I have never been a ‘Wagnerian’. I could never muster the patience to sit through hours of his operas. I found them bombastic. Pathetic. And even though I had to admit that there were some beautiful melodies, I felt that I really needed a pair of scissors and radically shorten them
That this feeling has totally changed, I owe to Domingo. In my collector’s mania (I had to have everything he had done), I bought the recently released Tannhäuser (DG 4276252) in 1989. And then it happened: I became addicted.
At first, it was mainly Domingo who was to ‘blame’, whose deeply human interpretation of the title role gave me the goose bumps. His words: “Wie sagst du, Wofram? Bist du denn nicht mein Feind?” (sung with emphasis on ‘mein’ and ‘Feind’ and with a childish question mark at the end of the phrase) caused me to burst into tears.
Later, I learned to appreciate the music for itself and to this day, Tannhäuser is not only a very beloved Wagner opera, but also one of my absolute favourites.
I still consider this recording, conducted very sensually by Giueseppe Sinopoli, to be one of the best ever. Also because all the roles (Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth and Agnes Baltsa as Venus, such wealth!) are excellently cast. At the time, in the eighties and early nineties, this was not necessarily a given.
RICHARD CASSILY 1982
In those years there was a lack mainly of good tenors and that can be clearly heard on these two DVD – recordings. Otto Schenk’s insanely beautiful 1982 production, recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (DG 0734171) dates from 1977. If you like very realistic, lavish sets and ditto costumes (I do) you can have a lot of fun with this. Just about the entire Venus grotto from Schloss Neuschwanstein was recreated for the opening scene, and the ballet presents us with a truly orgasmic Bacchanal.
The orchestra, conducted by James Levine, plays mostly lyrical and light, there is nothing to criticise at all. Eva Marton is a fine Elisabeth, Tatiana Troyanos a wonderfully sensual and seductive Venus.
Bernd Weikl, one of my favourite baritones sings an irresistible Wolfram, although he messes up his great aria by trying to give his (in principle) lyrical voice too much volume, making his voice unsteady.
And although the Landgrave (John Macurdy) is really terrible, I would not have had a problem with that recording, provided … yes … provided the tenor had not been so awful. The textbook mentions “the very highest standard”, well, I’m not so sure about that. Richard Cassilly is a physically very unattractive Tannhäuser with a pinched voice and a total lack of lyricism, giving the impression of having wandered into the wrong opera.
Arrival of the guests at Wartburg:
RICHARD VERSALLE 1989
Even worse is the 1989 recording (Euroarts 2072008) from Beyrouth. Wolfgand Wagner’s direction is mainly symbolic, thus everything takes place in a circle (circle of life? Seasons? Panta Rhei?) and already during the overture the pilgrims are walking around the stage.
The costumes are not particularly flattering to the singers, which is particularly merciless for poor Cheryl Studer (Elisabeth). Her breathtakingly sung evening prayer is of a touching beauty. Both Hans Sotin (de Landgraaf) and Wolfgang Brendel (Wolfram) are undoubtedly excellent, but yes, again, there is no good leading role.
Richard Versalle as Tannhäuser:
Richard Versalle is not much like a young man obsessed with (physical) love. There is also little of his dichotomy between the earthly and the heavenly. His voice is not pretty and devoid of any charm. A macabre fact: the fact, that his name has not yet been forgotten owes it to his death: during the premiere of Vec Makropoulos (MET 1996), he fell from a ladder, stricken by a heart attack, just after singing the words “You can only live so long”.
Trailer of the production:
In both of the above recordings, Messrs Tannhäuser and Wolfram are continuously walking around with harps, on which they ‘accompany’ themselves at the appropriate moments. That imaginary pinging should be banned, it’s so fake!
PETER SEIFFERT 2003 (for fans of Jonas Kaufmann)
The in itself nicely designed production from Zurich (once EMI 5997339) is suffering from the highly irritating TV direction, it really seems as if the TV director has taken over directing. The ‘manager of images’ likes close-ups, so that during Elisabeth’s prayer we look at the clarinetist’s fingernails. Or we are being zoomed in on Tannhäuser’s sweat-covered forehead. He also finds it necessary to film the singers behind the scenes, which very much disrupts the romance and the magic.
Once you get used to it, there is undoubtedly much to enjoy. The stage setting is beautiful, the colourful costumes – apparently from the early twentieth century – are handsome, and Jens-Daniel Herzog’s character direction is fine. But what makes this production especially worthwhile are the vocal contributions of the singers.
Isabelle Katabu is an extraordinarily beautiful and sensual Venus, darkly coloured and highly erotic. Solveig Kringelborn’s Elisabeth sounds especially pure and lyrical as does her appearance. At the time, Peter Seiffert was one of the best Tannhäusers, both vocally and as a actor. Torn between the sensual and the spiritual, he chooses the higher, which can only result in death.
Nice detail for his many fans: the small role of Walther is sung by none other than Jonas Kaufmann. Only: we don’t get to see him, as during his aria the camera focuses on the faces of Tannhäuser or Elisabeth. Incidentally, I think that recording is now sold out, but yes: fans will remain fans, won’t they?
That Nikolaus Lehnhoff can direct Wagner in a very beautiful way, yes, we already knew that. Already in his earlier productions for Baden Baden he showed that modern staging does not have to produce weird images, and that concepts are not necessarily ridiculous. This Tannäuser, previously seen in Amsterdam, is also exceptionally successful (Arthaus Musik 101 351).
Lehnhoff emphasises Tannhäuser’s search for the balance between the physical and the spiritual by creating a world where tradition goes hand in hand with innovation. He builds on a discrepancy (but also a symbiosis) between innocence and evil, and between art and kitsch. Thus, the singing competition degenerates into a kind of glorified form of ‘Idols’, and Tannhäuser’s symbolic ‘redemption’ is painfully beautiful and effective.
Trailer of the production:
Musically, too, there is little to complain about. Robert Gambill sings a particularly moving Tannhäuser, his ‘Rom-Erzählung’ cutting through the marrow. Camilla Nylund is a beautiful, somewhat understated Elisabeth which makes her unapproachable and Waltraud Meier is a Venus out of thousands. Only with Roman Trekel do I have a little trouble. There is nothing wrong with his carrying, solid baritone, but for Wolfram I still opt for a bit more warm lyricism (Hermann Prey, where are you?).
Hermann Prey sings ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’:
BACK IN TIME
About ten years ago, budget label Walhall reissued two historic recordings of Tannhäuser on CD. These are respectively. the 1949 Berlin performance conducted by Leopold Ludwig (WLCD 0145), featuring Ludwig Suthaus (Tannhäuser), Martha Musial (Elisabeth) and a very young Fischer-Dieskau (Wolfram); and a performance from the MET (WLCD 0095), conducted by Rudolf Kempe in 1955, with, excluding a not very idiomatic Astrid Varnay as Elisabeth, a selection of the greatest singers of the time: Blanche Thebom, George London, Jerome Hines and Ramon Vinay.
George London sings ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’:
In both cases, the sound is entirely acceptable and the performances are of a standard that seems very hard to reach these days.