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After the hype, excess and confusion of this summer’s opening production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, it came as a relief, 24 hours later, to encounter a performance as deliberately naïve and honestly directed as this Tannhäuser. Wagner’s earliest masterwork has had a happy run at postwar Bayreuth, graduating from Wieland Wagner’s austere but subtle 1950s vision to Götz Friedrich’s more combative 1970s staging (conducted by Colin Davis) and Wolfgang Wagner’s luminous, long-running 1980s version.
When Tannhäuser returned in a new guise in 2001, its main distinction was that it provided a platform for Christian Thielemann’s festival conducting debut. The staging, directed and designed by Philippe Arlaud, did not provoke much comment. Draping the action in an aura of quaint medievalism, leavened by a sea of poppies in the first and last acts, Arlaud let the work speak for itself. Now in its final summer (in a roster also featuring Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal), it still looks fresh.
Despite the arrival of new cast members, everyone on stage is clearly working as part of an integrated ensemble – one of the benefits of the Bayreuth ethos, under which even the most ordinary of productions gain in strength from year to year. There’s no risk of intellectual overload in Arlaud’s interpretation – he lets Wagner’s notion of love, the pure redeeming the impure, speak through the characters rather than symbols or concepts – but the work’s emotional and musical thrust is unmistakable.
Tannhäuser is infrequently performed outside German-speaking Europe and, on each successive encounter, I’m always taken aback at how deeply Wagner’s cantus hits home, especially when the choral tableaux are sung as well as they are at Bayreuth (chorusmaster: Eberhard Friedrich). The pilgrim’s chorus in the finale rarely fails to give me goose-bumps and on this occasion it more than compensated for the muffled Meistersinger choruses the previous evening.
There’s a new Tannhäuser in the Dutch tenor Frank van Aken and he is more than capable – another Bayreuth “find” (let’s hope he is not prematurely exposed to too many other Heldentenor roles). Burly in appearance and a useful actor, Van Aken sounds musical and paces himself well. The timbre is easy on the ear, the tone colourful enough, and you never feel he is stretched. He may not be a star but he is a more than adequate interpreter of one of Wagner’s most taxing parts.
The other newcomer is the conductor Christoph Ulrich Meier, a protégé of Thielemann. I had not heard of him before but I was impressed: he found far more colour in the orchestra than Sebastian Weigle had in Meistersinger and showed an unerring ability to “place” climax within a long-unfolding span – one of the tell-tale signs of a true Wagner conductor. The performance sounded spacious but developed with splendid momentum and idiomatic shape. At the defining crescendo of Act Two, where the accusing voices decide Tannhäuser’s fate, Meier knew exactly where to pull the threads together. We must hear more of him.
Among returning members of the cast, I will always have time for Ricarda Merbeth’s virginal Elisabeth and Judit Nemeth’s lusty, busty Venus. Roman Trekel’s Wolfram cuts a fine figure, and the other knights are sympathetically characterised. It’s easy to be patronising about a production this simple but it does no damage to Wagner – and, in the context of such well-integrated singing and conducting, that’s good enough for me. ★★★★☆
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