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Friday, March 22, 2019, 12:59
Tarantino meets Brecht in Wagner’s gory opera
By Rob Garratt
Friday, March 22, 2019, 12:59 By Rob Garratt

Former rock singer Daniel Frank brought an anxious intensity to the title role of Tannhäuser. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

From Van Gogh’s tortured self-portraits to Kurt Cobain’s untimely self-inflicted death-by-shotgun, audiences have long indulged the myth of the tortured artist — the idea that creatives of all disciplines must suffer tremendously in order to express fervently.

In Oper Leipzig’s wrenching performance of Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser at this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, it’s this stubborn belief that compels the lyrical balladeer Heinrich Tannhäuser to quit a lazy life of servile bliss, breaking his idyllic tryst with the love goddess Venus to re-embrace the everyday struggles of earthly existence. 

Director Calixto Bieito might have a reputation for sensationalism but this production was notable for its Brechtian scarcity — the bucolic bliss of the Venusberg grotto invoked by a few dancing branches, Earth by just a ruffled plastic sheet on the stage floor, while the overture’s dancing nymphs (and our hero’s harp) were ditched altogether in favor of fashionably harsh lighting.

Bringing the 13th century legend into an undefined modern setting, this minimalist production premiered in 2015 and was taken up by Oper Leipzig last year after a planned production by the composer’s great granddaughter Katharina Wagner was axed. The result is the slightly awkward but arresting audio-visual incongruity you might expect from the marriage of a renowned director’s theater bad boy and the house company of the world’s third-oldest opera house, established in 1693.

Tannhäuser’s former lover Elisabeth was sung by Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid in the Oper Leipzig production. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

While lacking the trademark extravagance which has earned Bieito the label “the Quentin Tarantino of opera” (a title his publicists no doubt tout relentlessly), there is still plenty of the brash and bold. After crash landing on Earth, Tannhäuser is only re-initiated into the loutish party of the “minnesingers” (lyric singers) he ditched for Venus after the whole gang strips topless and daubs their torsos in blood, at the close of Act One.

After the interval, this vulgar image starkly contrasts with that of the 60-plus chorus in dinner jackets and ball gowns assembled at the square white columns that constitute Bieito’s Wartburg castle. Here the seemingly civilized song contest of the story descends into the canon’s most beautifully scored riot after Tannhäuser commits the faux pas of praising worldly lust over heavenly love. The contest’s prize was set to be Tannhäuser’s former lover Elisabeth — searingly voiced by Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid — whose tragic fall from grace dominates what in Bieto’s telling is a “post-apocalyptic” third and final act, after electing to put her scantily-clad frame between the angry mob’s swords and their target, i.e. Tannhäuser. 

The notoriously lung-busting lead is something of a signature role for Daniel Frank. The long-haired former rock singer brought an angsty intensity to his Tannhäuser in the March 2 performance.

In Germany, Oper Leipzig’s Tannhäuser has typically divided audiences who booed “with such a force that I have never witnessed in any opera house in this country before”, reported Christopher Lade in The Leipzig Glocal following the company’s hometown spring 2018 run. However, the performance attracted an enthusiastic response in opera-starved Hong Kong. It’s likely that few in attendance got quite the Wagner they wanted, but there was surely not a soul who left without a new perspective on what many regard as the composer’s most accessible opera.

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