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Friday, October 9, 2015

Opera Review: To Venus and Back

Wagner's Tannhäuser returns to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Meeting Venus: the goddess (Michelle DeYoung, left) seduces Tannhäuser
(Johan Botha, right) in the first act of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. 
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera revealed its lone Wagner offering of the current season, a revival of the company's worn but much loved 1977 production of Tannhäuser from the team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. The problem child among Wagner's thirteen operas, Tannhäuser is the story of an itinerant minstrel knight (the title character, played here by tenor Johan Botha) caught between his love for the saintly Elisabeth and his erotic obsession with the goddess Venus and her underground pleasure palace, a plot element that led Wagner to consider naming the work Der Venusberg, or "The Mountain of Venus." Eventually, good taste prevailed.

James Levine led off the Act I overture, with the most familiar tune in the opera sounding with resonance and power from horns and winds before it built to a mighty crescendo. This is the first time the orchestra had played this work in 11 years, and they seemed happy to bite into the Pilgrims' Theme and the Venusberg music, with rich, detailed playing and heroic effort from the horns and trombones.  Merry caperings of strings and wind led directly into the ballet, with the curtain rising on a stylish but curiously chaste orgy of writhing ballet dancers engaged in pelvic gyrations and the occasional onanistic gesture behind a tasteful scrim.

Huddled amidst all this simulated nookie was Mr. Botha as Tannhäuser, curled in the arms of Venus herself as played by the statuesque mezzo Michelle DeYoung. And with his first notes (sung slightly ahead of the harp accompaniment coming from the pit--nobody's perfect) Mr. Botha proved the real deal in this difficult role. He sang with metal in his voice, setting off ringing notes without bleat or squall. Indeed, the tenor reached inside himself for the punishing notes at the end of each strophe, pushing out the climactic phrases with enough effort to make the listener understand the difficult nature of Tannhäuser's crisis.

Venus' answers were re-written in the 1861 revision of this opera. They are sumptuous chromatic bon-bons created by Wagner to introduce his new Tristan style to a doubting Paris audience. It didn't work then but it worked here, as the mezzo rode waves of elaborate orchestration in each of her responses to the tenor, growing more and more agitated with each go-round. A huge crash of sound and the Venusberg vanished, replaced with the mortal world, the sweet singing of a Shepherd Boy (soprano Ying Fang) and the arrival of spear-carrying noblemen. (They were out on the hunt and looking as if they've stepped in from another opera entirely.) They were led by Wolfram (baritone Peter Mattei) and Hermann, the Landgrave (bass Gunther Groissbeck), whose vocal contributions were very strong indeed. Not even a dreadful noise from backstage, sounding like the Robert Lepage "machine" run amuck, could spoil the ending of this first act.

Compared to the exoticisms of the Venusberg, the middle act of Tannhäuser can seem stodgy and dull. Here though, the energy and commitment of orchestra and chorus made this song contest engrossing, and even exciting . As Elisabeth, Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fully realized characte, dramatically involved. From the opening bars of "Dich, teure halle", she sang with authority and warmth, a fully realized characterization that showed the benefit of careful rehearsals. Mr. Groissbeck and Mr. Mattei were very fine here, as was baritone Ryan McKinny in the ungrateful role of Biterolf. But it was Mr. Botha, who won the contest, taking center stage and reprising his mad Venusberg music with gusto. Elisabeth saved him from being skewered by the bellicose nobles. Off to Rome he went, to repent for his time spent with the Goddess of Love.

Act III of Tannhäuser is the shortest of the three, a veritable highlight reel of hits from this opera. The Pilgrims' Chorus is the first of these, sung with great power by the hooded Met chorus as they shuffled across the stage on their way back from Rome. Elisabeth's prayer soared, with Ms. Westbroek entering her upper register to plead for Tannhäuser's soul. Her long slow exit was marked by eloquent woodwind solos. Mr. Mattei sang "O du mein holder Abendstern" with depth and a caressing of the lyric line, making one hear this as an expression of emotion and not just a pretty tune. His sensitive, three-dimensional Wolfram is a rarity, a perfect portrayal of the medieval concept of courtly (and unrequited) love.

Then Mr. Botha entered, his costume now dirty and bedraggled, wild-eyed and searching for the Venusberg. He delivered Tannhäuser's Rome Narration with potent tone and the verve of a good storyteller, perching on a tree-stump and skewering the Pope who had refused to grant his character absolution. This was a watershed moment for this tenor, who sounded as if he still had reserves when most singers are at the threadbare end of their voice. Then he turned wild-eyed and tried to rejoin Venus in her underground grotto.

Ms. DeYoung appeared upstage in a cloud of light, as the wild dance music resumed, played by an offstage banda.  And then Wolfram reminded the straying Tannhåuser of Elisabeth and the miracle happened. Venus vanished, Elisabeth's funeral bier was brought in, and Tannhäuser sank to his knees and to hus death. The Pope's staff arrived, its head sprung forth with fresh green leaves, a sign that Tannhäuser had been redeemed. The children's chorus and the Met's main chorus sounded the last bars over the pounding orchesta, a rich and luxuriant close to this long-awaited revival.

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