Opinions on regietheater can be quite divided although anyone with a negative one should have a level of understanding for what Oper Köln is currently undergoing. The company’s opera house, located in the center of the city in the square named for native son Jacques Offenbach, is currently being renovated. That has required Oper Köln to shift to several locations in recent years and there is no timetable on when the refurbished space will be ready.
The current location for the company’s performances is across the Rhine in the Deutz section of the city in the State House at Rhinepark along the river. It’s a warehouse structure that certainly lacks charm, and stage directors are constrained to use one of three large rooms.
Based on the imaginative new production of “Tannhäuser” conceived by stage director Patrick Kinmonth seen here on Thursday night, constraint may be the wrong word. That’s because Kinmonth and his creative team have put the extra space to good use.
In a Vast House
Picture a very wide stage with a gigantic open space in the center for a true Wagnerian orchestra to fit inside, with that orchestra unavoidably divided into thirds by two movable columns. In between the columns is a suspended metal platform reachable from front to back by a staircase in the front. This front part of the stage was where the principal singers were employed through most of the opera – in front of the orchestra working under the baton of Francois-Xavier Roth.
In this setup, Roth’s orchestra was in many ways the central character of the opera. Another logistical challenge of the singers not having monitors to see the conductor was overcome simply by setting up prompters with the score in the first row of the audience opposite the movable columns. And how unusual it was during intermissions to be walking out of the makeshift auditorium alongside the nymphs, pilgrims, nobles and other Wagnerian characters that were either choral members or extras!
Back to Origins
This production was the 1845 Dresden version, billed in the program by the full name of “Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg,” replacing the more familiar Paris version of 1861 that is usually performed. Kinmonth’s version did retain features usually seen in the Paris version, such as seeing Venus on stage at the end, but it utilized the space to follow much of Wagner’s stage directions.
The major theme of “Tannhäuser” is the contrast between sensual love and true love as embodied by mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter’s Venus, clad in black, while Elisabeth, portrayed by soprano Brit-Tone Müllertz in her Cologne debut, wore white. The leitmotif of a third woman representing the bonnet-wearing Virgin Mary was also employed throughout the performance to showcase the conflict within Tannhäuser.
The Venusberg scene in Act one was not overly sexualized yet still got the point across of how carnal love had overridden the protagonist. The couples making love in the background consisted of professional men working on laptops being enveloped by green-clad sirens with red wigs, possibly representing the fiery nature of the setting.
Tannhäuser, performed in a true star turn by Canadian tenor David Pomeroy, begs Venus to leave as he longs for something else and is finally cast away and discovered by the minnesingers from Thuringia.
A Feast for the Senses
The second act was the most creative of the night, with Tannhäuser returning to Wartburg and participating in the singing contest to win the hand of Elisabeth. Some of the brass instruments were set up behind the back row of the audience, forcing Roth to actually turn around to the crowd to conduct. Offstage choral members were also in the back. The effect was a sensational, enveloping of sound coming from all directions.
The singing contest featured excellent work from bass-baritone Karl-Heinz Lehner as the Landgrave, who is thrilled that Elisabeth has awakened from her stupor now that Tannhäuser has come back. The Landgrave clearly favors the returning knight in the contest; alas Tannhäuser’s mind is still in Venusberg. Baritone Miljenko Turk sweetly sings Wolfram’s song of pure love and is chided for it by the crazed Tannhäuser, who maniacally prances about with an axe in disgust before heading off in exile again.
More clever stagecraft is seen at the start of the moving Act three for the famous Pilgrim’s Chorus, with the women on one side of the stage and the men on the other in front of Roth’s orchestra. Turk put forth a somber rendition of Wolfram’s ”O du mein holder Abendstern.”
The Valiant Knight
Pomeroy was exemplary in Act three while relating Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage to Rome. I was about 15 feet away from him, but the tenor sounded in full voice throughout and particularly so in this final act. He was simply superb in portraying the pain and torture inside the title character.
Müllertz’s Elisabeth and Schaechter’s Venus seemed more like secondary characters in this production, and I would reiterate that the positioning of Köln’s Gürzenich Orchestra in the center was the lasting impression. It was certainly different listening to the music from the 1845 version, which is distinct from the 1861 version that I prefer. Regardless, Wagner performed at the highest level always leaves the audience spellbound. Darko Petrovic’s innovative and pragmatic sets and Annina Von Pfuel’s costumes also deserve mention for a production that can’t be seen the same way anywhere else.