Tannhäuser at the Opéra de Lyon

Among Wagner’s music dramas, Tannhäuser has always been popular in France. The revised version of it was, of course, written for Paris, although the explanation for the enthusiasm goes deeper than that and relates to the tradition of grand opéra français as well as the work’s lyricism. I do not know if the same applies to Italy but when Daniele Rustioni, the music director of the Opéra de Lyon, decided to conduct his first Wagner, Tannhäuser was an appropriate choice. And it was soon clear why. There was something Italianate in his drawing out of the vocal lines and the flowing character of the orchestral accompaniment to the big scenes whether in Venusberg, Wartburg, or the pilgrims’ road from Rome. All of this juxtaposed with excitement as dramatic tensions were created and then released. For their part, the large chorus, under the direction of Benedict Kearns, responded vigorously, or as pilgrims soulfully resonant, to the composer’s demands.

With a single exception, the soloists were all outstanding. Johanni van Oostrum, the Elisabeth, was no simple, coy virgin, maintaining throughout a sturdy independence from the expectations which Wartburg society had of her; she sang will full, luscious voice, tempering passion with quieter strains of pathos.  Irene Roberts drew inspiration from the production concept – about which more later – to present with richly coloured vocalisation a forceful Venus, far removed from the traditional sultry seductress. I do not think that I have ever heard a better Wolfram than that offered by Christof Pohl whose burnished baritone had the necessary warmth for empathy but also, being in no sense a wimp, the strength and plangency for asserting his moral beliefs. And though the Landgrave’s contribution to the debate in Wartburg might be of less moment, the sonorous bass of Liang Li made a significant impact.

Veteran tenor Stephen Gould, as Tannhäuser, could not attain the same level of satisfactory performances as his colleagues because though his voice had the necessary volume and penetration, it lacked flexibility and lyrical appeal. And yet, called in at a late stage to replace Simon O’Neill who withdrew from the role for undisclosed reasons, Gould deserves commendation for his characterisation of the part and his playing of it with energy and conviction.

What then of David Hermann’s production? Pessimistic forebodings were inevitable when one read of his intentions: a futuristic setting in which androids, among whom Venus and her acolytes, are challenging and supplanting humans, represented by the Wartburg society. The conflict within Tannhäuser was, then, not so much that between sacred and sensual love, but rather between human feelings and mechanistic, scientific achievement. It has to be admitted that this concept was staged most effectively and, in some respects, brilliantly. In particular, the designs of Jo Schramm made a huge, and aesthetically pleasing, contribution to the success of the evening. As symbols of an all-pervasive technical world, the skyline above and beyond Wartburg was inhabited by electronic masts. In contrast, the desert through which the pilgrims laboriously trod, contained a textured backdrop the mirror-like surface of which vividly reflected not only the barren sandy environment but also the shadows of anguished human movements. And, at the end, these stage structures opened up for Elisabeth and Venus to emerge and confront, and perhaps also to reconcile, their differences.

Ironically, Hermann’s production was so compelling in its presentation of the dramatic conflicts between the protagonists that I left the theatre with the conviction that Wagner’s original purpose had been very well served, irrespective of the overlaying contemporary conceit. And that was because an evening of epic stagecraft had been combined with musical accomplishments of the highest quality.