Review: Estonian National Opera Premiere: Tannhauser

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 21 March 2013 | 4:06:00 am

Kindly provided by Michael Amundsen at Tallinn Arts

ESTONIAN NATIONAL OPERA PREMIERE: TANNHAUSER–MARCH 14Michael Amundsen

It’s a big year for Wagner aficionados. The bicentenary of the birth of the “genius of Bayreuth” means a plethora of productions worldwide, featuring Teutonic troubles in misty realms. Wagner’s music is undeniably sublime, but are the moral sentiments of his works relevant to contemporary life? The Estonian National Opera and English stage director Daniel Slater took up this question with the premier of “Tannhauser” on March 14.

For Slater, this meant ditching period costumes and medieval backdrops and presenting the problems of modern romantic love. Slater’s conception of “Tannhauser” required soprano Heli Veskus to perform the roles of both Venus and Elisabeth, the dual love interests for the opera’s eponymous hero performed with the right measure of insolence and indifferent fatalism by Mati Turi. The opera’s dramatic tension arises from Tannhauser’s confused needs, his lust expressed for Venus while in her lair at Venusberg and his failed romance with Elisabeth, the landgrave’s daughter at the castle of Wartburg, who loves him despite himself. Wartberg is home of the minnesingers, romantic bards who sing songs of love.

The staging for this production is intriguing because neither the world of Venusberg or Wartburg are particularly appealing options for Tannhauser. One is a ceaseless parade of erotic illusions, skillfully and humorously evoked as tropes of the modern male’s pornographic fantasies. The other is a realm of cruel Philistines who have clearly never encountered fun. All things being equal, Venusberg seemed the better option, which I doubt was Wagner’s intended message.

To emphasize the monotony of life at Wartburg all, men and women, are dressed in black business suits and the settings are sterile white and silver backdrops which rotate between scenes. The drabness highlights the static milieu of the place, a Nietzschean “eternal return” of narrowly lived virtue.

“Tannhauser” has probably seen more different interpretations than any of Wagner’s operas. The composer himself produced four and was contemplating a fifth at the time of his death. The one constant is the music which is beautiful, and some of which is famous. The overture would be recognized by fans of the classical genre as a standalone piece in programs of symphonic music.

There were some wonderful musical moments in this production. Choral and ensemble singing, both on and off stage, was haunting and majestic and reinforced the story’s spiritual message. In Act III baritone Rauno Elp, as Wolfram von Eschenbach, sung the aria “Song to the evening star” with transcendent emotion and beautiful timbre. It was a good night too for bass Pavlo Balakin, who has tended to have smaller roles in Estonian National Opera productions. His turn as Herman was strong, and Balakin has the commanding stage presence and singing prowess for leading roles.

The music for this “Tannhauser” was the night’s champion. The Estonian National Opera Orchestra led by conductor Vello Pahn, performed magnificently, bringing out all of the magic of Wagner’s score. By all means, beautifully done for a first try.

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