A Wagner operatic drama in Havana

Tannhäuser was premiered on October 19, 1845 in the Dresde Royal Theatre.

Foto: Tomada de Internet

The recent celebration of Holy Week in Havana has been marked by singular features that border on what AlejoCarpentier called “magic realism” since it included the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, the one-time concert of The Rolling Stones and to top it off, the premier on March 26 and 27 of the operatic drama Tannhäuser in a production by the National Opera Theatre of Cuba, with the support of the Richard Wagner Society of Germany and the Goethe Institute. The stage production in the Alicia Alonso Grand Theatre was directed by Andreas Baesler, while the music was conducted by well-known Walter Gugerbauer.

The work, premiered on October 19, 1845 in the Dresde Royal Theatre, is based on the medieval legends that refer to a knight and poet that led a life of pleasures that included a love affair with Venus herself before converting to the Christian moral thanks to the love of pious Elizabeth, niece of the sovereign of Thuringia. With this work Wagner set aside the division in numbers of the traditional opera and replaced it with the unity of dramatic scenes, one of the principles that in his maturity led him to the reform of the operatic drama. The work contains precisely famous passages like the salute “Praise to the house of song” sung by Elizabeth, the solemn “Pilgrim’s Chorus” that accompanies the entrance of the cortege into the contest hall and the romance of Wolfram dedicated to the evening star.


The first presentation in America took place in New York in 1884. In that city it was perhaps seen by José Martí, a fervent admirer of the composer, who cites it several times in his “North American Scenes”. It only got to a Latin American country in 1901, in the Buenos Aires Colón Theatre.


Wagner’s works have not been frequently staged in Cuba. Their presence has been occasional and almost always mysterious, despite the fact that the author was already known in Havana by certain music aficionados in the last decade of the 19th century.


The first occasion was the performance of Lohengrin in the Tacón Theatre on January 18, 1891, brought about by impresario NapoleoneSieni, who was in charge of the opera season in that coliseum. The main roles of Elsa and Lohengrin were by Italian singers GiusseppinaMusiani and OresteEmiliani. It seems that the production did not have too much resonance among the people. Barely still left we have an article published by Julián del Casal in the daily El País on the day the premier was to take place, in which he summed up the work’s plot and fantasized about it, thanks to the reading of Richard Wagner and his poetic work of Judith Gautier, daughter of poet Theóphile Gautier, who became the composer’s muse for a time and promoted his work until the end of her life. Curiously, from the moment in which he was writing those pages, the poet had decided to not attend the performance, to maintain his hopes intact, and he concludes his article thus:


“Thus have I seen the performance of this grandiose opera in the theatre of Bayreuth, with the eyes of imagination, which are the eyes that see things in the most beautiful way, when I knew how to dream. Tonight it is performed in the Tacón. I hope the artists in charge of carrying it out have already presented it to the readers of these chronicles in a higher way than what my fantasy has wanted to present!”


Thanks to that decision we have been left with no precise notions of the quality of the production or the interest it could have awoken in a public used almost exclusively to romantic Italian operas that served as framework for the showing off of the divas of the bel canto.


About the second time we also only have news by one writer. Three decades later, around 1923, according to AlejoCarpentier, on that same stage, already named National Theatre, the last of the composer’s dramas, Parsifal, was presented. According to him, the audience was scarce because the majority of those who at the time could pay to get in had preferred to attend a zarzuela performance in the neighbouring Payret Theatre and the journalists had more interesting matters for that night. That is why we will perhaps never know who the interpreters were, not even the name of the guest director. Furthermore, it is not known if the performance concluded, because some of the scarce audience soon discovered that the music was led by a conductor at a rhythm that was slower than what the score demanded, which is why a performance that usually lasted some four hours could last more than eight and they started to gradually leave until the theatre hall was empty. Is all this true or does it belong to the fantasy of the author of The Kingdom of This World? Up until today the researchers have not found traces of that Wagnerian night.


The third production has been able to be reliably documented: the performance of Tristan and Isolde brought about by the Pro Arte Musical Society on November 13, 1948, in the Auditorium Theatre, with singers Kirsten Flagstadt and Max Lorenz in the central roles and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Havana conducted by famous director Clemens Krauss. Several of those who attended that emblematic function still conserve half a century later the impression caused by the ambitious production and, above all, by the vocal performance of the protagonists. However, Wagner disappeared from the island’s stages for the rest of the century.


In 2013, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the birth of the German creator, the National Opera Theatre premiered a production of The Wandering Dutchman and though it implied some substantial singers, it lasted very little on billboard, because the production was not too attractive or because the public was not too familiar with the composer’s poetic style.


The fact that it was decided to insist, barely three years later, onTannhäuser means that certain prejudices are being overcome. While our first opera company’s repertoire is still privileging creators like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, it recognises in Wagner a sort of pending assignment with Cuban audiences, whose sensitivity needs to be brought up to date and though there are much newer authors, it is indispensable to stop and take a look at the values of the Genius of Bayreuth, whom Carpentier in his essay “Tristan and Isolde on Terra Firma” presents as a model for the authors of the avant-guard in America:


Something similar to what Wagner did with the romantic and the German has to be done with the Latin American. This, of course, very far from the monstrous attempt to build indigenous tetralogies or writing operatic dramas in which we see Bolívar singing in a duo with San Martín in the famous Guayaquil meeting. But it is unquestionable that Wagner used his myths, his cultural heritage, as we sooner or later will have to use our myths and our bountiful cultural heritage.


Around five years ago, in my novel Ritual del necio I included a sort of overture in which a performance of Tannhäuser took place in Havana presided over by Wagner himselfin the midst of the vicissitudes of the Special Period. At that time it did not cross my mind that the work would actually be on the billboard of a theatre of the city even if briefly. One would wish that, though we no longer can count on the presence of the illustrious Gugerbauer, the work be performed again in a short time. Compared to Casal, we promise to attend because that fourth occasion could be decisive to acclimatise the author of The Ring of the Nibelungs to our stage. (2016)




The works of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) have not been frequently performed on Cuban stages.

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