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A report on Tannhäuser in Cuba
President of the RWS Munich, Karl Russwurm whose Wagner Society supported the production has written a full report. Read on.....

Tannhaeuser, March 2016, Havana/Cuba

Chaos Turns Into Music Theater – Or How German Virtues and Cuban Life Blood
Creates Something Extraordinary

By Karl Russwurm, Richard Wagner Verband Munich, April 9, 2016

Translated by Ursula Hahn, Wagner Society New York

During a reception in his Residenza on March 23, 2016, German Ambassador Thomas Neisinger emphasized the engagement of foreign organizations (Goethe Institute; Richard Wagner Verband International; Richard Wagner Verband Munich; German Embassy; Austrian Embassy; Paolo Jucker, Milan) and especially their collaboration with various Cuban cultural institutions.  He said there is  presently hardly an area other than the arts, in which Cuban talent competes at the highest level and is recognized  internationally.  Attendees of the Tannhaeuser performances in the completely renovated Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso on March 26 and 27 were able to validate this assessment, in the presence of the ballet legend, far advanced in years, after whom the theater is named.

In November 2014, with the successful production of “Holandes Errante - The Flying Dutchman” the year before in mind, a small group met at the Teatro Lirico to plan a new taxing project.  The strategy was to take advantage of Cuban dance culture in a production of Tannhaeuser.  For sure, chorus, large orchestra, ballet, and difficult solo parts appeared too complex and ambitious to overcome the realities of producing theater in Cuba.   Even the venue was a dismal construction site at the time, reminiscent of the new Berlin airport as far as the expected completion date was concerned.

First concrete steps were realized in Erfurt and Munich.  Samuel Baechli had completed a shortened version of the Paris score, parts of which (Venusberg), however, proved unplayable for the orchestra.  Former fellowship recipient Felix Spreng (RWV Munich) then scored segments (bacchanal and the final scene) for small orchestra.  The conductor, who was expected best to take control of the whole, was found quickly:  Walter E. Gugerbauer , formerly based in Erfurt and with experience in Cuba  (Zauberfloete/Flauta Magica).

On site, the experienced and Cuba-hardened director Andreas Baesler did everything possible to make the project appealing to the capable soloists, chorus members, dancers (Danzas Retazos), and musicians.

In several workshops, the Munich rehearsal pianist Susanna Klovsky (former stipend recipient of the RWV Munich) managed to teach pronunciation and meaning of the German text to the chorus and particularly the soloists; German is virtually never sung or spoken in Cuba.

“State artist” KCHO was engaged to design the sets; he contributed own works from his museum.  Everything went relatively well until the news spread that not only would US President Obama be in Havana concurrent with the planned premiere, but he would deliver his historic address in the Gran Teatro.  This meant the theater’s lengthy and complete closure for security reasons, which severely impeded rehearsals.  Even by Cuban standards, the need for improvisation was dire and the premiere was in peril as it could not be re-scheduled.

When the curtain finally rose, the nervousness was palpable and a few wobbles and insecurities proved unavoidable.  However, they were insignificant in view of the sensitive, well-thought out direction; the largely brilliant lighting design (Stefan Bollinger); and the determination of all participants to introduce  the Caribbean to Wagner’s work with all due respect.

The dancers of “Danzas retazos” presented sensual choreography (Isabel Bustos) in the Venusberg scene and showed their total dedication to the work.

Additional dancer-doubles for Elisabeth, Venus and Tannhaeuser, representing the emotional states of the respective protagonists, were well integrated.

At the start, the main responsibilities were assumed by Alioska Jimenez (Venus) and Yuri Hernandez (Tannhaeuser, with Wagner experience as Erik).  Both delved with enthusiasm and a good deal of vocal refinement into the struggle between physical love and chastity. Yuri Hernandez convinced with clear diction and a Tannhaeuser interpretation which would be a credit to every municipal theater in Germany.   

The bewitchingly dominating black Venus could easily hold her own, although intelligibility, already problematic in this role, was missing. 

Early on, the number of Minnesingers had been reduced considerably. Those who remained deserved attention:  The Wolfram of Jorge Martinez (Mexico and Cuba, currently engaged in Flensburg) possessed solid strength without  overpowering his colleagues less experienced in Wagner.  Many a listener may have longed for a Wolfram who expresses noble motifs through vocal  lyricism and tenderness but who remains a person of strength, flesh and blood and doesn’t end up as a saintly martyr and die of high-mindedness.  Martinez’s was a strong interpretation of the role and made a positive contribution to the performance as a whole.

Reinier Borrgeo as Walther didn’t lag behind and sang bravely with a belcanto-like, pleasantly fresh tenor.

Johana Simon sang the role of Elisabeth.  She already has Wagner experience, was a sensational Senta in 2013, an extraordinary interpreter of the Wesendonck Lieder in Munich, and recipient of a Bayreuth fellowship with a concert appearance in 2015.  She, too,  quickly overcame first-night jitters and sang with a high level of competence, dedication and stage presence; undoubtedly, her voice will benefit from further development.  In the second performance, Elisabeth was sung by Milagros de los Angeles, another exceptional Cuban talent who reportedly was also convincing in the role.

Again, the smooth black bass Marcos Lima (Bayreuth stipend recipient of the RWV Munich who was heard as Daland in 2013) showed his mettle as King Henry.  He approached the role with care, understanding and beautiful vocal expression.  His German pronunciation has clearly improved over time.

The small, chamber-sized orchestra for the Venusberg scene, placed behind the main stage, made a virtue of necessity.  Although the volume  was not exactly abundant, it sufficed to create the needed atmosphere.  The chorus pleased throughout and contributed much to an overall positive impression.

Many a conductor might have despaired over the coordination of all these sonic elements, with merely three days of rehearsals, and presenting a well-balanced performance.   Only when you become acquainted with Walter Gugerbauer, listen to him reason and explain, and watch him in action, do you understand that it is his unobtrusive, quiet demeanor combined with expertise and the pleasure of an extraordinary experiment that are his secret of success.

He worked hard with the willing but –  with respect to the German fach – for the most part completely inexperienced musicians, who frequently must make a living with side jobs and may have to forgo a rehearsal in order to – literally - ensure their and their families’ survival with less noble music-making. 

A few words about the director.  The rumor of a concert version had been circulating, but a professional like Andreas Baesler doesn’t give up easily.  All elements of a regular Tannhaeuser staging  were realized by the director, cast and the entire production team.  The sculptures by the artist KCHO were so well integrated into an interpretation, which was vastly superior to many a provocative production garnering catcalls in Germany, as to elicit surprise.

Playing field without adequate funding?  You bet!

Two significant points: 
  • The nobles who attend the singers’ contest  were portrayed by dancers.   These guests suffered from bad ticks and displayed outrageous behavior.  It was evident that these elites of society had become alienated from the common people.   Who hasn’t seen strange VIP-peacocks on the Red Carpet:  “In der Goetter neuem Glanze sonnt euch selig fortan!” (Das Rheingold).  
  • A shock at the production’s conclusion:  Due to cuts in the score and as per the director’s instructions, Tannhaeuser returns to the Venusberg and remains;  Elisabeth’s body is carried onstage, and the scenery collapses.

Vigorous applause at the end.  Nobody talked about Obama or the Rolling Stones at the premiere’s after-party.  Those who were in Havana during these historic days in March 2016 have much to report: of  “progress and change,”  of “those who love life:”  Not only in Cuba.