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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

DVD Review: Minstrel in the Gallery

A Tannhäuser from Barcelona embraces the art world.
by Paul Pelkonen
Once upon a mattress: Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert. left) confronts Venus
 (Bèatrice Uria-Monzon, standing) in Act I of Wagner's drama.
Photo by Anoni Bofill © 2008 Teatro Liceu de Barcelona.
In Robert Carsen's production of Tannhäuser (filmed in 2008 at the Teatro de Liceu in Barcelona), Wagner's medieval minstrel is reimagined as a contemporary artist, walking a tightrope between willing, naked figure models and the glitzy world of gallery openings.

Tannhäuser is about pilgrimage, whether the title character's own transition from the sensual world of Venus to our own, harsher reality or the treks to Rome and back in quest of redemption. In this staging, "reality" is the plastic world of a gallery opening, and a controversial new painting (presumably of Venus) is his "harp," the representation of artistic expression for the troubled knight.

Mr. Carsen keeps the curtain up for the famous overture, showing Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) hard at work painting a naked, reclining Venus. (This is the "Paris" version of the score so the music flows right into the Venusberg ballet. Here, Venus' sex club under a mountain becomes a sort of art school, with frenzied dancers imitating Tannhäuser's movements and creating their own canvases.

When the orgy of painting ends, the lovers are surrounded by inferior copies of the original work. Venus puts on an elegantly wrapped white sheet, and in her confrontation with Tannhäuser wields a paint-brush like a wizard's wand. The transition to the real world comes in the form of daylight and outsiders coming into the artist's studio.

Peter Sieffert and Bèatrice Uria-Monzon crackle in this act, with the former singing the demanding tenor part with a powerful tone and stamina. Some of the color in his voice has faded over the course of a 30-year career and he sounds a little worn at the top in the Rome narration. However, the heavy-set, mustachioed tenor is a convincing Tannhäuser, especially in this artists-colony setting. Ms. Uria-Monzon is a memorable Venus. She brings sensual beauty to the part, but more importantly has a ringing mezzo-soprano that can melt like butter.

The song contest is staged as a confrontation between clashing artistic styles, with the various minstrel knights presenting different stereotypes of the contemporary artist. Wagner's complete contest is presented here, with certain arias that have become standard cuts left in for contrast. The knight/painters make their entrance from the house, with the Entry of the Guests (complete with lovely glasses of champagne and eager paparazzi) coming from the wings of the stage.

Petra Maria Schintzer (the real-life Frau Seiffert) a metallic soprano with tone that is not exactly suited to "Dich teure halle." It doesn't help that Mr. Carsen has her start the aria from the middle of the Liceu, thirty feet behind the conductor. As with many Elisabeths, she is better in the duet with Tannhäuser. Her best performance comes in the Evening Prayer in the final act. Here, the Hungarian saint is re-imagined as the vapid daughter of Hermann, owner of the gallery displaying Tannhäuser's latest work. Her "sacrifice" in the final act is a social one: the princess joins Venus on the mattress as Tannhäuser's latest nude model.

The supporting cast is pretty good. Baritone Markus Eiche (a substitute for the originally scheduled Bo Skovhus) plays Wolfram as a scowling rival. He sometimes scowls so much that he swallows his lines, but delivers a smooth, potent "O du mein holder Abendstern." Günther Gröissbock is a curiously muted Hermann, making the Landgrave a colorless figure with his smallish voice

Tenor Vicente Ombuena is a discovery here, bringing sweet, plangent tone to the small role of Walther von der Vogelweide. For once, he doesn't have his aria cut. Lauri Vasar embodies everything wrong with the art scene as Biterolf, a conservative twerp armored in Armani. Sebastian Wiegle conducts the "Paris" edition of the score, favoring slow tempos and drawing real grandeur from the chorus.

The chorus is a key component of Tannhäuser. The dancers mainly confine themselves to wild gestures with paint-brushes. The pilgrims are art enthusiasts in the first act, literally picking up their paintings and clearing the stage. In the Act III chorus scene, they bring the frames back without the paintings, making them look like they are carrying crosses back from Rome. The final redemption is in an art museum full of nudes, with Tannhäuser's now-accepted painting about to be hung underneath Botticelli's Nascita di Venere. For any artist, that would be redemption enough.

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