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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Tannhäuser

Caught between two worlds, two women and two versions of the same opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The medieval knight Heinrich von Ofterdingen, known to all as "Tannhäuser."
Photo re-coloring by the author.
Wagner planned Tannhäuser to be a grand opera, not a grand, sweeping statement on the nature of duality and the divided self. But it is. On one level, this is the story of a medieval minstrel knight (the title character, pronounced "TAHN-hoy-zer") who tries to win a song contest. However, the hero is doomed from the start, trapped between his lust for the goddess Venus and his chaste love for the pure, saintly Elisabeth. This opera is an examination of the artist in a divided state of ones self, destroyed by the effort to meet all of one's needs at once.

Wagner mashed up multiple medieval legends to create this opera, whose full title is Tannhäuser und der Sangerkreig auf Wartburg. It is jammed with memorable tunes, with the Hymn to Venus in Act I, the "Hall aria" ("Dich teurer halle"), and the sweeping Pilgrim's Chorus and Tannhäuser's "Rome narration" bringing color to the last act. Wagner experimented further with the idea of damnation and redemption here, with the latter appearing in the score as the "Dresden Amen", a direct reflection of the composer's duties as kapellmeister in the Saxon capital. The original Tannhäuser appeared in 1845, and Wagner revised the score here and there in the next fifteen years.

In 1861, Wagner finally got the opportunity to mount a show at the Paris Opera. He chose Tannhäuser, translated into French and with new and additional music. He responded to the Paris requirement of a ballet by inserting a huge dance sequence into the first act, giving his audience a taste of Tristan-esque "music of the future" in this depiction of a subterranean orgy, German-style. Unfortunately, the bacchanale/ballet was met with cat-calls from members of the influential Paris Jockey Club, who wanted their dancing girls to come onstage in the third act so they would have time to finish dinner. The premiere was a fiasco and Tannhäuser was withdrawn.

Tannhäuser occupies a unique place as the only Wagner opera that exists in two distinct versions, forcing a director and conductor to choose between the 1860 final revision of the score or the 1875 update of the Paris orchestration, which incorporates more of Wagner's later musical style. (For the sake of convenience and the sanity of most conductors, they are usually referred to as the "Dresden" and "Paris" versions.) Happily, both versions of Tannhäuser are worth your time, and are available on record as detailed below.

"Dresden" version (1860)
(includes full overture, much shorter ballet music, "expanded" song contest in Act II.)

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink (EMI/WBC 1985)
The surprise here is Klaus König, whose powerhouse performance of the title role is one of the best this writer has ever heard. He is flanked by Lucia Popp as Elisabeth and Waltraud Meier as Venus, two great singers that would be impossible for any mortal man to choose between. This is Haitink's first Wagner recording and is a lesser effort with stodgy tempos that make the action drag. That said, the choral-orchestral payoff in the last bars is truly impressive, with the cathedral-like weight of a Bruckner symphony.

Berlin Staatskapelle cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC 2001)
This is one of the more successful entries in Barenboim's cycle of ten Wagner operas for what used to be the Teldec label. His orchestra is in great form, as is Jane Eaglen, a singer who was potent on stage but inconsistent in front of a microphone. Peter Seiffert is a good Tannhäuser. Waltraud Meier makes her second outing as Venus an improvement on the first. She's sexy as hell. Another bonus: Thomas Hampson as the sensitive Wolfram, a role that suits him perfectly well.

"Paris" version (1875)
(Overture transits directly into the new ballet music, Venus has different, "chromatic" accompaniment in Act I and III scene, some cuts in the song contest.)

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca 1970)
Everybody talks about Georg Solti's recording of the Ring but his Vienna Tannhäuser also ranks as a successful effort. The lush eroticism of the 1861 Venusberg music is on full display here. Christa Ludwig is a sexy Venus, evenly matched by the pure tone of Helga Dernesch as Elisabeth. Stuck in the middle is René Kollo, a singer who is sometimes iffy on record but very solid here as Tannhäuser. The Viennese play like gods and the choral singing is top-flight.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1988)
This was not Plácido Domingo's first Wagner opera recording (he's on an awkward but endearing Meistersinger from 19__) but it is one of his better ones. The Spanish tenor's German is a little odd but he commits himself to the complexities of Tannhäuser's emotional upheavals. The cast is an all-star team of DG singers from the late 80s. Giuseppe Sinopoli leads a slow, idiosyncratic and ultimately profound performance of Wagner's final revision of the score. Overwhelming choral singing and great orchestra playing carry the day.

And then there's....

The Hybrid Version (1962)
("Paris" ballet music used--the overture leads directly into the orgy sequence, otherwise the Dresden orchestration with a few cuts.)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (Philips/Decca, 1962
This live recording from Bayreuth captures the legendary Wieland Wagner production of the opera that envisioned the song contest in Act II as a kind of giant chess match. The stellar cast includes the young Anja Silja as Elisabeth, the amazing Grace Bumbry as Venus (the singer who broke the Bayreuth color barrier and forever became known as the "Black Venus") and Wolfgang Windgassen as Tannhäuser. The performance of this special version of the score prepared by Wolfgang Sawallisch and the composer's grandson Wieland is for the most part an effective compromise.

Made it this far? Good! Here's your reward: the Venusberg ballet
filmed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1978 and conducted by James Levine. Enjoy!

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