La Vie Boheme: Tannhauser at Paris Opera



My intention for this season was to move away from straight reviews, but finally I’ve seen a production that inspires a few words. The revival of Robert Carsen’s production of Tannhäuser currently playing at Opera de Paris is that rare beast: an updating which reveals new meaning without being ridiculous.


Tannhäuser is a painter, Venus is his inspiration, and his studo, Venusberg, overflows with the fruits of his creativity–the stage is empty but for a bed, which sees plenty of action, an easel, and dozens of canvases leaning against the walls. The Warburg song hall appears as an art gallery, with velvet ropes removed for the well-attended vernissage of a group show on the theme of love. Tannhäuser, stained and scruffy among the trendily-attired young artists, ignores the procedings to sketch his beloved Elisabeth, but has lost his mojo in this stuffy setting. Act Three returns to the atelier; the canvases are gone, and the returning pilgrims, all dressed like Tannhäuser, carry bare stretcher frames. The miracle of Tannhäuser’s redemption translates as the acceptance of his previously rejected portrait of Elisabeth, as, in a final coup de theatre, the back wall lifts to reveal a gallery of great nude portraiture.


Carson’s master stroke is to soften the libretto’s misogyny by exploring the tension between the erotic and the spiritual as a source of artistic inspiration. By the end, Elisabeth and Venus appear in tandem, dressed alike and shadowing each other in soft, dreamy movements. Tannhäuser, reaching out to both at once, has resolved his inner conflict, and his nude portrait of Elisabeth will hang in the hall of greats (though we never actually see any of his paintings).


Christopher Ventris was a rough-hewn but effective Tannhäuser; Nina Stemme, in her Paris Opera debut, sang with gleaming, sumptuous tone. Stephane Degout was splendid as Wolfram; he’s moved beyond his young lyric stage without losing any beauty of tone. Christoph Fischesser, another welcome Paris newcomer, was a wonderful Hermann–one of the best bass voices I’ve heard in a long time. Sophie Koch sounded at her limits as Venus (or was that an artifact of the sound system? I had to watch the first act on a screen in the lobby) but was musically and dramatically effective. Sir Mark Elder drew rich colors from the orchestra and generally kept things moving, though, even apart from some appropriate grand pauses, I thought some long passages needed more drive.


Overall, une très belle soirée.


Trivia: according to the program book, the rehearsal period for Istvan Szabo’s 1984 Paris production was so contentious that the director later turned the saga into a film starring Glen Close as Elisabeth, Meeting Venus. Kitschy fun.