La Scena Musicale

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Memorable Pilgrimage at the Rome Opera

Classical Travels
This Week in Italy

"Nach Roma! (To Rome!)", the pilgrims cry at the end of Act II of Wagner's Tannhäuser as they head off to seek forgiveness from the Pope. Well, they didn't have far to go in a new production being mounted by the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. In fact, it would have been little more than a half hour's walk across the Tiber to St. Peter's.

It is true that Wagner's opera has a Roman connection, but the work itself deals with universal themes of the endless struggle in human affairs between the sacred and the mundane. As directed by Filippo Crivelli these themes were fairly well explored, and with Daniel Kawka in the pit, Wagner's music was brought to life with unusual insight.

Wagner was in his early thirties when he composed Tannhäuser, one of his first works in which the various aspects of love were explored and the characters at the centre of the drama come to their tragic end in a kind of love death.

In Tannhäuser, the eponymous hero is first seen living under the spell of Venus, the love goddess and as the projections shown during the overture and 'Venusberg' music made clear to us, apparently enjoying it. Life in the Venusberg as depicted here is less a real or imagined place from which Tannhäuser returns later in the opera, and more a metaphor for his life as a young man almost totally devoted to pleasure, especially of the carnal sort with members of the opposite sex. Guilt sets in when he thinks of his beloved Elisabeth and he tries to suppress his lustful ways, but he is having too much fun 'walking on the wild side' and ruins his prospects with the Landgrave Hermann's niece. Hermann gives Tannhäuser an ultimatum; he can forget about marrying Elisabeth unless he makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope.

At the time he composed Tannhäuser in 1845, Wagner was feeling his way toward a new approach to music drama in which the text dictated the flow of the music and the older style of alternating arias, duets and ensembles was left behind. In Tannhäuser there are still a number of set pieces for the leading characters and several spectacular set pieces for soloists, chorus and orchestra together.

The Crivelli Tannhäuser in Rome was basically a traditional production, updated through the use of projections, costumes which seemed casually medieval with touches of modern dress, and stylized sets. The sense of time and place was deliberately understated in order to bring out the universality of the themes and emotions of the story. We see clearly that Tannhäuser is a man with a past coming into conflict with the mores of his society. Like so many star-crossed lovers throughout history, he and Elisabeth are up against forces - civil, familial and religious - which are beyond their control. Through their love they try to overcome these forces, but in the end their love can only triumph in death.

The Rome Opera uses a 'stagione system', meaning that they present one opera at a time and run it almost nightly for several weeks. While this approach eliminates the need for the daily changing of sets in a repertory system and usually ensures a well-rehearsed production, it has some negative aspects too, one being that these nightly repetitions often require two casts, as was the case with this Tannhauser.

The cast I heard featured the Italian tenor Mario Leonardi as Tannhäuser. Leonardi did a creditable job, but I would like to have heard the more experienced Stig Anderson in the role. Otto Katzameier made an unusually multi-layered Wolfram, but I was somewhat disappointed to have missed the great lieder singer Matthias Goerne in the role. While the singers in the cast I heard were not household names, they nevertheless all gave fine performances.

As Elisabeth, Danish soprano Tina Kieberg sang beautifully as did Silvia Colombini in the small role of the Shepherd. Christof Fischesser showed his rich baritone to great effect as Hermann. What I admired most about Katzameier as Wolfram was his sensitivity to the text and the way he used it to add depth and nuance to his role. His voice is neither large nor distinctly beautiful but his other qualities more than compensate for this fact.

The musical leadership came from a conductor hitherto unknown to me but a man of great experience, mostly in France. Daniel Kawka had great understanding of the score and had rehearsed the music down to the last detail. The brass was powerful and exciting when required, and I had the sense that every crescendo and fortissimo had been balanced with infinite care.

Kawka had problems with offstage trumpets and onstage chorus in Act Two - they consistently played behind the beat - but as the evening unfolded, ensemble steadily improved. The great ensemble at the end of Act Two was thrilling both for its overall effect and its individual contributions.

I was absolutely delighted with the acoustics in the Teatro dell'Opera. The orchestral sound had weight, color, presence and the singers' voices projected easily into the house.

After nearly a week in Rome, my wife and I had really fallen under the spell of the place. History reaches out and touches you everywhere, from the still vibrant Roman ruins where excavations continue to yield secrets nearly every day.

We visited an exhibition of Roman painting at the Scuderie (stables) of the Quirinale (Presidential Palace). These are works of art most of us scarcely knew existed until many of them were uncovered from the ruins of Pompeii and elsewhere under hundreds of tons of dirt.
We now know that ancient Rome was not an unreal land of white marble and blank surfaces. Color abounded in wall paintings in private and public buildings and on much of the famous statuary too before nature and time washed the paint away.

Mixed in with the Roman ruins today are Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and the city gradually developed the character it maintains today.

In 1770, Mozart visited Rome and saw the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain. Less distinguished travelers have been admiring such places ever since. Catholics have been making pilgrimages to the Vatican for centuries; for them, as for Tannhauser, it is a journey about faith and redemption. Poet John Keats made the journey too and died in Rome. Keats, Shelley, Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz drank coffee as we did in the Caffe Greco on Via Condotti just around the corner from our hotel. There are fewer Americans and Canadians in Rome these days - the weak U.S. dollar has everything to do with it - but they'll be back.

In the meantime, Italians and Europeans flock to Rome as they always have. This great city generously provides almost endless reasons for pilgrimages.

Photo by Marita

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