Not as good as Il Trovatore, better than Otello- a mostly impressive and musically outstanding production
Admittedly not everybody is a fan of Wagner. His operas are long, needs a lot of patience and stamina and very demanding on the voice and also instrumentalists and people do find it difficult to separate the composer and his art from how he was as a person. Admittedly he was a horrible man (few take kindly to anti- seminites), but he was a great composer who wrote stirring and emotional music.
Tannhäuser may not be quite one of my favourites from Wagner (Tristan and Isolde, Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Parsifal, Siegfried and Die Walküre), there is nothing wrong with it, just that there is a preference for those five. The music is wonderful this said, including Wagner's finest overture (narrowly edging out Flying Dutchman and Meistersinger), Pilgrim's Chorus and Wolfram's Ode to the Evening Star (perhaps the closest Wagner came to an aria), when done right the conflicts between the characters are interesting and the story is moving.
Is Tannhäuser well served on DVD? There are fair few disappointing ones like Munich's, Werner Herzog's, Zürich, Copenhagen's and Baden Baden's, but there are also some great ones like Bayreuth's and Met's (1980s, despite an over-taxed Richard Cassily in the title role) and the 1989 production directed by Wolfgang Wagner. When this Met Tannhäuser comes out on DVD, for me it will be up there as one of the better ones. Imperfect, but very impressive and musically outstanding.
Visually, it is very traditional and sumptuous and rustic in its detail with attractive costumes, atmospheric lighting and really quite exquisite (not overdone or too fussy when it isn't necessary but never too barren) sets. Otto Schenk's staging may be criticised for being conservative, but it isn't dull and has a lot of charm. With the exception of the rather too silly opening ballet at Venusburg, there was much to like about the staging particularly in the Hall of Song, the genuinely moving ending and pretty much any scene with Peter Mattei's Wolfram, like the rousing scene between him and Tannhäuser in Act 3 or the understated dignity of Ode to the Evening Star. In fact, of all the acts Act 3 was by far the most successful and really came alive.
Musically, as has been said before, the production is really outstanding. Throughout the orchestra playing is exceptional, the strings shimmer, the woodwinds play warmly and the brass rouse and ooze nobility without being overpowering, whether off-stage with the horn in the Warburg valley scene or the on-stage trumpets. The chorus sing beautifully, especially in the Pilgrim's chorus, and act with involvement. James Levine's conducting only just occasionally flags a tiny bit, but almost all the time it is sympathetic and authoritative whether in the thicker textures or the intricate ones, there are some lovely colours and carefully chosen speeds here. The sound is very good, as is the video directing, picture quality and HD, and the simulcast is hosted nicely and invitingly.
There is much to admire about the singing. Johan Botha is an awkward actor and he is occasionally challenged at first by the daunting tessitura in Act 1 in one of Wagner's most punishing title roles. He does however show good chemistry with his fellow singers, and his singing for most of the production is simply terrific, ringing rather than strained as well as very agile, suitably hefty and musical in the more lyric passages. Whatever nuance, frustration, sadness or torment there was not shown in Botha's acting almost certainly showed in his singing. Eva Maria Westbroek is a touching Elisabeth, whether naïve in the first part of the opera to a stronger and saintlier person. She sings with a beautiful bright tone, if a little unsteady at the top at times, and she clearly understands the role, exciting in her opening Act 2 aria and completive in her prayer, and her duet with Botha sounds great with them together and the chemistry is heartfelt.
As Venus, Michelle De Young is alluring and seductive and she has a very rich voice that doesn't sound in any way taxed. Ying Fang is an exquisitely sung Shepherd, not at all daunted by how exposed her music is, while Günther Groissböck is an ever so slightly lightweight but sonorous and dramatically authoritative Hermann Landgraf with impeccable German diction. However, the standout was Peter Mattei's noble and dignified Wolfram, who sings with such warmth, remarkably smooth phrasing (seeing as the breath control is very sustained and hard) and understated and poignant elegance. As good as he is in the valley and contest scenes, he is one of the primary reasons why Act 3 comes off as well as it does.
Overall, while not as good as the powerful Il Trovatore that kicked off the 10th season it is an improvement over the interesting but somewhat disappointing Otello. Falls short of being perfect, but it really impresses, particularly musically. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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