09 September 2011

Kasper Holten's Claustrophobic Tannhäuser Production in Copenhagen

Stig Fogh Andersen as Tannhäuser

Kasper Holten's production of Tannhäuser is an interesting reading of the story set in the 19th Century in an atmosphere that evokes Strindberg and Ibsen. Tannhäuser is torn between his mission as an artist (the Venus world) and his obligations as a husband and a father (Elisabeth's world). The Rome narration is his own retelling of the work of fiction he has written during his absence in "Rome". This is very innovative and surprising, and provides a fresh perspective of the opera. Kasper Holten's strength is in the details. He is always attentive to nuances in the music, and generally the Personenregie is among the best of the opera world today. And he obviously has an abilty to inspire strong dramatic interpretations from his singers.

None of the singers excel vocally in this production, although four principals, Stig Andersen (Tannhäuser, Tina Kiberg (Elisabeth), Susanne Resmark (Venus) and Stephen Milling (Hermann) are all at least acceptable. The chorus is far below par, seldom sounding as if they are a unified group. The orchestra's performance is marred by an odd balancing of the instrument groups and by uninspired playing under conductor Friedemann Layer. So, musically the DVD seems more the product of a provincial theatre, except for the aforementioned principal singers.

Unfortunately the opera as a conflict between art and family life reduces much of the tension in the music and in the drama. The story fails to convince the viewer that much is at stake here. I found it difficult to relate to the drama as Holten presents it. In reality Tannhäuser's conflict - no matter how it is interpreted - is a matter of life or death, of redemption or hell. In a way this production is metatheatre that does not dare to fully embrace this idea. In my opinion, the concept needs some ironic distance.

As filmed opera I am sad to say that the DVD is very inferior with lots of filming from meaningless angles (the shots from floor level are visually a disaster). That said, a lot of the close-ups and fast editing work very well, suiting Holten's claustrophobic one set vision.

As a final note it would be interesting to hear Cubus Film and TV editors Peter and Uffe Borgwardt's explanation of what on earth they were thinking of editing DVD 2 at 1:31:10 and 1:32:30 where they used the same shot twice of Wolfram putting a blanket over Elisabeth right before he sings "Wie Todesahnung, Dämm'rung deckt die Lande". This is as bad as video editing can get.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have not viewed this production either in the theater or on DVD but your criticism brings to mind another DVD giving us Holten's production of Wagner - the presumptuously named "Copenhagen Ring".

Again, much of the singing then was acceptable (with one disastrous exception - Hagen) and the direction of the singers-as-actors was in general very good and at times truly moving. The orchestra sounded odd at times, almost as if reverb had been added (I'm writing from memory here so I can't be more specific), and tempi were irregular.

A serious problem, though, with Holten's work is the never-ending string of "ideas" that he seems to feel must be added to what is already a very complicated work of art. Visually he is all over the place: the Rhinegold is a boy swimming in a fish tank, Fafner communicates with the rest of the world on a Tannoy, the Wanderer visits a bedridden Erda in an ordinary flat. The ring, of course, is not a ring but a sort of bracelet. The whole tetralogy is prefaced, by the way, by Brünnhilde flicking through the family photo album in the Walhall library. Is it all a flash-back? But how could it be when everything (library included, one supposes) burns down in the end?

What really makes this DVD unacceptable to me, though, is what you mention again in connection with Tannhäuser: the incredibly intrusive video-editing. It's much too fast for opera, often focusing on characters not singing, so we get their "reaction" in a much too literal way. Close-ups are pervasive and distracting, and camera angels are, as you mention with Tannhäuser, at times downright ridiculous. I seem to remember the camera at one point (in Siegfried) actually filming from inside Mime's cooker (his cooker - sic!).

Sorry for taking up so much space commenting on a different DVD! Only, your points of criticism struck a chord with me and somehow seemed relevant to the earlier release too. I am obviously not a fan of Holtens work but what really puzzles me is why Decca should continue to work with the Borgwardt-production team as the results are really below par for such prestigious realeases.