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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Tannhäuser

The last in a series of great Met Wagner productions returns.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Venusberg ballet in Act I of the Met production of Tannhäuser.
Photo © 2015 courtesy the Metropolitan Opera.
Tannhäuser is the last of six Wagner stagings by the team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen to remain in the Metropolitan Opera repertory. This season, this gorgeous picture-postcard production (the Act II set is a detailed re-creation of the actual locale where the opera's singing contest takes place) returns to the Met stage, possibly for the final time. Johan Botha, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Michelle DeYoung and Peter Mattei are at the front of a superb cast under the baton of James Levine.

Wagner created Tannhäuser by combining two medieval German legends: the story of the titular minstrel knight who allegedly dallied with the goddess Venus and a legendary song-contest held at the Wartburg, a fortress in Thuringia. In his hands, it became the story of the ultimate outsider confronting the judgment of society, and its hero's quest to fit in while torn between two very different worlds. The title role is one of the most demanding in the German repertory.

It will be the task of South African tenor Johan Botha to travel between the dark caves of Venus and the sunny German countryside on a spiritual journey that will ultimately take his character to Rome and back on his quest for redemption. He will be flanked by Ms. Westbroek as Elisabeth (the historic St. Elizabeth of Hungary), the devout "good girl" who loves him and Venus (Ms. De Young), the goddess of love and lust.

The opera's spectacular opening is a ballet inside the Venusberg, the goddess' mountain cavern, with the Met's ballet corps acting out various sexual positions to the accompaniment of sweeping, soaring music. All three acts feature the Met chorus, as pilgrims bound for Rome in the outer acts and as an array of well-dressed Thuringian nobles in the second. James Levine, who led the premiere of this production in 1978, conducts.

Tannhäuser opens Oct. 8.

Recording Recommendations:
Tannhäuser exists in two different versions, Wagner's original "Dresden" version of the opera and the later Paris revision (which is the one the Met performs here.) The "Dresden" version has the full overture, less lush orchestration for Venus' scenes in Act I and no appearance by the goddess in Act III. The "Paris" version is more familiar, with the overture leading directly into the Venusberg ballet and spectacular orchestral chromaticism every time the goddess opens her mouth to sing. Here are good recordings of each version, 'cos we're good like that:
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1989)
Tannhäuser: Plácido Domingo
Venus: Agnes Baltsa
Elisabeth: Cheryl Studer
Wolfram: Bernd Weikl
Señor Domingo's best excursion into German opera, this is a magnificent, sweeping account under the baton of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli. Casting lighter voices as Venus and Elisabeth, Sinopoli carries forth the energy and drive of this early Wagner opera with a magnificent performance from the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Staatskapelle Berlin cond. Daniel Barenboim (WBC 2002)
Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert
Venus: Waltraud Meier
Elisabeth: Jane Eaglen
Wolfram: Bernd Weikl
The Dresden version makes a comeback on this comparatively recent set, recorded as part of Mr. Barenboim's cycle of Wagner operas for the old Teldec label. Waltraud Meier uses her years of experience singing Kundry to prove a seductive Venus. Peter Seiffert has the right brightness and enthusiasm for the difficult title role.

Tickets for Tannhäuser are available at MetOpera.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.