Opening lines: The column - Easy stages

Howard Jacobson sings the praises of an Australian `Tannhauser' mercifully free from rubber dresses, leather thongs and nipple clips
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Indy Lifestyle Online
To Perth, Western Australia, for the Festival. If you must go festivalling in Australia - as distinct from just doing Australia, which ought to be festival enough for anybody - then Perth is the one to go for. It's the oldest for a start, having been cooked up by the University of Western Australia nearly half a century ago, and a university connection is never to be sniffed at, since it's a half-promise that you won't only find Riverdance at every venue that isn't staging nude ballet from Chicago. Altogether - particularly now that Alan Bond is in jail - there's a university feel about Perth. Descend from the skies into the white sand-filtered light and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a giant campus built around a river and abutting beach. Somnolent in the summer heat the city may be, but it's a scholastic somnolence, suggestive of prioresses dozing in conventual gardens. And that communicates itself to the Festival, turning it into something more like a conference. You quickly come to feel that you know everybody here, that you're all going to the same events, and that you will all have to write the same essay when it's over.

You get living writers, painters and composers at the Perth Festival, too, which I always think is a good thing as long as I'm one of them. And dead ones such as Shakespeare and Wagner. The big serious stuff. For the people of Perth are few and isolated and don't want to miss out. Especially they don't want to miss out on Europe. No matter how long they have to wait. Take Tannhauser, which has never before been seen in Perth, although it was first performed in Dresden in October, 1845. How many years is that they've been hanging on?

Well, they finally got it at this year's Festival, and I'm here to tell you it was worth hanging on for. All right, so Perth doesn't have an Opera House and we had to make do with a concert performance. So much the better. Who wants to see singers acting, anyway? Who wants to hear scenery creaking? Who really wants to be submitted one more time to that bankrupting exercise in trundling literal-mindedness they call staging?

Tannhauser, as everyone knows, is set in Wartburg in 13th-century Thuringia and begins with the troubadour Tannhauser reclining before Venus in the Venusberg. Empty your minds, for the moment, of all critical compunctions. This is Wagner. Of course a Germanic pile to Venus is a preposterous conception. You think Tyrolean, you can't help yourself. You think lederhosen. But recall every actual Germanic Tannhauser you have seen or might have seen had you not succeeded in coming up with a convincing excuse. How is the Venusberg invariably transcribed to satisfy our contemporary craving for "relevance"? Into a Hamburg brothel. Into a fetish club in Berlin. And what will Venus be wearing? Rubber. What else could Venus be wearing! And the sirens? You know full well what the sirens will be wearing. They will not be wearing anything.

How wonderful, then, how relieving, how blessedly unexcruciating to have Venus in a turquoise evening dress, enticing Tannhauser - who is not himself in a leather thong and nipple clips, but a white bow tie and tails - with nothing but her voice. Her voice! Is that not a novel conception? To conceive of temptation in an opera as proceeding from a quality of voice.

What next - writing in which power is acknowledged to originate in words?

Tannhauser is sung by the great Finnish heroic-tenor Heikki Siukola who famously wept in the Duchess of Kent's arms after narrowly losing in the finals at Wimbledon, but last year gained some consolation by becoming World Formula One Motor Racing Champion for the first time. Siukola is a giant of a man with a profile like the south wall of the Eiger. It becomes him not to be in costume. Birgit Nilsson considers Siukola the greatest Tristan she has ever heard, and since she is the second greatest Isolde her opinion is worth attending to. But I think we must assume it is for his singing that she rates Siukola, not for how he looks in a studded posing pouch. You take my point. In opera what makes you die for love is music.

But it is not only because of what it spares you that a concert performance of Wagner is so desirable. Suddenly you are able to see those components of the work which were previously invisible. The orchestra is now part of the spectacle, their musical energy integral to the drama. The music is the action. When the choir rises as one person your heart begins to pound, for the intervention of their voices, free of costume, free of the tomfoolery of pretence, is as decisive dramatically as it is musically. Reduce the insane visual hullabaloo which theatre directors routinely impose on opera and even the raising of the conductor's baton becomes an event whose outcome holds you breathless.

We Perth conferees are so engrossed we forget to cough once in four hours. It is so quiet in the Concert Hall we can hear the Swan River lapping at its furthest shores. And for me, too, this is a unique experience: never before have I sat through an entire Wagner opera without fretting over its anti-Semitic implications. Sure, the tendency of the mythologising plot is to exclude whatever is ironical - and minority groups, whether they are Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, are nothing if not ironical - but who cares about the plot when you can concentrate on the sound? It's not a complete let-off. Because the music, too, is ludicrous in the end, grand on condition that you allow in none of the light of mirth. But you can't have everything. Heroic art is a weakness we should probably deny ourselves, but if we must indulge in it, let it at least be in formal dress and in the open, where we can keep an eye on it.

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