Wagner's noble Tannhauser

The Met to telecast Wagner’s Tannhäuser in HD

Toward the end of his life, Richard Wagner felt he owed the world a Tannhäuser, implying that he was still dissatisfied with it even after all of the tinkering he had done. The two major versions (the Dresden Tannhäuser, more or less the original score from the Dresden premiere in 1845, and the Paris Tannhäuser, more or less the significant revisions of the original for Wagner’s artistic but ultimately disastrous foray into Paris in 1861) have become a musicologist’s goldmine for uncovering bits and pieces here and there from this version to that revision.

Intuitive genius that he was, Wagner was right: his operas after Tannhäuser have a formal necessity, a sort of inevitability: each bar of music, each note seems to fit perfectly into his grand conception, as if it simply couldn’t be otherwise or anywhere else. Tannhäuser more or less approximates this ‘necessity’ in the last two acts, but the first act remains…unfinished? Dresden, Paris, it just doesn’t flow right.

 The Venusberg scene in Act I

The Venusberg scene in Act I

This said, the Met’s current revival of the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Tannhäuser is strong. New in 1977, the once evocative sets look a bit tired, which is fine, they’re old, but the costumes, lighting and the mood are fitting to the tale; the extended choral pageantries are still moving.

Tenor Johan Botha has the winning combination of the ideal voice for Tannhäuser and, most important, the stamina to remain fresh until the final curtain. Musically he is quite remarkable. If dramatically he never quite works himself into a lather, meaning he doesn’t get as wild as the man Tannhäuser becomes in late Act III as Venus (vocally anyway) tugs at his britches once again, at least Botha is still, well, sitting.

  Johan Botha delivers his contest song to an horrified crowd in Act II

Johan Botha delivers his contest song to an horrified crowd in Act II

Regardless, he deserves our applause: his is no small feat. Most tenors are lucky enough to get through it and the sensible majority never try. Tannhäuser, like Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco, is a fiendishly difficult role, a notorious ‘voice-eater.’ Unlike either Tristan or Siegfried, both also long and taxing, the tessitura for Tannhäuser is, like Wagner’s earlier Rienzi, comparatively high, especially in Acts I & II, which is not surprising considering that Wagner wrote both Rienzi and Tannhäuser for the same tenor, Joseph Tichatschek, at one time thought of as Europe's greatest dramatic tenor. Over my years in the audience at the Met, I’ve witnessed three, yes, three renowned tenors lose their voices during a performance of Tannhäuser. Each was forced to continue painfully through to the bitter end or to call in the cover. Believe me, Botha is the real deal here. Savor his sound. It doesn’t come around frequently.

The other main men in this Tannhäuser are also remarkable. As the Landgraf of Thuringia, Elisabeth's Uncle Hermann, bass Günther Groissböck has an attractive mellowness to his voice, soothing as a protective uncle should be, but authoritative when necessary. Very pleasing! Bravo!

And Peter Mattei is completely winning in voice and character as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Tannhäuser’s cool, confident friend. How pleasant it is to hear the Evening Star sung so effortlessly.

Biterolf, Tannhäuser’s nemesis of sorts, is forcefully taken by Ryan McKinny; Walther von der Vogelweide is brightly sung by Noah Baetge; Adam Klein is Heinrich der Schreiber and Ricardo Lugo is Reinmar von Zweter. The Young Shepherd is lovely: Ying Fang brings back the youthful memories of a young Kathleen Battle. Vocally, I mean.

  Elisabeth's prayer in Act III

Elisabeth's prayer in Act III

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth begins Act II joyfully and exuberantly with a Dich, teure Halle in want of vocal focus. But she quickly reins it in and ultimately makes a strong statement for her character, particularly in the long choral finale of the Act. Westbroek’s Elisabeth in Act III suffers in a way that allows one to connect with the degree of sacrifice she makes for Tannhäuser’s soul. She, too, is the real deal. As they should, many still talk about Westbroek’s Sieglinde in the Met’s (then) new Walküre in 2011. It’s Wagner’s fault that Elisabeth isn’t as pithy or as passionate.

Venus is the naughty counterpart to the saintly Elisabeth: before the opera starts she has lured the bored, disenfranchised Tannhauser away from the Minnesingers in the first place. Michelle DeYoung fights the uphill battle Wagner created for her character with both courage and strength.

The Venusberg scene in the original 1845 Dresden version, not performed by the Met since the days of the Old Met on Broadway and 39th, is shorter, shallow on Venus’s character and without much, if any, of a Bacchanal, the old word for a dance party. The very long part of the new Venusberg scene is the ballet Wagner was advised to expand for his 1861 Paris version so the local dandies of the Jockey Club could watch their ballerinas wiggle on stage before bedding them later backstage or elsewhere. Wagner, obviously out tune with the aristocratic customs of Paris, put his new ballet in Act I (!) before the dandy buggers even finished dining.

Wagner was always the artist but often a social loser.

For Paris he also took the opportunity to give more depth to Venus’s character, Musically and dramatically the new scene foreshadows, to some extent, his Kundry in Act II of Parsifal.

Though it’s true that Wagner’s revisions for the Paris version create a better balance for Act I with respect to the other acts, it comes at the cost of belaboring both the eroticism of the lengthy ballet section (let’s be real: how many times do we need to see couples, lovely as they are, flailing, humping and running around?) and a relationship which, in the long run, we don’t much care about because the music, foreshadowing Parsifal notwithstanding, goes relatively nowhere.

It’s a no-win situation. Wagner knew it still wasn’t right, and I’ll bet you will too as you’re sitting through it. In this performance it also becomes an issue because the artists are for the most part static. If only he could fix it...one can wish Wagner were still composing. Sadly he's doing the opposite.

James Levine conducts the score, as he does with everything he touches, as if it were the best music in the world. And the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under Donald Palumbo, is given several chances to shine.

I leave you with two very good reasons to catch the Met's Tannhäuser this season: first, it is very well sung and musically top shelf, as the opera goes, and second, it is a safe bet, knowing how things go, that this will be our last chance to see the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production of Tannhäuser. Enjoy it, Wartburg, warts and all.

Performance date: October 12, 2015.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Be advised: Tannhäuser is performed here in three acts, with an early curtain. The running time is 4 hours, 40 minutes, including two intermissions.

Enjoy the fall color! Folks travel miles to see it. Live it here.

JRS