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Sex and the single troubadour: Lyric Opera turns heat up in earthy take on Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser’

Submitted by on Feb 11, 2015 – 5:08 pm

Tannhäuser (Johan Botha) has grown tired of his retreat into sensuality at the Venusberg. (Todd Rosenberg)Review: “Tannhäuser” by Richard Wagner, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, through March 6. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

It’s a bleak, war-torn world that greets Wagner’s prodigal troubadour in the Lyric Opera’s potent, sensual and yet strikingly unromanticized production of “Tannhäuser.”

If any opera cries out for a modernist staging, it is this tale of the 13th-century knight-chanteur who, rather unsportingly,  withdraws to a den of iniquity when he loses a singing contest, ultimately grows weary of those games and returns to his pals – and the woman whose love he thought he’d lost – only to be shouted down for his debauchery.

Venus (Michaela Schuster) summons all her wiles to keep Tannhäuser from leaving the Venusberg. (Todd Rosenberg)Typical of a current trend, the Lyric version – created by Covent Garden’s Royal Opera and now seen in Chicago for the first time – brings the story into a timeless present. Though generally dark, this treatment also energizes, and vibrantly colorizes, the prologue’s protracted sex romp at the Venusberg. More about the sex in a moment, but convention demands that I first acknowledge certain other aspects of the opera.

The singing is splendid throughout (tenor Johan Botha in the title role, soprano Amber Wagner as Elisabeth and mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as Venus, bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Wolfram and bass John Relyea as Hermann); and Lyric music director Andrew Davis conducts “Tannhäuser” for the first time with the dramatic conviction, musical assurance and fluent lyricism of one whose knows his Wagner inside out. The Lyric Opera Orchestra delivers at a very high level, indeed.

But back to the primordial stuff, and what proved to be an exuberant, one might even say Olympian, Vorspiel in more than the strictly sonorous sense. Wagner’s Venusberg-Musik proceeds directly from the Overture to depict the rambunctious cavorting at Venus’ love palace, and a ballet corps of seven athletic pairs demonstrated with uninhibited generosity how a proper orgy might look.

Tempers flare as Tannhäuser (Johan Botha, center) disputes the ideal of chaste love. (Todd Rosenberg)To Jasmin Vardimon’s brilliant choreography, which managed the deceptively hard trick of being sexy without becoming cheaply graphic, these lithe, marvelously well-conditioned dancers engaged in kinetic coupling centered on a long table across which they soared and rolled and interconnected in the vivid spirit of music that’s almost photographic, if that’s the word I mean.

Thus when Tannhäuser finally pipes up, complaining to Venus that he’s grown bored with this scene, you really have to wonder if he’s been paying attention at all. Yet, despite every inducement Venus can muster, first honeyed and then wrathful, the full argument imbued by Schuster with transfixing vocal power and sheen, the pining troubadour can think only of home, and off he goes.

Magically, Tannhäuser finds himself back on native ground – at least in Wagner’s concept. In the mind of stage director Tim Albery, the repatriated troubadour lands in a black, featureless limbo, where he encounters “pilgrims” now transformed into a ragtag band of soldiers armed with automatic weapons, several of them pointed at our hero.

Elisabeth (Amber Wagner) sings a heartfelt paean to the great hall that is the citadel of her life. (Todd Rosenberg)Perhaps this empty darkness was meant to suggest a dreamscape, or a sort of worm hole through which Tännhauser’s tormented mind is tumbling. As there is nothing on the stage to tip the viewer’s reading in one direction or another, Albery might be leaving one to imagine what one will. I imagined we had reverted to a costumed concert version of “Tannhäuser.”

Out of that blackness, the troubadour emerged into the ruins of what Wagner envisioned as a formidable castle, a venerated place that remains, not incidentally, intact. Here, it’s battered to bits. Never minding the post-apocalyptic devastation, Elisabeth’s aria “Dich, teure Halle” – creamy and radiant in Amber Wagner’s voice – still paid homage to the great hall of her memory, I suppose.

What works unequivocally is the snarly singing contest that unfolds amid the rubble. Here, Finley’s Wolfram shone in heartfelt tribute to womanhood, idealized as a fount of purity, the unsullied better part of mankind. And Botha was no less thrilling in Tannhäuser’s ardent rejoinder to the effect that “You boys really should get out more.” As the worldly, lusty Tannhäuser pressed the pleasures of physical love in the face of these swooning swains, the gathered crowd (the Lyric’s superb chorus) only grew angrier. The broken, dark-shrouded setting felt like a metaphor for a benighted populace.

Wolfram (Gerald Finley) keeps a wintry vigil for Tannhäuser's return from Rome. (Todd Rosenberg)Set designer Michael Levine goes from strength to strength with the arid snowscape of the final scene, as Elisabeth and Wolfram await Tannhäuser’s return from his pilgrimage to Rome and word of whether the pope has forgiven his sins. Here is a clear-cut avatar for Tännhauser’s barren soul; actually, it’s a compound image that also mirrors the fading hope of the troudabour’s two devoted friends.

At this point, the modernism is resonant: We are not looking at some vignette of mythic time, but rather we behold pain and prayer in a fraught present that we recognize only too well. With the Lyric Chorus’ majestic final proclamation, the opera’s redemptive love theme carries the experience beyond time or place, and out of darkness.

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Dancers tumble through a stylzed orgy scene in the prologue of 'Tännhauser.' (Todd Rosenberg)


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