Review- Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner- Oper Leipzig & the Hong Kong Arts Festival



By Peter Gordon


Opera is, almost by definition, musical theatre.


Sometimes, the emphasis is on the “musical” and sometimes, as with the Calixto Bieito setting of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival by Oper Leipzig, on the “theatre”. It can often be a mistake to read too much into the details of the story of an opera, especially when passed through the filter of a modernist production.


But Tannhäuser centres on love, the struggle between the sacred and the profane, and redemption. Tannhäuser, a knight-minstrel, has been tarrying with (the pagan goddess) Venus, but tires of this voluptuous existence, escapes and is reunited with the more appropriate Elizabeth, niece of the local Count. In a singing contest, Tannhäuser blasphemes and only Elizabeth’s intercession saves his life. The pope refuses Tannhäuser’s redemption, while Elizabeth’s death saves Tannhäuser from a return to Venus. There is a story there, but the conflicts are more philosophical than human or dramatic; Wagner’s characters are, in Tannhäuser as elsewhere, stand for principles or traits.


The plot is driven by external factors such as fate and some of the most important incidents happen off-stage. The strong religious element can make the motivations and decisions seem strange for a 21st-century audience (what exactly is so bad about Venus?). Tannhäuser is about the music; the overture is well-known as a stand-alone concert piece, and the operas contain some of Wagner’s best-known arias. There is, therefore, room for dramatic re-interpretation. Bieito, renowned as a “bad boy” of opera, re-sets the story as one pitting an impulsive Tannhäuser against “a soulless modern society”, fair enough given that the opera’s original themes and conflicts perhaps don’t resonate as well in the more secular 21st century as they did in the 19th.


The sets are stark: Wagner’s original lush Venusberg, populated with naiads and sirens, is replaced by hanging branches. The hall of Wartburg castle is represented by a geometric block of white square pillars. Lighting is often on-stage and harsh; plastic sheets reminiscent of garbage bags make up the ground and in Bieto’s post-apocalyptic third act, crawl up the pillars.


If a performance is meant to provoke and catalyse discussion, this certainly did that; unfortunately, if an informal (and small-scale) survey of the audience is any indication, the effort was not well-received. Opera-goers can be a conservative bunch, but a serious drawback to this production is that much of the stage direction bears little relation what is actually supposed to be happening. Some are just gratuitous—rolling about on the ground, grimacing and sexual pawing—but some were just contrary to the words. It might well be that European audiences who may see more performances of Tannhäuser in a year than Hong Kong audiences in a decade are more able to put this kind of contrary production in perspective. Misgivings about the production were redeemed by the singing, especially when soprano Elisabet Strid (singing her namesake) was on stage: she seemed to give focus to both the staging and the ensembles. Baritone Markus Eiche sang a lyrical and sonorous Wolfram, usually much at odds with what he was doing on stage at any given moment. The role of Tannhäuser was split over the Art Festival’s two performances, presumably due to its heft. 


Tenor Daniel Frank, interestingly, had a decade as a rock singer before his turning to opera. Some of this was modernity was evident in his portrayal of Tannhäuser, and not just his theatrically long hair. After hearing bass-baritone Ante Jerkunica as the Landgraf (Count), one was left regretting that the part is relatively small. The production was mostly about itself, leaving little room for actual acting.


This production has now closed. 

Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 4.0


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