Joan Matabosch was good enough to get me into the closed general rehearsal yesterday at Liceu for "Tannhauser". There were some small mishaps and I understand why it was closed, in general things were fairly tight. The production is by Robert Carsen. I am fairly certain this is a premier, the performance scheduled for December in Paris turned into concerts because of a strike. I must admit it is still thrilling for me to see a show as one of the only people in the theater.
Before I can say much about the performance I have to say that Robert Carsen is someone I admire greatly. His work for me is terribly influential and many of his productions rank among my favorites. Among his best, for me, as "Les Boreades", "La traviata", "Rusalka", and especially "Cappricio". Because of this there was a lot of anticipation for this production. "Tannhauser" of course contains much incredible incredibly powerful music and I was looking forward to sitting through the whole thing.
I have to say that I was rather disappointed with the production. Carsen is a wonderfully talented director and he can create stage pictures that are really breathtaking. There is no better word for it. He conceit is what did not work for me. He turned Heinrich from a Meistersinger into a painting and the production became about the struggle of an artist to follow is true and unfettered, uncensored that is, path. What one saw on stage was strong, striking, and always done with controlled flair. The way Carsen manages the balance and formalism is to be greatly admired. The image of pilgrims carrying paintings to Rome and returning with empty frames, cleansed of their "sins" could have been pedantic and rather trite. But the way he depicted it in real space, with masterful lighting, was beautiful enough that one could easily enough forget that the idea is a little too obvious to be compelling. This was repeated time and time again - beautiful images to accompany a rather weak concept. Eventually it wasn't enough for me.
"Tannhauser" is difficult, but this is my most basic take on it. The story itself is troubled. At the least it is not among Wagner's best, at worst it is clumsy. This becomes a bit subjective, but I'm going to write as if it is objective because it is SO true for me. When one listens to Wagner's towering score it is clear that he takes this legend and ennobles it - he makes it about more. The music indicates that it is about the largest of human concepts - the power of faith, the hope of human redemption, the sacrifice and power of forgiveness.
Carsen's concept took out all issues of spirituality. I don't think "Tannhauser" must be approached from a Christian perspective, but it does enter on human spirituality. Making it a work about the struggle for artistic truth trivializes the legend. In other words, I feel Carsen might have been true to the legend, but not to Wagner's score. Wagner indicated something extraordinary and Carsen responded with something unconvincingly ordinary. For me it was summed up by the last scene where, to unimaginably transcendent music, Heinrich instead of finding salvation hangs a painting on the wall. "Anti-climactic" doesn't really go far enough.
Still - the level of production was fantastic. The singers quite good and the orchestra, as always, quite impressive. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon.