Matthias Horn/Deutsche Oper Berlin
Kirsten Harms' "Tannhäuser" debuted this month at the Deutsche Oper.
Kirsten Harms' "Tannhäuser" debuted this month at the Deutsche Oper. Matthias Horn/Deutsche Oper Berlin
Any feminist reading of "Tannhäuser" faces its share of challenges.
In Wagner's libretto, the title character flees the sensuous realm of the goddess Venus to seek worldly purpose, only to find redemption in the death of a pious virgin and, as per a revised 1847 version of the opera, the end of his own life.
Kirsten Harms' 2008 production, which was revived last season to fete the end of her tenure as Intendant of the Deutsche Oper and took the stage again this month, boldly challenges the subjugation of the feminine principle.
In her interpretation, Venus and the morally upright Elisabeth represent different facets of the same persona, and—whether in spirit or flesh—she survives.
As is the case for so many philosophical or pseudo-psychoanalytical stage concepts, the production, as seen on December 18, fails to materialize convincingly.
In the final scene, Elizabeth (Petra Maria Schnitzer) suddenly springs back to life after being covered with a sheet, a rather abrupt and unimaginative metamorphosis.
While other gestures and blocking by Harms bring the opera's dramatic tension into full relief, sets and costumes by Bernd Damovsky provide a bleak, monochromatic framework for the symbolic juxtaposition of man's laws with the eternal feminine.
At the climax of the overture, a dummy in medieval armor descends from descending stage lights and dangles impotently as curvy, half-naked sirens emerge from beneath the stage and sway awkwardly in a sea of bubbles. Venus (also performed by Schnitzer) appears on a grey slab that could easily be a tombstone, leaving little wonder that Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert, Schnitzer's real-life husband) has grown bored of her Eros-filled world.
The valley of the mortal Wartburg where the pilgrim arrives is, on the other hand, unexpectedly grim: bat-like, alien creatures hover over a searching oboe solo before the male chorus emerges in red light and smoke.
The picture grows more appealing for the song contest, featuring the chorus in colorful, pseudo-medieval costumes, although the cartoonish helmets raised up in triumph are more hackneyed than tongue-in-cheek.
Harms did not hold back a sense of irony, having the men draw their swords with hyperbolic fervor when Tannhäuser offends the crowd with his praise of Venus.
The rows of armored men hanging above the stage during the second and third acts, although intended to further emphasize the Mars-like nature of man's world, only drove home the kitsch factor. Equally frustrating were the rows of hospital beds in the final scenes.
If the evening had not been such a success musically, it would be easy to write off the production as a conceptually compelling but aesthetic failure. Yet Seiffert, as he proved in last season's controversial "Tristan und Isolde," is able to tirelessly steer a Wagner opera through the most jarring gimmicks.
The German tenor could not be more ideal for this repertoire, with a booming voice that is able to encompass the full gamut of emotions in the complex characters he portrays. His Tannhäuser was headstrong yet vulnerable, generous but musically indomitable.
As his female counterpart, Schnitzer's expressive voice started off a bit steely und underpowered but warmed up by the second and third acts. Although her singing retained a metallic quality, it became rounder and full-bodied in the final scenes, easily holding its own alongside Seiffert.
Markus Brück sung the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach with appealing tone, although he tired somewhat as the evening unfolded. As Walter von der Vogelweider, Clemens Bieber brought an appropriately mature bass to the stage, grounding the knights and their flimsy armor with his Teutonic moralism.
The chorus of the Deutsche Oper was in top form, indulging in Wagner's church music harmonies with powerful, even tone.
The orchestra executed the score in bold phrases that soared into mighty architecture under Music Director Donald Runnicles. While the lines could have more flexible and nuanced in dynamic shading, the music's robust, charging quality was at times electrifying.
As Elisabeth gazed at the audience beneath a mane of blonde hair in the final scene, one couldn't help but admire the presence Harms established for herself as the chic but controversial intendant of West Berlin's opera house, from the Joop-designed ads that still line the subways to her own productions that, while problematic, have stamped the Deutsche Oper with a fresh sensibility.