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Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser
16 Jan 2007

WAGNER: Tannhäuser

The ever-busy Brian Large directed the 1989 filming (for TV) of a Wolfgang Wagner Tannhäuser production which had debuted at Bayreuth in 1985.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Richard Versalle, Cheryl Studer, Ruthild Engert-Ely, Hans Sotin, Wolfgang Brendel, Siegfried Vogel, Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele. Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor. Wolfgang Wagner, stage director.
Recorded at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 23 to 28 June 1989

EuroArts 2072008 [2DVDs]

$43.68  Click to buy

Now available on DVD, the opera performance as filmed has a stage-bound perspective oddly hitched to the occasional "movie" editing effect, such as a sudden and seamless fade from Venusberg to Wartburg in act one. Not a hint of a live audience can be detected (which is also true of other Bayreuth filmed performances), and many of the singers throw a glance slightly off-screen at times, as if to catch a glimpse of the conductor (this is especially noticeable with Richard Versalle, singing the lead role). All this underlies the unsatisfactory sense that this filming neither captures the electric charge of a live performance nor the smooth perfection of a studio-filmed affair.

The brief booklet essay (apparently authored by a Werner Pfister, although that name only follows the synopsis) relates Wolfgang Wagner's inspiration for the set: "the archetypal shape of a circle symbolizing both the life cycle and the terrestrial globe," per the essay. For Wagner the director, the circle's center "may be likened to an ancient place of worship occupied by Venus and Mary." It may indeed, but it also may be visually dull - a stark space that neither captures the rich eroticism of Venusberg nor the verdant terrain of Wartburg. The ballet of cape and thong-clad dancers might possibly have been "steamy" at the original time of production; in 2006, the effect is more of bad mid-80s music video. However, the act two hall set succeeds in putting some realistic detail into a sort of timeless limbo, with a deep gray-white galaxy serving as backdrop.

The essay details how the original leads for the production's debut dropped out, leading to a major debut for Cheryl Studer and a worthy effort by Richard Versalle. Studer's basically lovely tone, though lacking much distinctive character, meets the role's demands. Responses to intonation often have a subjective cast; suffice it to say, to your reviewer's ears, Ms. Studer often seems slightly below the note. Her dignified, properly feminine Elsa could use some other shades, and she is not flattered when the camera catches her at the end of act two perspiring under the camera lights.

Versalle's impassive countenance hardly captures much of the torment and potency of Tannhäuser, although an excellent make-up job in act three helps him find some conviction for the final collapse into despair. However, for a notoriously difficult role, Versalle manages well vocally, with just some occasional tightness at the top.

Costumed in a most unsexy white nightgown, Ruthild Engert-Ely as Venus cannot produce any erotic spark in the inert first scene of the opera (after an overture featuring the Pilgrims wandering around the stage as if lost). William Pell's unfocused tone as Walther makes his an unimpressive contribution to act two, which is otherwise the most effective part of the staging. A youthful Wolfgang Brendel produces the vocal highlight here, as well as at the start of act three, with his fresh tone and appealing stage presence most welcome as Wolfram. Sinopoli leads the Bayreuth forces to a fresh, vital reading of the score.

The Met has a handsome Tannhäuser on DVD, in a typically lush traditional production, and with the priceless Venus of Tatiana Troyanos but a troubled Richard Cassilly. Rene Kollo, the originally signed lead for this Bayreuth production, appears in a controversial Munich staging. Your reviewer has not seen a more recent DVD with Peter Seiffert, who will be singing the role shortly in Los Angeles (March 2007). Lovers of the opera will probably find some enjoyment in this Bayreuth DVD. Otherwise, Wagner's supremely melodic grand opera awaits a truly all-around successful DVD incarnation.

Chris Mullins

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