In July 2019, the Bayreuth Festival—Burning Man for Wagnerites—opened with Tannhäuser, the legend of the medieval minstrel torn between the flesh and the spirit. The whizbang director Tobias Kratzer made his local debut to cheers and catcalls, alongside the tepidly received Mariinsky ubermaestro Valery Gergiev and the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, who handily stole the show.
As documented on live video, Davidsen is a throwback. Her curvy figure, imposing height, and steady gaze evoke the great Victorian tragediennes. More significantly, her full-blooded, unclouded soprano and instinctive connection to the characters she plays recall legendary dramatic sopranos of yesteryear. But would a Kirsten Flagstad or a Birgit Nilsson have sat still for Kratzer’s video-happy metaproduction and its heavy-handed pileup of cultural cross-references, from Disney’s Snow White to The Tin Drum? Davidsen seems to embrace the confusion even as she sees right past it. The world she was born into is a world of directorial overreach. That’s the air her generation breathes. In that regard, Davidsen is a child of our time.
In Tannhäuser, she plays the noble maiden Elisabeth, in whose virginal heart Tannhäuser’s love lyrics awaken erotic stirrings she cannot fathom. Hers is the angelic face of the Eternal Feminine, counterbalancing the pagan goddess Venus, whom the new religionists have driven underground. It’s during a lull in Venus’s nonstop orgies that we discover Tannhäuser as the curtain rises, a spent soul sick of carnal allurements. Summoning all that’s left of his willpower, he breaks free. Back in her castle, Elisabeth is jubilant.
Perhaps to underscore Davidsen’s retro persona, Kratzer costumes Elisabeth like a lady from Le Morte d’Arthur, complete with bell sleeves and tinny coronet. But Tannhäuser hasn’t even started backsliding before Kratzer unmasks her as a train wreck. In the next act, having sung her last, she hangs around to get herself deflowered in the back of a Citroën van by a man she doesn’t love and finally slits her wrists. In a cinematic coda she’s seen cruising the German countryside in the Citroën, snuggled up to Tannhäuser, who is at the wheel.
We’ve seen that vehicle before. In Act One, it was Elena Zhidkova’s hyperactive Venus in the driver’s seat, a shrill floozy in a sequined cat suit. A gaudy, scofflaw entourage of three was along for the ride, among them Tannhäuser in a clown suit and an orange fright wig. His is a killer role, but the American heldentenor Stephen Gould voices it like gangbusters, even while made to look like a tramp.The beautifully groomed, musically cultivated German baritone Markus Eiche is Tannhäuser’s fellow minstrel Wolfram. In Wagner, the character stifles his love for Elisabeth out of friendship for the other guy. In Kratzer’s show, he glumly relieves her of her virginity. Oh, dear.
Tannhäuser is available for streaming on Stage+
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii