker’s steely Nurse was generally impressive though could have done with more depth of tonal colour, and Richard Furman’s Emperor was virile and capable. Oliver Zwarg’s Barak was the one big disappointment. His tone was blustery, he often sang a smidgen flat and there was none of the burnished bass-baritone that should make the role the most sympathetic of the whole opera. His gruff stage presence, however, made his early scenes of marital break-up touching to watch.

The large orchestra, spilling out into the stage boxes, played magnificently under the commanding baton of Eckehard Stier. He encouraged the players to let rip in the interludes, though there were times when the singers more distantly positioned on the stage struggled to ride the volume from the pit.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Tannhäuser – Theater Aachen – 6 March 2016



Venus (Sanja Radišić) emerges from the altarpiece. Photos: Wil van Iersel


Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016

Tannhäuser – Paul McNamara
ElisabethLinda Ballova
VenusSanja Radišić
Wolfram von EschinbachHrólfur Saemundsson
Hermann, Landgrave of ThuringiaWoong-jo Choi
Walther von der VogelweidePatricio Arroyo
BiterolfPawel Lawreszuk
Heinrich der SchreiberJohn Zuckerman
Reinmar von ZweterBenjamin Werth
Young ShepherdSvenja Lehmann

Chorus of Theater Aachen
Aachen Symphony Orchestra

ConductorKazem Abdullah
DirectorMario Corradi
Designer/costumesItalo Grassi
LightingDirk Sarach-Craig

A kneeling Hermann (Woong-jo Choi, left) pleads with Tannhäuser (Paul McNamara) to rejoin their
company as the other ‘knights’ look on.

Compared with Calixto Bieito’s Tannhäuser in Antwerp (reviewed in the last TWJ), which eschewed any reference to religion, Italian director Mario Corradi’s production of Wagner’s ‘Romantic opera’ for Theater Aachen gives the whole drama an ecclesiastical setting. Tannhäuser is a Catholic priest, and we first see him during the Overture celebrating Mass in Italo Grassi’s impressive, atmospheric church-interior set. But he is a priest with a troubled mind. As the music leaves the pilgrims behind and enters the world of the Venusberg, a visual transformation takes place: an angel sweeps down from the flies, Christ staggers in carrying his cross, Elisabeth takes an imprint of his face on a shroud and offers it to Tannhäuser and the congregation is magicked away – our hero’s mind is scrambling as ‘pure’ images give way to ‘impure’. Three stone pillars turn to reveal they house half-naked temptresses, who divest Tannhäuser of his priest’s robes. The chalice from the Mass becomes a vessel for an aphrodisiac potion and the incense an intoxicating perfume, and the confessional box transforms into Venus’s bower. As the Overture ends with a thud (the ‘Dresden’ version of the score is used throughout except for the ‘Paris’ version of the post-bacchanalian Venus-Tannhäuser scene – there’s really no need for the extra music of the Parisian Bacchanal here), Venus herself steps out of the altar-piece as the Virgin Mary and, removing her blue cloak, reveals herself as a Marilyn Monroe-like seductress, complete with dress-billowing-in-the-updraught effect. At the end of their scene together, Tannhäuser is found on his own in a faint and he is stretchered off as the Young Shepherd, an altar boy, sweeps up the last ‘evidence’ of the debauchery from the church floor.

After these theatrical coups, the rest of the staging is comparatively uneventful, but the consistency of Corradi’s narrative re-telling in this context is impressive. It soon becomes apparent that Tannhäuser is a priest torn between his vows of celibacy and the temptations of a vivid imagination, a mind that has an erotic fascination with the Virgin, in whom he sees Venus, yet also through whom is channelled Elisabeth’s purity. Elisabeth’s death in Act III, for instance, is movingly but unsentimentally portrayed as she dons Mary’s blue garb and is led away by the angel, while Venus makes her last-ditch attempt at wooing Tannhäuser wearing the same cloke. The closing image is of the life-size Marian statue finally revealed above the altar, with the sainted Elisabeth lying below. Further clues as to Tannhäuser’s state of mind appear when Venus provocatively saunters in during the song contest to tempt him and spur him on to his self-revelatory critiques of his colleagues – he is obviously the only person present who sees her. There’s also a telling moment earlier in Act II, after Elisabeth has delivered her second big solo to Tannhäuser as her confessor, ‘Ich preise dieses Wunder’, when he stops himself from kissing her head as she bows before him as her priest – for all his words about her purity, he obviously struggles to keep his relationship with her chaste, yet sees her as his salvation from his libidinous vice. So when, at the climax of the contest, he reveals he has experienced the ‘Berg der Venus’, he seems to be admitting not to a geographical dallying but to having actively broken his vow of chastity, making his need to seek penance in Rome for once plausible. He has broken the rules of the Church more than of society and follows – or at least attempts to follow – that organisation’s preferred route to forgiveness.

The one area where Corradi’s rethinking is less convincing is in the general societal context itself. Tannhäuser’s fellow minnesingers are also clerics, which makes the situation of a song contest rather peculiar, with the competitors’ offerings delivered from a lectern as if they are competing in a rather heated sermon play-off. Landgrave Hermann is the bishop, or other such church bigwig, with Elisabeth plausibly his niece (at least the original doesn’t have her as his daughter), but the ‘nobles’ are the common local folk, dressed 1940s-style in cardigans and twin-sets – the music of their ‘Entry’ sounds too grand to go with their simple queue to bow before Hermann and take their places in the pews. Incidentally, nothing seems to be made of this period setting per se, unless one is to read into it a parallel with a whole nation going through a process of penance in the post-war years, or to see it as a critique of the Roman church’s ambivalent relationship with the Third Reich, but I feel either is probably reading more into things than is intended. Instead, the setting allows the Prelude to Act III to be accompanied by archive film of a jubilee pilgrimage to Rome during the pontificate of Pius XII, which sets up the context for the ensuing denouement effectively as the pilgrims return to their home church after their journey. As well as the Marian tableau of the closing bars we also see the green sprouting of the papal staff winding up the altar’s columns like Jack’s beanstalk – a surreal but effective final image of rebirth, both virginal and Venusian.

The difficulties involved in casting of Tannhäuser are often cited as a reason for its relative scarcity among the Wagnerian canon on stage. German houses never seem to have a problem finding the singers for these demanding roles, though, and even the UK has had two productions scheduled this season, at the Royal Opera and Longborough. Aachen’s Tannhäuser was the Irish tenor Paul McNamara. He is not alone in appearing a little stretched by Act I’s often high-lying tessitura, but the rest of the role fitted his voice with natural ease, and he combined lyricism with dramatic heft and a convincing stage presence. Linda Ballova’s Elisabeth was a bit rough round the edges, but made a convincing case for a more pugnacious, forceful vocal characterisation of the role than we sometimes hear, a depiction that set up an interesting counterpoint with her demure stage presentation. Sanja Radišić’s attractively deep mezzo gave Venus her rightful allure, though rather flaccid diction meant the words – and especially consonants – tended not to come across. The staging played down Wolfram’s role more than usual (and certainly compared to the prominence Bieito gave him in Antwerp in the autumn), but Hrólfur Saemundsson made the part his own, bringing expressive subtlety and a warmly engaging tone. Woong-jo Choi’s sonorous Hermann was impressive, too. The Aachen chorus was excellent and made the climax of Act II and the very end of Act III spine-tingling moments. The orchestral balance was a bit uneven at first, with lower brass rather crowding everyone else out in the Overture, but Aachen’s General Music Director Kazem Abdullah eventually tamed them and his generally swift tempi lent an impressive coherence and dramatic cogency to the whole evening.