The winter is over. The Covid night not yet. The WAGNER & HEAVY METAL Spring Weblog steps into the light with a visit to Venice and meets up with a creature of the night.
Reading time: 15 min
A month after the premiere of Parsifal in 1882, Richard Wagner travels with his family to Venice to spend the winter there. In Venice, his health quickly deteriorates, he suffers a lot from spasms and he misses his books up there. But he does not think of going back, the idea of being locked up in the north (in Bayreuth) all winter makes him shudder.
With the arrival of spring, the sun feels like a reminder of that inclination that can surface so strongly in winter. The inclination, that animalistic need, to escape the chilly gray of winter. Twenty-twenty, the year where everything came to a standstill, ended with a flight to Venice. A relocation to the city of the doges, magnet for artists, writers and composers. A relocation of the body to refresh the mind. The city, an open-air museum with its museums closed, with only a fraction of the number of tourists who normally roam there, became a setting for walks where Richard Wagner and Gustav von Aschenbach had left their real-life and fictional footsteps before they, for real and fictional, passed away there. The poetic potential of going to Venice at the time of a pandemic, city of the plague (quarantine) and cholera (Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig), was not lost on us. Our stay became a sojourn in the city of gondolas and Acqua Alta (high water) where you felt the force of cultural heavyweights pulling at you without the need to draw that inexorable, ultimate conclusion. After more than a month we went home, without dying.
Venice means a lot to a lot of people and the most extraordinary thing is that despite the seemingly endless influx of tourists who come here for the same thing, the city speaks to you in a highly individual way. That was what struck me most on my first visit two years ago. A visit to Venice has the immediacy of a live event where the massiveness of the audience does not get in the way of an intimate experience. A visit to Venice, instead of being an item on a bucket list that you tick off, was a place that you absolutely had to come back to. An introduction to a place that was more beautiful and fascinating than all the stories, photos and art could have prepared you for. As if behind the spugnatura texture of colorful walls and the amazing light (which Cosima writes about so admiringly in her diaries) there is a reflection and deepening of one's own emotional life. Beauty and decay are inextricably linked here, and nowhere more than here is it clear that decay, the ravages of time, the mortal aspect, is an inseparable part of what we experience as truly beautiful and valuable. Nowhere does decay look more beautiful than in Venice.
Wagner had to do without (most of) his books in Venice. Nowadays, we simply take a library, more books than we can read in a lifetime, with us on an e-Reader. Indispensable for those traveling but in Venice, being with the books of Philip Gwynne Jones (and the author himself, a Spritz Venezia with Campari and no Aperol because that's too sweet) was a welcome reminder of the unsurpassed excellence of the paper book. Philip Gwynne Jones' paperbacks with relief covers (as good paperbacks ought to have) were a very fine tactile addition to the digital reading routine. Jones has lived in Venice for a decade, and his books bring together crime and culture. His stories are like tourist guides to the most beautiful city in the world in which a crime is committed. Stories that revolve around Nathan Sutherland, English Honorary Consul to Venice, and his girlfriend Federica. A man who spices up his conversations with his spirited girlfriend with nerdy details about music and film. It makes the adventures they have together all the more empathetic. It scores Nathan Sutherland, the man who, to his regret, does not share his birthday with Tony Iommi by only one day (-1), sees that somewhat made up for by the fact that he does share his birthday with that of Yoko Ono (+2), some bonus points on the list of nerdy coincidendes from yours truly, who shares his birthday with that of John Lennon (+10). "Are you sure Philip Gwynne Jones doesn't know you from way back?" my girlfriend asks me as she takes note of the passage below from "Venetian Gothic" after I break the living room silence with a hearty burst of laughter.
Fede rested her head on my chest, and looked up at me.
She raised her eyebrows, but didn't say a word.
‘Hawkwind,’ I said.
“Assault and Battery". It's from Warrior on the Edge of Time.
‘Oh.’ She closed her eyes. ‘Were you single for a long time, Nathan?’
(Venetian Gothic, Philip Gwynne Jones)
The scene above, together with the author's fondness for hardrock, opera and classic horror movies, might indeed suggest something like that. The scene is recognizable to the point of being uncomfortable. Books and stories can be like rabbit holes you disappear in when you hit the bookshelves or search on YouTube for that one novel or movie referred to. The same here. The happiness of scenes that remind one of what a person has read and experienced is amply provided for in the stories surrounding Nathan Sutherland (who couples his incisiveness in thinking with an acting in anti-James Bond style, when punches are dealt he is usually on the receiving end). The stories are a pleasant adventure novel-like extrapolation of the Venice you have come to know as a beautiful city where actually no murders are committed on a regular basis and are, in addition to being highly entertaining and very educational, a pleasant wander - far away from the all-consuming ordinariness that everyday life can be so burdened with.
‘Welcome to my home,’ she said.
‘And leave something of the happiness you bring,’ I whispered to Federica.
‘What's that?’ she asked.
‘It's from Dracula.’
(The Venetian Masquerade, Philip Gwynne Jones)
Ever since I read the book (at the age of 13 during a holiday in France, on a camping near an old castle) it has been among my favorites. A book in which the evil depicted is so chilling because it remains, for a large part, hidden from view. It is perhaps for this reason that no film (entertaining though they are) has ever been able to do full justice to the story that Bram Stoker constructed in his epistolary novel around the chief of all vampires: Dracula. The conversion of the epistolary novel into an anecdotal narrative in which the many narrative perspectives are exchanged for the single perspective of an omniscient camera does not do justice to the fantasy to which the book so successfully appeals. In the book, Dracula finds himself on the convergence lines of several points of view. He becomes visible in the traces he leaves behind, described in letter fragments and newspaper clippings. The link between the horror and the man, the creature, we have come to know at the beginning (through Jonathan Harker's diary entries) becomes clear only later. A new Nosferatu by Robbert Eggers is planned (which draws on Murnau's 1922 film) but perhaps director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer's Body and The Invitation) will find the key to the ultimate Dracula film. She has a Dracula film adaptation in the pipeline that, being the first, takes the premise of the different narrative perspectives from the book as its starting point.
In writing Dracula, Stoker was actually aware of the theatrical potential of his master vampire. Stoker was a man of the theater himself and managed the Lyceum Theater in London, headed by Henry Irving, an actor whose intense portrayings of diabolical roles (amongst them The Flying Dutchman) were a source of inspiration for Dracula. Since then the chief vampire made his appareance in a wide variety of stageplays, movies, musicals, an opera (by The Royal Swedish Opera) and a ballet.
Guy Maddin, Canadian cult director (The Forbidden Room was one of the best cinematic experiences of recent years), ventured in 2002 with a film adaptation of a ballet of the Dracula story (Royal Winnipeg Ballet's interpretation of Bram Stoker's book) and came a long way when he fused silent-film techniques, avant-garde imagery and music by Gustav Mahler into a 21st century theater of Gothic Grand Guignol. The vampire in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is of Asian origin, and in that guise he carries with him not only the cross of the vampire but also the cross of the foreigner. In this Dracula adaptation, the deeply human characteristics in a being from another, inhuman dimension, are embedded in a current social and societal framework. This widens the image depicted of the chief vampire; he is more than just evil. Guy Maddin provides his Dracula with atmospheric images (he has that in common with other Dracula films) and relies on the power of suggestion with the abstraction of a ballet choreography. It doesn't get as good as the book (obviously) but the imagination of the book finds a worthy counterpart in Maddin's imaginings.
The vampire condemned to wander eternally in the underworld shares his fate with that of the Flying Dutchman. Trapped by a curse that forever bounds them to the earth, they withdraw from the world of the living and the rules that govern it, in order to seek relief and salvation from someone, preferably a woman, who makes herself available (voluntarily or by force) for the purpose of supreme liberation. In this (very Wagnerian) premise, the woman, in the brisk combination of being both commodity and savior for the man, may indeed rejoice in her indispensability, her personal ambitions will not have to extend beyond being subservient to the man (synonymous with how Cosima put her life at the service of Richard Wagner and his genius, and saw that as her highest possible goal in life).
In all my sad thoughts about life I am always uplifted by the knowledge that it was permitted to me to become necessary to him.
Cosima's diaries - 22 Nov 1870)
Where Richard Wagner's influence in music was considerable, his influence outside of music was possibly even greater. There was not an artist at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth, who did not emerge from under his shadow; his presence was ubiquitous. No wonder that Wagner's ideas about theater, music and drama ushered in the then new medium of film at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Dracula film that would be at the foundation of a genre not excluded.
#1 Scene from "Dracula" (Tod Browning 1931)
In what may have yielded the best-known Dracula to date, the 1931 Tod Browning film in which Bela Lugosi shaped the Transylvanian vampire with an affectionate accent, we hear the overture from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as Dracula visits the opera (see clip #1). Simultaneously with the version for the English-speaking market, a Spanish-language version was shot (directed by George Melford). In that Spanish-language version the character of Dracula is a lot less successful in becoming a movie icon but the editing of the film is superior to its English-language counterpart. Also in the Spanish version, Dracula goes to the opera but more than in the Tod Browning film, the music of overture Meistersinger is here not just a reminder that we are at the opera, a musical fragment as a leitmotif, but a serious host for the dialogue that takes place over it. (Apparently, the overture of an opera is the appropriate time to engage in extensive conversation.)
#2 Scene from "Dracula", the Spanish-language version (George Melford 1931)
Both Meistersinger and Dracula present us with the woman as an object of desire and as being a savior. And in both Dracula and Meistersinger, it is the father who exposes his daughter to evil and/or danger by respectively introducing her to Dracula (see clip #2) and awarding her to the winner of a singing contest. In Dracula, it is Mina who is 'privileged' to enjoy the special interest of the title character. In Meistersinger it is Eva who revels in the interest of several men of whom the interest of Beckmesser leaves the most unpleasant aftertaste. He is not seen (only) as a Jewish caricature anymore (a character of lesser morals) but in Beckmesser's interest in Eva, versus Walter's feelings for Eva, low intentions against those of true, pure love become visible. In the Spanish-language version, as if in coupling with Meistersinger, "Mina" is called "Eva”. It is as if, with the music of, and reference to, Die Meistersinger, the filmmakers want to tell us something about the similarities between the story and the characters in Dracula and in Meistersinger. Perhaps the filmmakers want to point out to us, the audience with knowledge of opera, the similarities in the fates these two women share in both film and opera. Coincidence or not, we Wagnerians who always like to see the grasping claws of the master reach as far as possible outside the realm of his own operas will of course gladly accept the invitation to draw conclusions about this commonality.
Both Meistersinger and Dracula present us with the woman as an object of desire and as being a savior.
With what Dracula can tell us about Meistersinger, we let our light shine on the motives of two male characters in the opera. It is difficult to perceive in Beckmesser, the master singer who manifests himself as a charlatan, noble motives for his actions and his desires. He is, at first glance, best suited to the role of the proverbial leech, the man who parasitizes on the skill of other people.
If Beckmesser is Dracula then Hans Sachs is the most appropriate person to be Van Helsing. in Bram Stoker's book, Van Helsing is a man who carries along his own mania. He is aware of the contradiction that only superstition and delusion can point the way back to the normal world. As a fighter of creatures that belong only in legends, he engages in his own kind of Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn. But to confine ourselves to the Beckmesser-Sachs tandem as a vampire and its hunter would ignore the fact that the character of the vampire, in all its multicolored greyness, has gained in substance throughout time. Why not give it a twist?
What if Hans Sachs, once night has fallen, leaves his home to indulge in innocent virgins? Abusing his position as a distinguished citizen in order to do the very thing he seems to have renounced for the eyes of the outside world. Well, in a world where Pride & Prejudice and Zombies exist, there surely is room for Meistersinger und Vampire.
There is another, not fictional, but historical link that connects Dracula with a Meistersinger in Nürnberg. Before the real Hans Sachs, master singer and shoemaker, was even born, a poet named Michael Beheim lived and worked in Nürnberg. He was a (proto-)master singer who lived from 1416 to 1472. Beheim was Germany's most prolific poet of the 15th century. At the courts he was a frequent and welcome guest. In 1472 he was murdered under undisclosed circumstances.
Beheim lived in a time of Papist emperors, Protestant secessions, Turkish invasions, and pagan rulers in the east. One of those rulers was Vlad Tepes, one of the inspirations for Stoker's Dracula. In 1463, Michael Beheim wrote a poem (Gedicht über den Woiwoden Wlad II. Drakul), a master song, or at least a prototype of a master song about Dracul, Vlad Tepes III, a sadistic ruler who took pleasure in impaling his enemies, women and children not excepted. In order to properly enjoy the macabre scenes that resulted, Vlad occasionally enjoyed a meal next to his impaled victims. Mainly because of a sloppy translation of the poem it was that Beheim's poem about Tepes and his barbaric savagery gave the suggestion that Vlad, like his fictional afterbirth at the end of the 19th century, drank the blood of his enemies (giving Stoker the inspiration for a bloodsucking Dracula) but that is most likely nonsense (Stoker most probably wasn't even aware of Beheim's poem when writing Dracula). Not that there wouldn't be plenty of horror left without that proto-vampire bloodsucking. Washing your hands in the blood of impaled people while having dinner scores high enough on the ladder of psychotic behavior to make it into a legend. Beheim based his poem in part on the testimony of a Franciscan monk, Brother Jacob, who had survived Vlad's atrocities. The horror of which the poem reports was an illustration of the cruelty of the godless Vlad, who, in contrast to the true faith of the Catholic rulers of the day, added an exalted lustre to noble Christian morals.
From: Gedicht über den Woiwoden Wlad II. Drakul (Michael Beheim)
The historical Dracula saw himself, in his lifetime, materialized in literature by a poet in Nürnberg. A minstrel, who lived in the generation before Hans Sachs. Centuries later, the music of the Meistersinger von Nürnberg, an opera that takes the historical Hans Sachs as its inspiration, would accompany Dracula as he makes his way to the opera in a movie that bears his name. May we ourselves be able to go to the cinema and theater again soon, at a time in the not too distant future. So that we can once again experience the immediacy and excitement of a live performance in a world in which we do not have to rely solely on the pixilated reality of streams on a screen (no matter how welcome they are).
- Wouter de Moor
The WAGNER & HEAVY METAL WINTER WEBLOG on music, books and the light at the end of tunnel. From ' HEAVY' (Dan Franklin) to a heavy book 'WAGNERISM' (Alex Ross). Plus Wilhelm Furtwängler and (a lot) more.
Reading time: 17 minutes
It was March, a bat in Wuhan had the world locked down, and I dreamt that I walked into a large building, gothic in design, in which there were countless cases with books. I was in what must have been Borges’ idea of heaven: a large, infinite library where you can fill your head with what people, in their most sublime and intimate thoughts, had written down. At first the library was everything I could wish for, I devoured one book after another, but after a while (could have been years or centuries, dreamtime is hard to define) I noticed that the books no longer spoke to me. I was exhausted and empty. I filled my head but my body didn't follow anymore. Isolated from the outside world I had become a stranger to my own feelings. I could no longer relate to the events and emotions I read about in the books; I had nothing more to add to them. I, the introvert, needed the outside world to keep the mind oxygenated. Life needs maintenance, so the dream seemed to want to warn me at the beginning of the lockdown.
While summer has turned into the grey, cloudy autumn and the blackened agenda of recent months (no MahlerFest, Bayreuth and much more) lies still heavy on the mind, we again, at least for a while, go into lockdown. Once again the road to the concert hall is being cut off and once again the man who is no stranger to spending time on the couch with books and music sees the new time with new unease. Will they all still be there when all this is over? The halls and theatres where we can attend concerts and operas? For me the ban on visiting concerts was recently broken by a chamber orchestra performance of Gustav Mahler's Fourth symphony. It was a Covid-concert - 12 men in the orchestra instead of 100, the hall filled for about 1/3rd, and a programme, in which Mahler shared the programme with Alban Berg (Sieben Frühe Lieder), that was played twice. Soprano of service was Barbara Hannigan. I gladly gave up my reservations against coming together in confined spaces during times of Covid. The return to the concert hall was special. An occasion where the music testified that everything of value is ultimately more vulnerable than you would like to think. It was remarkable (and kind of funny) that the performance by a chamber orchestra of a symphony written for large orchestra bore in it the sense of improvisation that synchronized with the character of the concert (making the best of a situation). No preoccupations with things like tempi and the ideal balance of instruments. More than listening to a piece of music you know from your preferred (recorded) renditions, it was like listening to your favourite band performing in an unplugged session. Mahler’s Himmlische Leben, the heavenly life, was, as expected, in joyful, glowing hands of Hannigan. But it was the Adagio, initiated by a cello, full of bromide and brooding desire, that was exceptional. It built a bridge between two worlds; a bridge between the world during and the world before the pandemic. The Adagio connected with the last concert I visited before the lockdown: Mahler's 9th symphony in February. You don’t have to hear a premonition of death in the Adagio of that symphony, six months later it acquired nevertheless the depth of a farewell for me (Stephen Johnson argues in his book "Symphony of a Thousand: Mahler and the World in 1910" convincingly that this is not Mahler's farewell to the world and makes, even more than he does for the 8th, a case for the 10th symphony). The dissonants of the Fourth, a beauty not yet complety smoothened, rubbed against the dissonants of the Ninth. The sound of the cello cast a glance on the world of yesterday. A world of which you could not imagine it would ever be exchanged for another. With the relative lightness of the Fourth, the tragedy of the Ninth became even more poignant, once again palpable; it was the symphony that the composer was never able to hear in life. The time to deal with matters of eternity is limited for everyone. (And then, while writing this blog post, I heard that Eddie van Halen had died. Stunning silence).
Mahler, the name on the bill was like a leitmotif. An indication for drama with which one purifies heart and soul. Mahler as a leitmotif, a word with gravitas; a pointer for feelings that directed me back to the concert hall. My late father found Mahler scary. He identified him with Romanticism, the macabre side of it. Who writes something like Kindertotenlieder? It kept him away from the German/Austrian Romantics until, late in life, he heard Lohengrin and concluded that he had apparently missed something of indelible beauty. In 1904 Mahler completed Die Kindertotenlieder (songs on texts by Friedrich Rückert about the death of young children) - it was for Alma like provocating fate. Four years later their daughter Maria died. In the long life that would have befallen her (she would die in 1964, she would survive Mahler longer, 53 years, than Mahler had become old), Alma Mahler never wanted to hear Die Kindertotenlieder.
With Skeleton Tree from 2015, Nick Cave wrote a kind of his own Kindertotenlieder. It's an album with lyrics about loss and death that seem to creepily precede the death of his own child. (When the recordings for the album were almost finished, Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell off a cliff). In HEAVY, the book in which Dan Franklin shines his light on matters of gravitas in the world, the name Nick Cave is mentioned by Phil Anselmo, former front man of metal band Pantera. His journey along the fringes of existence brings Anselmo alongside extensive drug abuse to the art he considers substantial – ‘heavy’ if you like and Nick Cave is as heavy as one can imagine.
Just as a lowering of the tempo does not automatically mean that music becomes more dramatic (the thoughts almost automatically go out to Reginald Goodall's Parsifal, the only Wagner recording in my possession that I can't get through), decibels are no guarantee for heaviness. Heavy is in the character, in the intention, in the source of where the music comes from. Heavy is the foundation on which indefinable feelings find solid ground. There is certainly a physical aspect to Heavy where overdrive guitars and rolling bass drums can come in handy but Heavy doesn't forget to connect large gestures with intimate feelings. Heavy has a feeling for theatre and Heavy knows that drama can't do without beauty. (Yes, opera is heavy). Heavy absorbs the punches, is an airbag for the blows inflicted by life. Heavy turns that which one feels insecure or ashamed of into a fist with which one can attack the world. Heavy is the joy that lurks in a minor chord, the profound pleasure that comes from listening to gloomy sounds and discovering that you are up to it. Heavy is, above all, of course subjective. Dan Franklin's search for it is a personal one and that's what makes it so much fun. It's a quest that triggers one's own.
In his search for what is heavy, Franklin crosses over from music to literature and film. Whereas Schopenhauer once said that you should be able to buy with a book the time to read it, with a book like HEAVY, which derives its reading power from a multitude of references that makes you Google while reading, you wish you could get that time as an infinitely extendible leporello. Reading HEAVY is like playing chess on several boards simultaneously with a recurring sense of shortcoming. (For why have I not yet seen Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni?)
Striking is the distinction Franklin makes in HEAVY between real heaviness and cosmetic heaviness. Nirvana is heavy, Limp Bizkit is not. The difference seems to speak for itself. The authenthic scream of Kurt Cobain that exorcises existential fears, as opposed to the band of Fred Durst who sees in their (derivative) nu-metal mainly an instrument for scoring girls (although a song like ‘Nookie’ comes from dealing with heart ache, the overcoming of the position of a underdog, its pose and triumphantness deprives it of any form of sympathy one might consider). After Nirvana crushed the plastic pop music and the glammetal of the 80's to pieces (eternal gratitude for that!) many a rockstar jumped on the bandwagon of the grunge. With grunge the focus turned inwards, rock music became more introverted. Grunge gave (hard)rock a new dark elan of heaviness (and Badmotorfinger of Soundgarden was the most heavy thing around; it was even more than Nirvana’s Nevermind, that had a remarkable universal appeal to the public at large, an album that separated heaviness from would-be heaviness). Instead of ‘just’ superficially chasing girls, the lyrics in grunge were about 'real' feelings. Many a glam rocker dressed up in a lumberjack blouse. Mike Tramp from White Lion turned to the 'dark' side (with Freak of Nature) and he wasn't the only one. Where in many a transformation from glam to grunge the commercial motifs were at display, the distinction between true heaviness and cosmetic heaviness (as a distinction between being sincere or not) was not always as obvious as first impressions suggest. Both Pantera and Alice in Chains had a hairmetal past and their exchange of hairspray for lumberjack check shirts might suggest, aside for creative motifs, a concern for the cosmetic (and commercial).
Further on: WAGNERISM, what Mike Patton has in common with the French Symbolists and Wilhelm Furtwängler in Italy >>
Who also had commercial motives when he composed one of the heaviest, most important operas in music history was Richard Wagner. Shy of money, as always, Wagner had an opera in mind that should be easy to produce. It turned out somewhat different for Tristan und Isolde. The line-up could be limited to two protagonists and a few supporting roles, the vocal demands, however, proved considerable. The potential places for the premiere, including Rio, Strasbourg, Paris and Vienna, all dropped out (70 rehearsals were needed in Vienna, but the singer for Tristan did not get his role learned). Not until 5 years after completing the opera the premiere took place in Munich (in 1865). Wagner initially had imagined Tristan for Paris, the cultural capital of the world, but after the disastrous performances of Tannhäuser in 1861 he abandoned that idea. He would no longer live to see his name established in the French City of Light, but his influence, posthumously, on French cultural life, especially literature, would become considerable. The French may not have loved him immediately, in the end they understood him like no other.
The French Symbolists stretched their words where the music and libretti, their melody, timbre, color and rhythm, of Wagner had challenged them to. Mallarmé envisioned “a poetry that imitates music, surpasses it, and stages in the theater of the mind the higher drama that Wagner sought in vain.” It is one of the many examples in WAGNERISM; a marvel of a book in which Alex Ross explores Wagner's influence beyond the boundaries of music.
What a text means and to what extend a text speaks are not the same thing. A meaningful text is something other than an expressive text. An intriguing part of the lyrics of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas) is that the words are chosen for their sound as much, if not more, for their literal meaning. The words become, through their sound, an integral part of the music. It is not so much a text that is set to music, but setting sound itself. The message, eventually, is in the sound. According to Christiaan Thielemann that is one of the differences between Italian opera (in which words are set to music) and the German Wagner opera (in which Wagner is setting sound itself). Where for instance Verdi (and his librettist Boito) are cutting, distilling and dramatizing – Wagner is letting the sound flow.
Back to that very first revelation in which I recognized in Wagner's music an old friend I had never known. In that music I recognised the classical music that my father used to play (Beethoven), but I heard that Wagner had modernised that music - stripped it of classical form - with an instant addictive effect. I couldn't explain it musically-theoretically, I didn't have to do so in order to surrender to it. It sounded like a confirmation of my inner self. A discovery of something that was not so much out there but a window I opened in myself. And it was as if Wagner made it clear to me that I could rely on my own feelings. That I could trust my instincts. A confirmation (if ever I needed one) that meant the world to me.
Wagners' music was reminiscent of film music, it was music with great visual power. The first time I heard Die Walküre (a CD with a studio recording from 1962 led by Erich Leinsdorf with Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers) I didn't know what it was about, but a film passed me by. Later, when I checked in with the story and libretto, I didn't need a staging to imagine the story. When Wilhelm Furtwängler had completed the studio recording for EMI of Tristan und Isolde in 1952, he expressed the idea that Wagner's operas might thrive best in concert performances. He knew he was contradicting Wagner, but Furtwängler came to the conclusion that theatrical images only distracted audiences from the musical splendour and power in which, after all, everything was already incorporated. (Although that works differently for each individual. Director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, told in a conversation with Alex Ross that Wagner's music only started to work for him after he had seen a Ring cycle in the theatre; he needed the images to comprehend the music).
It was a long summer that now, with increasingly darker days, seems to have past so fast. I listened, for the first time in its entirely, to the RAI 1953 Ring under Furtwängler. I couldn't put my mind to it sooner, give it the attention it deserved. The RAI Ring is widely praised, it is Christiaan Thielemann's favourite Ring recording, but until now, despite the combination of Furtwängler and Wagner, it did not strike me as essential. The Ring that Furtwängler recorded in La Scala with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde was sufficient for me when it came to Furtwängler and the Ring cycle. Recorded live in 1950, this Ring has drama, theatre and depth. We experience a sultry winter storm with Günther Treptow & Hilde Konetzni as Siegmund & Sieglinde. Treptow is a powerful Siegmund who is not afraid to show his feelings - as befits a real man. The scene in which his Siegmund expresses to Brünnhilde that he prefers earthly love (in dire circumstances) with Sieglinde to a paradise life in the Walhalla cuts through the soul. Under Furtwängler's majestic handling of the large arches in the score flows smouldering magma. And Flagstad's Immolation scene makes me longing - despite a heartfelt ‘be careful what you wish for’ in these times of turmoil - for the end of the world.
How Furtwängler heard and interpreted a composer remains an almost inexhaustible source of fascination. I am thinking of his performances of the symphonies of Brahms. Symphonies in which Furtwängler brings out an unprecedented energy and demonic power where, characteristic for him, especially in his live performances, he exchanges beauty of sound for romantic expression (probably not quite how Brahms himself must have had in mind). Musical phrases entrusted to gravity and time with a seemingly anarchistic slant. As if you push a container of boulders off the hill and, in the noise that follows, recognize a pattern that, as in a fractal, allows itself repeatingly to be dissected to a next level of smaller details. The result is breathtaking. It is Furtwängler who in no small way made Brahms and Tchaikovsy (his 1938 Pathetique!) accessible for me. Unfortunately, there is no Ring recording of him that in this way combines power, expression and drama (it remains to be hoped that a complete pre-Second World War Ring cycle recording from London will surface one day, it seems to exist).
The RAI Ring relates to the Scala Ring as a studio recording to a live recording. This Ring is recorded, one act at the time, for radio recordings with an audience that only reveils its presence by applauding at the end of each act. The RAI Ring is especially interesting for the singers. Compared to the Scala Ring, the RAI set-up gives them more space and they need less to compete with the orchestra. That orchestra sounds a bit stiff. Especially if you compare it to the Scala Ring and particularly if you put it next to the Ring that was recorded in Bayreuth that same year under Clemens Krauss. Furtwängler saw Hans Richter conducting Die Meistersinger in Bayreuth in 1912, and that performance stayed with him as his ideal opera performance. It was an opera like a conversation piece, a performance in which you forgot the music. Listening to the RAI Ring, you cannot escape the idea that Furtwängler extracts his own vision of the Ring, of Wagner, to a large extent from those performances under Richter, and successfully conveys that vison to orchestra and singers. Because of a struggling Italian orchestra, at times it is as they are still rehearsing the score, Furtwängler has to keep things audibly on track from time to time; it is indeed more of a conversation piece than hot-blooded drama. Eventually, the intoxication is no less; once descended into Nibelheim, it won't let go. Martha Mödl is a great involved Brünnhilde (she brings more drama to the role than Flagstad) and Ferdinand Frantz is a robust Wotan (he fits the Wotan that Furtwängler must have envisioned better than Hans Hotter, who was more lyrical). Julius Patzak's Mime, a key role in the whole drama, is a disappointment; he sounds more like an office clerk than an intriguer who tries to gain access to the Ring via Siegfried.
Furtwängler came to Wagner a bit later in his professional life. As a teenager he thought of the Ring as just a superficial piece of musical theatre with an oversentimental libretto that lacked a heart, a human touch. It was an attitude that would change, but with Das Rheingold Furtwängler kept his reservations. He felt that this opera of the Ring was the most difficult to bring to life for the audience. In the RAI Rheingold these objections become tangible. The orchestra under Furtwängler rises a bit slow (literally) to the occassion and it is eventually not until Götterdämmerung that it blends in with the master's vision. But even then it doesn't really get to the underlying drama. We are never given a look at the primal forces that control the world. It is true that a fascinating story is being told here, with strings that turn to gods, man and fate with demonic pranks, but it remains a bit of a stiff excercise in which drama and expression remain stuck in a somewhat rigid presentation of music and text. It's a meal that at times is spicy but the salt and pepper in the playing of the orchestra never turns into musical umami. This Ring is an addition, no desert island stuff, but I'm glad it is there.
Wilhelm Furtwängler may eventually have become affiliated with Richard Wagner, in name and fame, his favorite composer was Ludwig van Beethoven. The composer who, in 2020, thanks to that wretched bat from Wuhan, saw the festivities surrounding his 250th anniversary largely fall to dust. In the opening of the second part of his Seventh symphony (the Allegretto) Beethoven starts with an A minor chord. From there he goes to a combined E/G-major chord. Thus Beethoven says by musical means: "Happiness is there, where I am not". The Allegretto is melancholy in a majestic advancing chord progression. Resonation of the pace on which the mind seeks a place where relief and enlightenment can be found. At a time when we, even more than usual, have to depend on ourselves, the presence of good music, books and films is of more importance than ever.
Extra thoughts and special thanks therefore to the writers and artists with which we (try to) make our way to the light at the end of the tunnel. The demands and expectations with which we burden their work may not always, especially now, be reasonable, but they stem from primarily felt needs: the need to enrich our inner self, to satisfy sincere curiosity and even to fight a deeply felt insecurity about our place in the world. It is all the more precious when music, books and films (art if you like) succeed in doing so and touches us where it enlightens the mind and gives us a glimpse of a world, deep within ourselves, that holds the promise and fulfillment to a better life.
- Wouter de Moor
And then you wake up in a world in which Eddie van Halen is no more. Like this year was not already strange and f*cked up enough. The fact that even musicians who, responsible for the soundtrack of your life, are bound to an appointment with the Grim Reaper, as if they were ordinary mortals, remains unabatedly disturbing. It plays one’s mind to no end, it makes one face the times beyond one’s own time, it makes one stop to function, not able to do the simplest of jobs. The death of a rock god lay bare that connection with music that is often more stronger, more intimate than the connections one has with spouses, friends and family. Because the music is always there. Unconditionally. It’s there for joy, sure, but it also keeps a mind in balance, it can be an invaluable partner that can get you through a difficult time. It triggers the imagination in unspeakable ways.
Lost for words.
Everything passes eventually but Music is so very present tense. And then being in a world where he is not in. Don't let the party antics of Van Halen's front men (Sam & Dave) fool you, Eddie van Halen's guitar tone was the heaviest thing in the known universe. (Play Romeo Delight and play the Annihilator cover from trash metal shredder Jeff Waters to prove a case in point). Pyro-technics, two-hand tapping and the trademark solos aside, the secret of EVH was in the rhythm, in the groove, in the heavy-metal-flamenco-style delivery of his licks. Never ‘just’ a barre chord or a mere repetition of riffs. Delivered with a right-hand attack, with his peculiar way to hold a pick, that burned strings and eardrums alike. (The quality of his rhythm work that, when Hagar became Van Halen's frontman and the songs more conventional, only got more prominent because Hagar "didn't want to sing over guitar solos". Bless Roth for songs like Hot For Teacher and As Is; riff clusters from which songs with lyrics are made. Chuck Berry on steroids. Pure gold because virtuosity is great but you carry it much better with you when you can sing along with it.)
EVH was a musician that escaped the realm of the instrument he was playing (the notion that we lost the "Mozart of our times" is made more than once these days); he reimagined the electric guitar as a creator of sound. There is solace in good music, in inventive musicianship and EVH supplied that, in his own unique, idiosyncratic style, in large amounts. When I was young I wanted to be Him because for a child there is nothing more exiting than a big toy and in the hands of a rock god (how the hell is he doing that?), an electric guitar becomes the biggest toy of all - a magic wand with divine possibilities. Suffice to say that some dreams remain dreams. I often did not knew what I wanted in and from life but playing the air guitar? Always! Infinite pleasure in gesticulating, in dancing with your arms in thin air. Inexplicable freedom in expanding the mind with the idea that everything in life can be overcome, can be dealt with. Godly rewards from the fact that one can be, if only for the duration of a song or guitar solo, be bigger than life. We still have the music to revive dreams of old, as a gift for the ages, but His demise, like Neil Peart earlier this year, is hitting hard. Very hard.
- Wouter de Moor
Toying around with image and sound. Combining the music of Richard Wagner with film footage.
There is few music as rich in imagination as the music of Richard Wagner. Music that, also outside the biotope of the operas for which it was written, loses nothing of its expressiveness and illustrative power. Wagner's music is a triumph of sensual subjectivity, a dizzying descent into the listener's psyche that is like a flight to the tops of imagination.
Wagner had outspoken ideas about theatre and about the purifying qualities of the music dramas he had in mind. His work (both operas & writings) expresses a visionary power in which he looks far beyond the boundaries of what opera was up to in the mid-19th century. His foresight extended beyond the world of opera and beyond what he himself could suspect, for he could not foresee the medium that would see its introduction at the beginning of the 20th century: the movie. The art of movie making would be heavily indebted to the wizard of Bayreuth and would provide the question "which images to add to that illustrative, powerful music of Wagner" with many additional answers.
Soon during the development of film as a popular art form, filmmakers discovered the power of music combined with moving pictures (moving pictures that were - at that time - shot without sound). Among those filmmakers there were few that had not been touched by the magic wand of the wizard of Bayreuth and at the beginning of the 20th century Richard Wagner's music found its way to the cinema. Notorious is the use of the Walkürenritt in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation in a scene of a (victorious) Ku Klux Klan parade. The Walkürenritt as an expression of battle and triumph that sends its audience a morally murky message - it wouldn't be the last time in the 20th century. But as a music that gives adrenaline to images it is almost unsurpassed. Francis Ford Coppola knew how to exploit that in Apocalypse Now. In this movie American soldiers crank the Ride of the Valkyries out of the speakers when they bomb a Vietnamese village. Soundtrack to a massacre. Rarely did the Walkürenritt had a more grim staging. The bombardement is from an artistic point of view one of the marvels of cinema. It's high paced action in perfect rhythm (and no CGI to disturb the illussion, this is "real"). A sequence of scenes in which feelings clash into feelings because you want to go - regardless of morals - with the action and the music plays no minor role in that. With the help of the Wagnerian soundtrack, the horror of the bombardment becomes, above all, entertainment. (It is not uncommon for music to play a decisive role in the process of turning violence into enjoyment. With a "here comes the cavalry"-vibe one forgets the carnage, the suffering as a result from violence all too easy.) Wagner and war, it's connected like Wagner and death. Siegfrieds Trauermars in John Boorman's Excalibur is another fine example of Wagner's music as a movie soundtrack. But the most successful example of the use of Wagner's music in a movie is - as far as I know - in the movie Birth by Jonathan Glazer in which the face of Nicole Kidman becomes - on the sound of the Walküre overture - a movie in a movie (see also this article).
For Wagner's music, the movies seem to be a natural habitat and the Wagnerian who always enjoys hearing the music of the master outside the biotope of their original operas can, in the current information age (with easily accessible tools) imagine himself - if only for a short moment - a creator as he (or she) combines existing film and music into something (not entirely) new .
Here are five home-made videoclips in which Wagner’s music is combined with film footage. Please enjoy these little pieces of modern Gesamtkunstwerken.
The first clip is a fragment from the 1981 film Heavy Metal. An animated sci-fi fantasy film, based on a series of stories that were strongly inspired by the comics that appeared in the magazine "Heavy Metal" (in French "Metal Hurlant"). Stories about the struggle of good vs. evil with the necessary graphic violence and functional nudity. In this clip we see Taarna the Tarakian, a maiden warrior (who takes possession of a sword in a very Wagnerian way) taking a ride on the back of a pterodactyl while looking for some high-quality payback time. It is perhaps a bit obvious to add the Walkürenritt to this clip but here goes ...
video: Heavy Metal (1981)
music: Walkürenritt, Die Walküre (Bayreuth, Boulez, 1976)
The second clip comes from the Hammer House of Horror. Toying with image and sound one finds out what a great versatile soundtrack the overture Walküre is. It's a piece of music with a built-in suspense like few pieces of music have. A storm within which the prophecy of something terrible is raging. As Ein Fremder Mann, Dracula is received by a woman who, against her better judgement, gives herself to the Prince of Darkness.
video: Horror of Dracula, Hammer, 1958
music: Die Walküre, overture - Boulez/Bayreuth 1976
The third clip has another Wagner and vampire pairing. Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau was the first movie based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Due to copyright-issues the count goes by the name of Orlok (the movie was made without permission of the Stoker-estate, as a result it got almost all of its copies destroyed) and Max Schreck turns that role into a benchmark vampire. Schreck is more of an animal, a kind of giant moth, instead of the sexy seducer that Lugosi and Lee would make of the chief vampire. In this clip he makes his entrance on music from Götterdämmerung (the beginning of Act 2) It is music of expectation, music that preludes a question ("Hagen, Schläfts du mein Sohn?") that sees, in this edited scene from Nosferatu, its answer coming in the most frightening way.
video: Nosferatu, 1922
music: Götterdämmerung, beginning Act 2 - Boulez/Bayreuth 1976
The fourth clip is from La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer from 1928. A film entirely carried by the face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Dreyer didn't choose any music for his film and as a purely silent movie it is perfect as it is. It's one of the most powerful films from the silent movie-era (and beyond). A movie that makes a case for the use of close-ups. An ode to the human face. We combine it with the Parsifal overture and it is remarkable how music and image seek a connection with each other.
video: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)
music: Parsifal, overture - Boulez/Bayreuth 1968
The coda to this blog post sees Wagner captured in a Mendelbrot Fractal Zoom. Wagner, the master of longevity, sucked in a world that divides itself into an infinite number of smaller worlds. A continuous descent to a deeper level. A descent into Nibelheim. An animation, a kind of 2D staging with visual counterpoint, a strong suggestion of 3D, in which the abstract does justice to the expression of the music in a way figurative images don't. The fractal animation, a play of forms that here as it were nods to the ideas of Adolphe Appia, the architect/designer who envisioned late 19th century, in the spatial lines of architecture, the shape of opera stagings to come.
video: Mendelbrot Fractal Zoom (computer animation)
music: Das Rheingold, Descent into Nibelheim - Edo de Waard/Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra 2010
- Wouter de Moor
In the concert hall where he conducted a crushing Walküre three months earlier, Jaap van Zweden kicked off 2020 in an impressive way.
In the year in which the Amsterdam Mahler Festival of 1920 celebrates its centenary - and the Concertgebouw, just like 100 years ago, has all 9 symphonies (and a little more) by the Austrian master on the programme in May - the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in their first concert of the year, played under the baton of Jaap van Zweden two movements from Mahler's 10th symphony.
Next to Mahler, Stravinsky was on the programme with his groundbreaking Sacre du Printemps. Mahler and Stravinsky were both composers who, each in their own way, showed ambition to push the music into the future. An ambition that would give shape to repertoire that has lost none of its eloquence after all these years. It is striking that modern classical music often seems conservative in comparison. Nothing to the detriment of Softly Bouncing by Martijn Padding, it's well crafted music but it does not open up new worlds. Sounding soft in a large hall was the starting point for Padding's last composition and he found inspiration for it in Kurtag and Webern. Without penetrating into the intimacy of the musical micro-cosmosses of these two giants, Padding delivered with Softly Bouncing a piece in which out-of-tuned harmonicas, deliberately sounding daft, stripped the sounds of the softly abrasive violins, John Luther Adams came to mind, of an all too profound impression. It was music in which the beauty, pleasantly tickling, in great contrast with the pieces by Mahler and Stravinsky that came afterwards, was of too great a relativization: it was music in which nothing was at stake.
The Adagio of Mahler's 10th symphony was, together with the Purgatorio, the only movement that was ready for performance when the composer died in 1911 at the age of 51. It begins in a Tristanesque manner. A melody that - slowly brought to life by the strings, referring to the solo for English horn at the beginning of the third act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - suggests an awakening; a call that, while waiting for an answer, reveals a range of distressing feelings that open up like a flower in delirious colours with hallucinatory scents. The musical prose to which Mahler refers here is - probably not accidental - about a love that carries with it the maddening impossibility of an equally maddening manifestation.
Stürb ich nun ihr, / der so gern ich sterbe,
Were I to give my life to that / for which I would so gladly die
(Tristan und Isolde, love duet, act 2)
"To live for you, to die for you," Mahler wrote in the margin of the score. His wife and muse Alma was having an affair at the time with the young architect Walter Gropius, and love threatened to elude him along with life, as he had been diagnosed with heart failure. At this concert the Concertgebouw Orchestra played for the first time in more than 95 years the orchestrations that Willem Mengelberg, at Alma Mahler's request, made of the first and third movements of Mahler's unfinished Tenth. Together with composer and assistant conductor Cornelis Dopper, Mengelberg added percussion to the Adagio, doubled some parts, especially in the strings, and added some notes to the Purgatorio. Compared to the performances that are generally known, whether or not as part of the completed version that Deryk Cooke made of the Tenth, the result is not that world-shattering different. Mengelberg, perhaps the most important ambassador for Mahler's music ever, left behind few Mahler recordings (the Adagietto from the Fifth and a complete Fourth symphony). His Mahler arrangements, in which he gives, in places, extra body to Mahler's original score, remind us of those reviews - from the beginning of the 20th century, from before the time of recorded sound - that report of performances in which Mengelberg made Mahler's music sound more Mahlerian than when Mahler conducted his own music.
Mahler stretched the musical language in his Tenth (it is probably his most dissonant piece) but his attempts to move the music into the 20th century are cautious (in spite of the chilling mother-of-all- horror-chords in the Adagio) compared to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. It's as if you're listening to your favourite guitar band and then hear Jimi Hendrix blasting out of the speakers. A music that not only shatters genre boundaries but redefines, in the process, the very instrument (in this case the symphony orchestra). When composing Le Sacre, Stravinsky was of course indebted to those who preceded him (e.g. Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin), but where Mahler conscientiously builds on the past, Stravinsky simply clears the desk with Le Sacre and creates a new playing field on which to this day few have left their footprints with the same seismographic power as the pagan ballet did at its premiere in 1913. The idea of wanting to shock in the same way as back then is perhaps somewhat adolescent, it should not, could not, be the intention of performing musicians, but also more than 100 years later, the animated power of Le Sacre can be of an unprecedented brutal beauty. A musical world that in a highly cultivated way explores the animal in the human experience and with its proto-heavy metal power chords brings headbanging to the classical concert hall.
As with his impressive Walküre of three months ago in the same hall, Jaap van Zweden took the notes far beyond that place where they were entrusted to gravity and time and, together with the orchestra, he created an impressive structure of musical colour and scorching sounds. It is not for nothing that many, audience and critics alike, would like to welcome him as the new chief conductor in Amsterdam. It would be a return of the prodigal son who at the age of 19 became the youngest concertmaster of the RCO and a conductor who - judging by what he achieves in the relatively short time he has as guest conductor with this orchestra - could take the orchestra further. The members of the orchestra themselves do not seem to like Van Zweden very much, and they have an important voice in the appointment of a new chief. He is apparently strict, known for extending rehearsal times, but perhaps it is a good thing that with a possible appointment for Van Zweden the orchestra's stay in the comfort zone comes to an end. With all due respect to the conductors who have stood in front of the orchestra since Gatti's departure, one of the best orchestras in the world cannot be satisfied with the exercises, all to modest in character, under the likes of e.g. Herreweghe, Blomstedt and Järvi. Being able to complete, say, a Brahms symphony with your eyes closed does not distinguish you on the playing field on which the Concertgebouw Orchestra aspires to act. With a deeply-felt Mahler and a ravishing Stravinsky, Van Zweden made a strong case for his assigment as the next chief conductor in Amsterdam. It was a joy to be a witness to it.
Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 9 January 2020 (second concert in a series of three)
Padding - Softly Bouncing (wereldpremiere)
Mahler - Adagio ('Symfonie nr. 10 in Fis') (version Willem Mengelberg - 1924)
Mahler - Purgatorio ('Symfonie nr. 10 in Fis') ((version Willem Mengelberg - 1924)
Stravinsky - Le sacre du printemps
Concertgebouworkest led by Jaap van Zweden
- Wouter de Moor
THE WRITE OF SPRING
A DESCENT INTO THE NIBELHEIM OF THE MIND
EDDIE VAN HALEN
WAGNER AT THE MOVIES
WITH MAHLER AND STRAVINSKY INTO THE NEW YEAR
THE RETURN OF DIE WALKÜRE
PAGLIACCI / CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: A GAME WITH REALITY IN ITALIAN VERISMO
(NO) BAYREUTH (SUMMER BLOG)
TANNHAUSER: WHAT'S ON A MAN'S MIND
ABOUT EXTREME MUSIC
DIE TOTE STADT
HELMUT LACHENMANN IN THE MOZART SANDWICH
OEDIPE: IS MAN STRONGER THAN FATE?
ONE MORE ... (RING CYCLE)
MARNIE: OPERA & PICTURES
THE HALLOWEEN TOP 10
JENUFA: ICE-COLD REALITY IN WARM-BLOODED MUSIC
MY PARSIFAL CONDUCTOR: A WAGNERIAN COMEDY
LOHENGRIN: IN THE EMPIRE OF THE SWAN
DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE IN A ROLLER COASTER
PARSIFAL IN BAYREUTH
HEAVY SUMMER (THE ROAD TO PARSIFAL)
LOHENGRIN IN SCREENSHOTS
LESSONS IN LOVE AND VIOLENCE
BERLIN/BLOG: FAUST & THE CLAWS OF TIME
THE GAMBLER: RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH PROKOFIEV
BACH/BLOG#1: THE ROAD TO LEIPZIG
BACH/BLOG#2: BACHFEST LEIPZIG
BACH/BLOG#3: JOHANNES PASSION & MORE
DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, WAGNER & DRACULA
THE CHRISTINA CYCLUS OF KLAS TORSTENSSON
LA CLEMENZA DI TITO: MOZART ÜBER ALLES
BRUCKNER AND THE ORGAN
GURRE-LIEDER: THE SECOND COMING
PARSIFAL IN FLANDERS: REIGN IN BLOOD
TRISTAN & ISOLDE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE EMBRACE
DANIELE GATTI & BRUCKNER'S NINTH
ON THE BIRTHDAY OF LUDWIG (BEETHOVEN'S MIGHTY NINE)
THE DINNER PARTY FROM HELL
ZEMLINSKY & PUCCINI: A FLORENTINE DIPTYCH
VENI, VIDI, VICI
ELIOGABALO (HERE COMES THE SUN KING)
LA FORZA DEL DESTINO
DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE
'EIN WUNDER' TO LOOK FORWARD TO
EIN HOLLÄNDER IN BAYREUTH
FRANZ LISZT IN BAYREUTH
SALOME & THE WALKING DEAD
LOHENGRIN IN HOLLAND
THE SUMMER OF 2016
PARSIFAL IN SCREENSHOTS (BAYREUTH 2016)
GUSTAVO & GUSTAV: DUDAMEL & MAHLER
HAITINK & BRUCKNER: A NEVER-ENDING STORY
FOR LEMMY AND BOULEZ
BOULEZ IST TOT
LEMMY - ROCK IN PEACE
THE BATTLE: WHO'S THE BETTER LOHENGRIN?
STOCKHAUSEN AND HEAVY METAL
FRANZ LISZT IN THE FUNNY PAPERS
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
SOLTI'S RING AND BAYREUTH IN 1976
BOULEZ TURNS 90
FRANZ LISZT IN THE PHOT-O-MATIC
THE HOLY GRAIL
FRANZ LISZT - ROCK STAR AVANT LA LETTRE
THE BEST THEATER EXPERIENCE IN MY LIFE
One more time he returns to the Dutch National Opera: Pierre Audi's take on Die Walküre. The production that made me (almost 20 years ago) a lover of opera and a Wagner aficionado in particular.
One last time he takes a ride on the stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. Pierre Audi's production of Die Walküre, part of a complete Ring-cycle in which Audi, now more than 20 years ago, wrote theatre history and contributed significantly to the name and fame of the Dutch National Opera. A legendary production, endowed with DVD and CD releases, that turned out to be not only my door to the world of opera but also proved to be my gateway to classical music. It was this opera, this very same production, in which I found something that I had lost but of which I could not suspect that what had been lost could be found in an incestuous love affair and a chief god who, eventually, shows himself human, all too human. An opera in a production of Pierre Audi with suggestive, atmospheric set designs by George Tsypin. An opera in a staging that ripened the mind for a world behind the dead-end street that pop music had become with music that was surprisingly well suited to ears that had grown up with blues-based pop & rock. From hard rock to Richard Wagner. Both music with balls like Iain Paterson once put it when he was asked about his love for both heavy guitars and the music of the sorcerer of Bayreuth. In the rerun of this Audi-Walküre, Paterson sings Wotan.
Die Walküre is three operas for the price of one. Three acts of which each act is a drama in its own right. A red hot love story in the first act. Wotan, who in the second act finds out that the rules with which he rules the world apply also for himself - a crucial moment in the Ring - and the third act, furiously starting with one of the best-known tunes in music history, the Walkürenritt, which ultimately leads to one of the most beautiful conclusions in all of opera; Wotan's farewell, when the chief god has to face the ultimate consequence of his choice for power over love and bids farewell to his beloved daughter Brünnhilde.
With music that is firmly anchored in soundtracks and movies (Apocalypse Now and Bugs Bunny) is Die Walküre a piece of genre-transgressing theater. Just as you don't have to love pop music to like The Beatles and don't have to be a jazz cat to appreciate Miles Davis' Kind of Blue & Birth of the Cool-period from the 1950s, you don't have to be acquainted with opera to have a (very) satisfying night in the theater with Die Walküre.
But on 8 December it really will be over - at least as far as this production is concerned. Then the Walküren will take their last ride on the 56-metre-long " landing strip " (a cross section of the world ash) that George Tsypin had conceived as a stage for the drama of the second opera in the Ring cycle. That stage is gigantic, the first three rows of seats in the auditorium have to make way for it. It's a landscape separated from time and place, that, also with this fourth rerun of Die Walküre (this time as stand-alone opera), has lost none of its ability to inspire awe. Here, music drama becomes space.
A space with a central role for the orchestra, situated in the middle of the stage. It is a kind of reversed Bayreuth construction (where the orchestra is under the stage), but it works. As in Bayreuth, the sound of the instruments and the singers come together on stage before they are taken into the auditorium.
With respect to the previous editions of this Audi-Walküre, all roles, from conductor to cast, have changed. In a production that has more than proved its worth in the past, this invites comparison.
Compared to Hartmut Haenchen, Marc Albrecht, for example, conducts broader tempi. This demands something extra of the singers stamina. It seemed to give Iain Paterson - by moments - some trouble. The baritone of this Wotan suffered - especially in the third act - from a somewhat nausal vocal delivery. Paterson turned out not to be one hundred percent fit, a shortcoming that will be remedied with a few days of rest. Wotan's extramarital daughters, the Walküre sisters (fruits of fornication between the chief god and the goddess of the earth, Erda, at the end of Das Rheingold), formed in their interpretation and equipment with militant silver wings a combo in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Compared to the Hunding from the previous edition, Kurd Rydl, the Hunding by Stephen Milling is a giant. Milling's stage presentation, together with his deep bass, was, as always, impressive. The very filmish design of Hunding's armour by Eiko Ishioka (she also designed the costumes for Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula) made him look as if he'd walked out of an Akira Kurosawa movie. Opposite this Hunding were the Walsungen twins. The Siegmund of Michael König, a bright, lucid tenor with the aura of a kind-hearted man, and the Sieglinde of Eva-Maria Westbroek; a role that by now fits her like a glove. It was the first time Westbroek sang the role in the Netherlands in a staged production. Her performance was one in which the contradictions that many good interpretations seemingly effortlessly unite - fear and courage, vulnerability and strength - merged into a beautiful and layered representation of the woman that recognized in Siegmund her supposedly lost brother and great love. With the imposing and threatening Hunding by Milling, you feared even more for the fate of this Walsungen couple than you usually do. The cast was good, Westbroek was very good.
It is all very justified praise for a production that for yours truly was a return to the year zero of his Wagner fascination. The end of an era as well. Pierre Audi is saying goodbye to Dutch National Opera and we will see what the future (for Wagner and beyond) will bring to the opera stage in the Dutch capital.
You come out differently than you enter. An evening with Wagner. That goes for both spectator and artist. They were visibly emotionally moved by it, Iain Paterson and Martina Serafin when they received the final applause after Wotans Abschied. It was the end of a performance that will continue to set the Muziektheater in Amsterdam on fire in the weeks to come.
Dutch National Opera 16 November 2019 (premiere):
Dates: 16 November until 8 December 2019
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchestra
Stage direction: Pierre Audi
Decor: George Tsypin
Costumes: Eiko Ishioka, Robby Duiveman
Siegmund: Michael König
Hunding: Stephen Milling
Wotan: Iain Paterson
Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Brünnhilde: Martina Serafin
Fricka: Okka von der Damerau
Gerhilde: Dorothea Herbert
Ortlinde: An de Ridder
Waltraute: Kai Rüütel
Schwerleite: Julia Faylenbogen
Helmwige: Christiane Kohl
Siegrune: Bettina Ranch
Grimgerde: Eva Kroon
Rossweisse: Iris van Wijnen
- Wouter de Moor
The Dutch National Opera opens the 2019/2020 season with Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana. In this Italian double hit, Robert Carsen plays an ingenious game with reality.
From a season that brings us a reprise of the Pierre Audi Walküre and shares with us Katie Mitchell's vision on Richard Strauss' Frau Ohne Schatten, the double bill Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana was a convincing kick-off. An opera season in which the Dutch National Opera in addition to its (usual) Teutonic repertoire offers more room for Italian opera (Rossini's La Cenerentola and Verdi's Nabucco are on the programme and also blockbuster Carmen should in context of serving different tastes, attracting a possible wider audience, not go unmentioned).
It was a start of the season in which we also met the new chief conductor who after this season (Marc Albrecht has his last year with DNO) will make his appearance in the Amsterdam opera house. With the young Lorenzo Viotti (he is only 30 years old), the Dutch National Opera has brought in new talent. A conductor who, with his early debut for DNO (prospective conductor Mark Elder had to cancel due to health reasons), immediately left an unforgettable impression. After Ingo Metzmacher, an advocate of 20th-century opera, and Marc Albrecht, a specialist in scorching (late-) romantic repertoire, the Dutch National Opera is recruiting with Viotto a conductor who has hitherto mainly 19th-century Italian repertoire under his belt. In addition to his first performance for DNO, received with reviews written in accolades, let's hope that Viotto's preferences will not lead to an overly conservative choice of programme and that his traverses in German and more modern repertoire will lead to just as much success as his triumphal march along this Leoncavallo / Mascagni double bill.
More than just a hot-blooded sermon on human lust and love, the jealousy and violence-fuelled intrigue in (somewhat) stereotypical Italian drama was neatly parked between a fine piece of Regietheater and a more traditional storytelling method. A production that was not only suitable for those for whom Italian opera is synonymous with a genre. Also for those who are generally more concerned with the Germanic branch of the opera family (yours truly) was the adaptation by Robert Carsen (previously responsible for Dialogues des Carmelites at DNO) of Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana worth its price for admission.
He played a game with the perception of the audience and directed in this way not only the emotion but also made an explicit appeal to the mind. In Pagliacci it is not entirely clear to what extent protagonist Canio can distinguish reality from performance, and Carsen makes this diffuse boundary between reality and theatre the starting point of his production. He changed the usual order of the two operas, making Pagliacci a piece that was performed in the theatre where the cast of Cavalleria Rusticana was preparing to sing in an Easter Mass. This choice helped Cavalleria to become the somewhat surprising musical winner of the evening. Pagliacci, sparkling and grim, was the support act for a sultry high mass in Cavalleria in which a tapestry of heavenly close-harmony singing was unfolded. An exercise in choral singing led by Ching-Lien Wu, who played herself, in which the choir turned from their usual role as spectator and commentator into a protagonist and excelled - perhaps even more than it usually does in productions for DNO.
Not only in Cavalleria but also in Pagliacci was the choir more than just a bystander and became thus the real leading star of this production. It sat on the first three rows in the hall, as part of the audience. In what seems to be a trend, circus people who don't want to limit themselves to the dimensions of a stage (Tannhauser in Bayreuth last summer), the members of the choir were spectators and participants in one. They acted, reacted, applauded, exhorted to silence and played with the conventions of (Italian) opera with its (pre-programmed) applause after an aria.
It worked like a two stage missile. Pagliacci became - with an excellent Brandon Jovanovich in the role of Canio - a first highlight that just after the intermission only seemed to be the prelude for Cavalleria Rusticana. Canio and the people he killed, Nedda and Tonio, turned out to be just actors. The murders before the intermission were just part of a piece of theatre-in-a-theatre. It made Pagliacci a kind of support act - a role that Cavalleria Rusticana usually plays when these two operas are paired - which did not mean that what was presented to us in Pagliacci was stripped of its emotional gravity. Pagliacci presented as a performance-in-a-performance did not diminish the involvement of the viewer any less as the credits of a movie do when we, the audience, are reminded that the personages we saw were only actors.
Of these singer-actors, Brandon Jonovich as Canio gave a grim, intense performance that in the aria Ridi Pagliacci found a (expected) highlight that at times looked like a trailer for the upcoming Joker movie. In the theatre show that Carsen built, there was room not only for strong acting, but also for old-fashioned Italian singer drama. With a classical feeling for grand gestures in voice (and behaviour, a tweet during the rehearsals in which she complained about the fact that DNO did not allow her to take her dog inside the theater suggested such a thing) Anita Rachvelishvili sang the role of Santuzza. An interpretation for the lover of glowing, powerful opera singing. A voice, full in all registers, that captured all (extreme) aspects of the drama. As if Renate Tibaldi and Maria Callas fought their classic battle between beauty and expression and found in Rachvelishvili's performance a rutted, tantalising amalgam. In a roller coaster of emotions, Rachvelishvili brought Santuzzi to life. The woman Tiruddi rejects because he is in love with Lola, Alfio's wife, and, in this production, has been banned from the choir. As Santuzzi, Rachvelishvili, confined with a tormented heart, gave shape to a warm-blooded angel of revenge. She tells Alfio about his wife's affair and thus initiates the duel in which Alfio kills Tiruddi. The extent to which this death is 'reality' or merely theatre-in-a-theatre ultimately remains - when we see ourselves in a mirror on stage at the very end (when the curtain has fallen) - a question with an open answer. Carsen peels off the layers of theatre reality and leaves the final answer to the question of what is real or not to the audience. Of how far a theatre-maker can stretch an idea until it deprives the spectator of its illusion is up to everyone individually to determine.
This Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana goes meta, appeals to the mind so that the emotion lingers longer. At the Dutch National Opera it may have been since Simon McBurney's staging of Raskatov's A Dog's Heart that a production gave such added value to text and music. One can only hope that the rest of the new opera productions this season will have something of the originality and inventiveness of this one. It was about the dynamics of theater and not about the grandeur of visuals. With my only reference in this matter, the museal opera film that Franco Zeffirelli once made of this diptych, my expectations were somewhat reserved but that a theaterical layer could be of such additional benefit to classic verismo-repertoire came as more than just a pleasant surprise.
Dutch National Opera (18 September 2019)
Dates 5 Sept t/m 28 Sept
Conductor: Lorenzo Viotti
Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest
Choir Dutch National Opera
Chorus master: Ching-Lien Wu
Prologue: Roman Burdenko
Nedda: Ailyn Pérez
Canio: Brandon Jovanovich
Tonio: Roman Burdenko
Santuzza: Anita Rachvelishvili
Lola: Rihab Chaieb
Turiddu: Brian Jagde
Alfio: Roman Burdenko
- Wouter de Moor
No Bayreuther Festspiele for me this year, at least not in the flesh. No descent into the Bayreuther mosh-pit but an ascent into cyberspace where, together with the rest of Wagnerians, I can rejoice at the virtues of the streaming services that make it possible to see the new production of Tannhäuser in real-time. Being part of a live audience is always something special, also when that audience is in cyberspace.
Visiting Bayreuth is more than just visiting an opera. Bayreuth, for those with an interest in Wagner, is like an open air museum, whose magic works from the moment you step outside the station and you see, on your right, the road that leads to the Green Hill. In Bayreuth the whole city is a stage, with little Wagner statues to greet you and street names that remind you of the sole purpose of your visit. Here the combination of historical awareness and expectations, often sky-high after waiting for years to get oneself a ticket, create their own prelude to a performance that begins long before the Festspielhaus opens its doors.
Five years ago I've visited the place for the first time. I went to see Lohengrin but more than that I went to see (and hear) the theater that the composer - who had become nothing short of an obsession by then - had built. Like a kid in a candy store, I had never felt so excited before a performance, not since I went to see the idols of my youth, Canadian rockband Rush, in concert many years prior. Lohengrin in Bayreuth was my acquaintance with the famous acoustics of the Festspielhaus and its infamous absence of climate control. Lohengrin in Bayreuth was also my first serious encounter with Regietheater (for lack of a better word). Hans Neuenfels' production made rats out of soldiers and gave, with animation and video, the original story a Rashomon-kind of spin. I did not comprehend it complety, by times the libretto seemed hidden behind theatrical extravaganza that was both entertaining and distracting. Needless to say I enjoyed it tremendously. Attending an opera in Bayreuth was a Gesamt-experience of many things: the notice that one was standing on - let's not get carried away but yeah - sacred ground, it was about music and one's own personal relationship with it, about theatre and the power of imagination and, of course, about the history of Europe and the sensitivites around Wagner that were nowhere better felt than in Germany. In Bayreuth, staging Wagner was a reckoning with the past. In the modern staging of Hans Neuenfels the avant-garde came from the need, had it roots in the conviction, that in order to keep Wagner's music dramas relevant for the present day they had to be saved from a stained past. So much I understood.
It was not until a considerable time later that I began to appreciate Neuenfels' Lohengrin more for its artistic merits than for its good intentions. After Bayreuth I had bought a video of a Lohengrin with Placido Domingo in the title role. A traditional production by Wolfgang Weber with beautiful scenery. Cheryl Studer was Elsa and Claudio Abbado conducted, no complaints there. But after Act 1 I felt a bit bored and after Act 2 I thought: Why bother? Because for beautiful pictures to come with an opera I just have to close my eyes. You can make your ideal staging in the mind, Wagner's music supplies you with everything you need. After three acts of Weber's Lohengrin I craved for a staging in which the director had turned the scenery into something more than just a depiction of the obvious. A staging that was more than just an atmospheric picture to a story. I began to appreciate more the kind of staging that added its own dynamic to music and text, a staging that gave with theatrical findings, added plot twists and changed perspectives -even if those add-ons went against intuition and libretto-, the opera a more idiosyncrastic outlook; the kind of staging that not only served the storyline and libretto but also dared to operate on a more independent level. So I bought a DVD of Neuenfels' Lohengrin, the production I saw in Bayreuth, and was not disappointed. If I want to see a staged Lohengrin I return to the rats in the laboratorium rather than Domingo in a beautiful cloak acting like a statue.
To the question what scenery to add to Wagner's music drama Tobias Kratzer already came up with highly praised answers for Götterdämmerung, a production that went - sadly - under my radar. In his Tannhäuser for Bayreuth he makes extensive use of video, grants the audience a view on the Wartburg, offers some more or less traditional stage imagery in the second act but hangs those bounded to tradition pretty much out to dry (and one is surprised, measured by the booing the production teams often receive, how many in the Bayreuther audience are still capable of being unpleasantly surprised, even shocked, by new ideas, so many years after Wieland Wagner dragged the operas of his grandfather away from romantic "naturalistic" scenery).
In Kratzer's take on Tannhäuser the mountain of Venus becomes a circus company. It is here that Tannhäuser, dressed as a clown, lives the adage of the young Wagner („Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Genießen“ / Free in the will, free in doing, free in enjoyment). In the circus of Venus, Tannhäuser finds the company of a drag queen (Le Gateau Chocolat) and a dwarf and together they drive around in a van. Tobias Kratzer likes to toy around with ideas and to tease, not only his public, but also fellow theater makers. In the overture we see the circus van pass a billboard with on it a reference to Joep van Lieshout's biogass installation of the previous Bayreuther Tannhäuser production („Biogas-Anlage mangels Nachfrage geschlossen“ / Biogas plant closed due to lack of demand). The circus van is going to the Burger King where they tap fuel from a parked car and leave without paying. When a police officer tries to block their way, Venus hits the gas and drives him over. From that moment Tannhäuser begins to feel remorse. There is a dark side to his freedom, the bohemien lifestyle comes with a price that he - by the time the overture is over - is no longer willing to pay. He goes back to where he came from. That place is Bayreuth.
From the circus back to Bayreuth. From lowbrow entertainment to highbrow art. Tannhäuser is a story about love and lust and social acceptable behaviour. But here Tannhäuser is more about finding your place in society than trying to solve the problem of the masculin mind that tries to cope with both love and lust. Kratzer steps into the Bayreuther tradition of demythologizing Wagner and takes the themes of love, lust and salvation to micro-level. Makes them part of a story of human proportions in a production for a public that was raised with movies and video clips.
Kratzer gives us Tannhäuser in the circus, and we connect it (amongst other things of course) with Fellini. The dwarf with a tin drum makes us think of Die Blechtrommel, a story about a kid that, in protest to the mature world, refuses to grow any further after his third birthday. And where a linden tree (ein Lindenbaum) to a 19th century audience, familiar with its literary meaning (a leitmotif for love and death), gave extra meaning to the song "Am Brunnen vor dem Tore" from Schubert's Winterreise, so the film references work for a 21st century audience as visual leitmotifs that emotionally widen the image of circus people as social outcasts. Bohemians whose drama often is hidden behind smiles.
Love and lust are motives, raher than main themes, in a story of finding your place in the world. The sexuality is part of a lifestyle. It gives Tannhäuser flesh and blood and the result is moving. What if the place where you find love (and lust) is not accepted by mainstream society? How does one stay true to oneself when peer pressure forces you to change your ways? Kratzer leaves the religious aspect pretty much out of his concept (Rome is where the police station is) and transits Tannhäuser's story (and sexuality) to topical times with nods to the LGBT-movement.
20 years ago he sang in The Phantom of the Opera and now he has already 100 Tannhäusers under his belt (and he is on his way to 100 Tristans). Stephen Gould was a very impressive Tännhauser who had in Lise Davidsen a stupendous Elizabeth at his side. Last minute substitute Elena Zhidkova (she stepped in for Ekaterina Gubanova) carried the role of Venus on small but strong shoulders and brought comic relief to the role; in the second act she infiltrates in the singer context at the Wartburg where she can't barely hide her boredom about the prudery on display.
As in both the Meistersingers from Katerina Wagner and Barry Kosky, and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal, we see in Tobias Kratzer's Tannhäuser Bayreuth on stage of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. And like in Hans Castorf's Ring we find in the use of new media, video, means to extend the stage, to go where the eyes of the audience normally don't go, in this case backstage and outside the Festspielhaus. In a time with cameras everywhere, privacy is an illusion. We see Wolfram backstage, in distress, seemingly intented to call it quits, when someone with a score reminds him of his performance duties.
The ambiguity of Wolfram, Tannhäusers friend who struggles more than anyone else with his love, lust and moral standards, gets a bit of a frightening touch here. He dresses himself in Tannhäuser's clown costume to get closer to Elizabeth. We’re eying to a Pagliacci turn of events when they kiss and we step into darkness when Elizabeth recognizes Wolfram but nevertheless has sex with him. By lack of the real Tannhäuser she settles for a substitute, she swops the real thing for an illussion. It leaves both Elizabeth and Wolfram devastated. Wolfram's aria: "O du mein holder Abendstern" becomes a cry of regret and Elizabeth eventually takes her own life.
Elisabeth ends up dead in the arms of Tannhäuser while a video playing in the background shows us the two driving away in the circus van to an imaginary place beyond the horizon - the only place where their love can exist. It is a kind of a transfiguration in love, a fullfillment of the deepest of all desires far away from the material world, a salvation in mind only. From the circus back to Bayreuth to, eventually, a theater of the mind. Place where - as contemplated before - very often the finest of stagings are.
Very often the finest stagings are in the head and sometimes all it takes is a head to make a fine staging. In this case the head of Nicole Kidman. From an opera staging with references to movies to a movie with a reference to opera. From Tannhäuser to Birth from Jonathan Glazer.
In Nicolas Glazer’s Birth, Nicole Kidman is a woman who has lost her beloved husband. In shock and at a loss she marries a man she doesn’t really love. One day a boy shows up who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. It brings her out of balance, it’s a thing that can, of course, not be true. Still unsettled by it, she enters a theater where a performance of Die Walküre is about to begin. During the overture we see her face, slowly descending from reason and common knowledge to a point where what is unthinkable, that her beloved husband came back to her, might perhaps be true. It is a movie within a movie, a scene that works on many levels; the new found function of the music, the role it gets apart from being an overture to an opera, the beginning of a night out – the promise of a new beginning in her troubled life. A scene like this, and I don't know of any other example where the use of Wagner's music outside his own operas works in such a transcendent way, is like a leporello that hides many questions and possibilities. For the Wagner afiencado, always glad to hear his music in unexpected places, the scene can harbour some questions about his or hers own relationship with the music of the sorcerer of Bayreuth. What does Wagner's magical world exactly add to one's own world? What is his music capable of doing? In the scene the music gives extra meaning to the slowly changing expression on the face of Nicole Kidman and that face, in return, adds another layer of meaning to the music. It is a scene where the relationship between fiction and reality, the friction between them, opens a door that reality and fiction alone can not open. It paves the way for the possibility that there is, in fact, something like magic. It can put Wagner's pretentions, art as a replacement for religion, into new perspective. It can be a reminder for what an opera staging can be, something that escapes the syntax of a nice picture that comes with beautiful music, something that perhaps can transgress genre and media boundaries, and brings the mind on a plateau from which opera and life look as new.
- Wouter de Moor
More than ten years after the production of Nikolaus Lehnhof in 2007, Tannhäuser returns to Amsterdam. Christof Loy stages for the Dutch National Opera a new production of the opera that would keep Richard Wagner occupied until the end of his life. "I still owe the world another Tannhäuser," he would have said just before his death. Tannhäuser is about the classic struggle between heart and mind, lust and love and what it means to be a man (or human being for that matter).
He lived there from 1839 to 1842, sought the support of Meyerbeer, but Richard Wagner saw his attempts to work his way up to an established name in Paris (the cultural capital of Europe, of the world) fail. In 1861, to his great delight, he seemed to be given another chance when he was asked to stage a French production of his opera Tannhäuser in Paris. Extensive preparations followed; the music was revised, the sets were designed by three artist who were amongst the most famous of their time, and more than 160 rehearsals took place until the premiere.
It wasn't supposed to be. Tannhäuser in Paris was a fiasco. Main cause: the Jockey Club, a group of men of the aristocracy who had to miss their ballet at the beginning of the second act because Richard Wagner, that stubborn Teutone, allowed artistic reasons to take precedence over the conventions of the Grand Opera. Wagner had placed the ballet at the beginning of the opera, at the end of the overture, because from a narrative point of view it was the most logical spot. The members of the Jockey Club, who were usually still having dinner during the first act, and more into the bosoms and bare legs of the ballerinas than into opera, were all but pleased. They disturbed the performances to such an extent, handed out whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner felt compelled to withdraw the opera after three performances. Despite the fact that he found supporters and kindred spirits in French artists, such as Charles Baudelaire, Wagner would not live to see the day that he would be a household name in Paris; it did not leave him without a grudge. "Without any pose, I assure you that I do not believe in any revolution more than the one that starts with the burning down of Paris," he wrote, and in 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Cosima writes in her diary: "Paris is being bombed, who doesn't want to listen, has to feel [...] Rumours about a truce. To our displeasure, R. wishes a bombardment."
In his new production of Tannhäuser for the Dutch National Opera, director Christof Loy brings Paris and Wagner together again. He has the Jockey Club appear as well as knights of the Wartburg as participants of the bacchanal in the mountain of Venus. The world of Venus and the Wartburg come together in what most resembles a painting by Degas (Foyer de la Danse). One world, one stage image, in which lust and prudery come together, separated only by the male perspective on the woman - the way in which the man sees a woman (as a saint or as a whore).
The story of Tannhäuser is the story of a man who tries to find a balance between these two opposites (are they really opposites?); a search for the answer to the question how to be a man, how to be a human being. In his career, Wagner would repeatedly return to the question of lust & love, salvation and the role of women in it. In a superlative way. His talent to expose the drama hidden in the human condition with compelling musical prose can be considered awe inspiring.
Tannhäuser (consistently addressed as Heinrich, named after the semi-mythical minstrel Heinrich von Ofterdingen) begins the opera that bears his name behind a piano, composing. As the overture progresses, the room changes from a quiet artist's place into a bacchanal in which members of the Jockey Club are chasing ballerinas. The staging of the overture is, as is often the case in this opera, the part that appeals most to the imagination. There is nudity and sex, with or without consent. We are in the mountain of Venus, that part of the masculine mind where the woman serves only as a prey for red hot testosterone. After a long stay there Tannhäuser has enough. He is fed up with constant copulation, he wants to return to the mortal world, to nature, to the world where he will be able to be creative again. The instant satisfaction in Venus' garden of lust deprives him of the inner struggle necessary to give birth to a dancing star (after Nietzsche who, at the moment that Wagner started composing Tannhäuser, wasn't even born).
Wagner would later present an unsurpassed and all-encompassing argument for it with Tristan und Isolde, but the premise that art is unrealized sex is already hinted at in Tannhäuser. Tannhäuser, the minstrel of the Wartburg, is left behind in the coital world of Venus with an unsatisfactory feeling and asks the goddess of lust to let him go. The goddess feels rejected and is surprised that Tannhäuser wants to return to the mortal world; she is shocked by his ingratitude. What Tannhäuser really wants becomes not entirely clear. Once back in the world where pure love is considered the highest ideal, the Wartburg, the world in which Elisabeth is waiting for him, he insults and shocks his entourage by chanting the glory of lust. The source does not dry up by drinking from it, he tells his friend Wolfram during the Sängerkrieg, the singing contest in the second act. Wolfram von Eschenbach is, in this production perhaps even more so than usual, with Tannhäuser the most important male character of the opera. His struggle with his ideas about pure love, his inability to indulge in lust, puts him in sharp contrast with the rest of the members of the Jockey Club whose madonna-whore complex is as big as the hypocrisy they are guilty of. The hypocrisy, that lurks in the background when they condemning Tannhäuser, is prominently placed in the foreground by Loy. Here hypocrisy is not just suggested for those who want to see it but finds an unambiguous representation on stage.
The masculine inability to see love and lust as an unity is reason for Loy to supply both the world of Venus and the world of the Wartburg with the same stage image. The result is a rather static space that is not abstract enough to be interpreted too broadly. As a consequence the emphasis lies, almost automatically, on the Personenregie. This works very well in the mass scenes (with a magnificent chorus!). The more intimate scenes would probably have benefited from a higher dynamic in the scenery; for a more compelling effect, the suggestive music could have been paired with a more inventive graphic representation.
Tannhäuser's struggle, his quest, his audacity plus the fact that he too - as in a Sartrean world (l'enfer c'est les autres) - gives in to peer pressure (let's go to Rome) make him like a real man. It makes him one of the more sympathetic characters who usually populate a Wagner opera. In Daniel Kirch's interpretation, Tannhäuser is more of a rascal than a hero, a man for whom the creation of turmoil almost is like a goal in itself. Kirch had to look for the pedals at the start but once going his performance fitted in perfectly with Loy's concept.
Wolfram was an exceptionally strong role by Björn Burger, a powerful interpretation of a man full of doubt- it made the principled Wolfram a more congenial man, less of a trotter, than he sometimes can be.
Stephen Milling, who combines a tall posture with an equally large voice, is a regular inhabitant of the Wagner-sphere. The Danish bass (a.o. Hunding in the Copenhagen Ring, Hagen in the Bayreuther Castorf Ring) sung and acted Landgraf Hermann with known authority. It is a role he will also sing later in the year in Munich and Bayreuth (in the new Tannhäuser production of Tobias Kratzer, theatre maker who directed an excellent Contes d'Hoffmann last year for DNO). As Elisabeth's uncle, he is organising a singing contest, a singing contest with a woman as the main prize ( Wagner would take it as starting point for his Meistersinger) in which the old partriarchal convention, the woman as a commodity, as a kind of Stepford Wife, is ubiquitous. Loy deserves credit for breaking open Tannhäuser's patriarchal world, putting it in a perspective that synchronizes more with topical times, without turning the result in something artificial.
It is Wagner's instinct, his genius, that saves Tannhäuser (the opera) from a grotesque gap between love and lust. He turns Venus, the goddess of lust, into a woman who also wants love while Elisabeth, a model of pure spiritual love, is longing for sensual pleasures as well. With music, he juxtaposes both body and mind, while at the same time lets them intertwine. Loy had both women, following Wagner's instinct and not his libretto, appear at the beginning of the third act. Like two women embodying together that one woman that the man does not see (or does not want to see).
In Amsterdam, Ekaterina Gubanova made her role debut as Venus. She will also sing the role in Bayreuth this summer. She combined a big voice, by times a bit sharp, which was not entirely out-of-character, with a convincing stage presentation. Her Venus was a multi-layered woman who did not get stuck in lust and envy and carried the weight of her role on strong but sensitive human shoulders.
That drama and beauty often go hand in hand was proven by Elisabeth's performance by the Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova. In an ethereal garden of sound, Aksenova picked flowers of desire and clamped a rose of passion between her teeth. She brought to life an Elisabeth who carried with her both the exaltation and the drama of love, in which her love for Tannhäuser, which she loved more than the other way around, condemned her to a certain death; the only one in the opera as we shall see. Her performance gave her character a beauty that by Elisabeth's inevitable faith took on a monumental dimension. From her Teure Halle on, at the start of the second act, she expressed an irresistible desire for something pure in this world, something that has not yet been affected and contaminated, like snow that is still free of footsteps ...
Like snow …
There are various ways for a director to trigger a singer/actor. For Svetlana Aksenova, the word "snow", brought up by Christof Loy, worked wonders. It opened a door in Aksenova's Russian soul and plunged her into an extraordinarily impassioned interpretation of Elisabeth.
Like Lucas van Lierop, who took care of the role of Heinrich der Schreiber, Julietta Aleksanyan comes from the Dutch National Opera Studio, the training institute of the Dutch National Opera. As the young shepherdess she reached to great heights in the first act - a performance that promised much for the future
In Tannhäuser, Wagner is still a few operas away from his with leitmotives woven tapestries of sound; the orchestral accompaniment is of a rather austere nature, is characterised by an economic use of ideas and deliberate chosen moments of exuberance. It is music that Wagner would revise several times after the premiere in Dresden and to which he would add beneficent, mystical sounds. Sounds that would bear witness to his newly acquired musical findings in a Tristanesque world, anticipating Sacre-like violence. Sounds that are like a second home for conductor Marc Albrecht. As always, Albrecht let the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra shine in romantic repertoire. In 2020 Albrecht will leave the Dutch National Opera - unfortunately without having conducted a complete Ring cycle - and with his orchestra he laid the foundation for what was a strong performance indeed.
For the redemption of the man, the woman has to die, it's a constancy with Wagner. In this production Elisabeth does indeed die by taking on Tannhäuser's sins but in addition to Tannhäuser's salvation she also provides salvation for everyone. Tannhäuser stays alive and the opera ends as it started, with an orgy. Tannhäuser slowly begins to understand the depth of Elisabeth's sacrifice and removes himself from Venus. The cheerfulness on stage comes with a bitter taste, for one may wonder what one has really learned from it all. When asked how to find the balance, in life, between the sensual and the spiritual, Loy explicitly leaves the answer open.
There is usually no shortage of quality in the Wagner performances of the Dutch National Opera and also this Tannhäuser can be considered (after an excellent Tristan last year) first rate. Wagner-lovers know what to do by now, as do the rest of the opera-loving public: they will find their way to the Muziektheater in Amsterdam.
Dutch National Opera 6 April 2019 (premiere):
Dates 6 April until 1 May
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchestra
Stage direction: Christof Loy
Decor: Johannes Leiacker
Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink
Tannhäuser: Daniel Kirch
Elisabeth: Svetlana Aksenova
Venus: Ekaterina Gubanova
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Björn Bürger
Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen: Stephen Milling
Walther von der Vogelweide: Attilio Glaser
Heinrich der Schreiber: Lucas van Lierop
Ein junger Hirt: Julietta Aleksanyan
- Wouter de Moor