With domestic Hong Kong opera productions leaning almost exclusively to more or less traditional readings of the stalwarts of repertoire, perhaps someone sometimes has to shake things up a bit. This is what the Hong Kong Arts Festival arguably set out to do by having Oper Leipzig bring Calixto Bieito’s unconventional staging of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
It can sometimes be a mistake to read too much into the details of story of an opera, especially when passed through the filter of a modernist production. But Tannhäuser centers on love, the struggle between the sacred and the profane, and redemption. Tannhäuser, a knight-minstrel, has been tarrying with (pagan goddess) Venus, but tires and is reunited with the more appropriate Elizabeth, niece of the local Count. In a singing contest, Tannhäuser blasphemes and only Elizabeth’s intercession saves his life. The pope refuses Tannhäuser’s redemption, while Elizabeth’s death saves Tannhäuser from a return to Venus.
Bieito, renowned as a “bad boy” of opera, re-interprets the story as one pitting an impulsive Tannhäuser against “a soulless modern society”, not in itself a bad thing given that the opera’s original themes and conflicts perhaps don’t resonate as well in the more secular 21st century as they did in the 19th. And if a performance is meant to provoke and catalyze discussion, this certainly did that; unfortunately, if an informal (and small-scale) survey of the audience is any indication, the effort was not well-received. One drawback is that much of the stage direction bore little relation what is actually supposed to be happening. Some was just gratuitous—rolling about and sexual pawing—but some was just contrary to the words.
Misgivings about the production were redeemed by the singing, especially when soprano Elisabet Strid (singing her namesake) was on stage: she seemed to give focus to both the staging and the ensembles. Baritone Markus Eiche sang a lyrical and sonorous Wolfram, usually much at odds with what he was doing on stage at any given moment. The role of Tannhäuser was split over the Art Festival’s two performances, presumably due to its heft. Tenor Daniel Frank, interestingly, had a decade as a rock singer before his turning to opera. Some of this was modernity was evident in his portrayal of Tannhäuser, and not just his theatrically long hair. After hearing bass-baritone Ante Jerkunica as the Landgraf (Count), one was left regretting that the part is relatively small. The production was mostly about itself, leaving little room for actual acting.
The Arts Festival can only host one large opera production per year. Choices need to be made; this one was probably not to everyone’s taste. But it is only in tasting something different that one can put traditional preferences in perspective.