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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser
27 Feb 2007

WAGNER: Tannhäuser

As familiar Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser is, the opera benefits from solid performances that bring together fine singing, exquisite orchestral playing, and effective staging, and the Metropolitan Opera’s 1982 production conducted by James Levine gave audiences an exemplary performance that remains a touchstone for this work.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Richard Cassilly, Eva Marton, Tatiana Troyanos, Bernd Weikl, John Macurdy, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet, James Levine, conductor.

Deutsche Grammophon DVD (2-DVD set, Region 1 coding). B0006580-09

$34.99  Click to buy

At the time this production was staged, reviews called attention to the quality of this particular effort on the part of the Metropolitan Opera and the leadership of James Levine. Based on performances given on 22 November and 20 December 1982 for a broadcast of “Live from the Met,” this 2006 DVD release demonstrates the lasting power of this production of the Paris version of Wagner’s opera.

A tradition staging, akin to the Met’s famous broadcast and, later, DVD release of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, this production is faithful to the conventional treatment of the text as a fully medieval tale, albeit, the medievalism that Wagner brought to the public. Eschewing avant-garde theatrics and abstract imagery, the qualities of this production reside in the faithfulness to the traditional settings associated with the opera, including the colors and shading that bring the work to life on stage and in the imagination of the audience. The famous opening scene in Venusberg benefits from the choreography that points to the sensuality the composer intended, without necessarily indulging in excessive display. With the orchestral playing underscoring the scene, it serves as a fitting introduction to the opening exchange between Tannhäuser, as portrayed by the American tenor Richard Cassilly, and Venus, sung here by the late Tatiana Troyanos. The reviews of the time praised Cassily for his fine sense of drama, and this video preserves his nuanced performance, as well as Troyanos’s elegant and compelling depiction of Venus. The two performers clearly worked well together, both vocally and dramatically, with body language that reinforces the meaning of the text of the emotion of the music in this Otto Schenk production.

After immersing the audience and performers in the seductive world of Venusberg in the opening of the first act, the transformation to a stark countryside demonstrates the gulf between those world. The chorale-lilke hymn of pilgrims awakens Tannhäuser in the real work, with the choral textures flawlessly underscoring the scene. As traditional as this staging is, the flawless execution demonstrates how effective such a setting can be.

The staging gives way in the second act to the German court, the staging recreates in tableau the kinds of images found in illustrations from the period, and it is this sense of an authentic setting that conveys the artistic space for the performers to make the work come alive. Playing off the greeting of Venus at the beginning of the opera, Wagner’s overt parallelism is having the Christian Elizabeth welcome everyone to the German court, and Eva Marton conveys an elegant presence that stands alongside her other opera roles (notably a stunning Turandot from the Met, also available on DVD). Marton’s vocal coloring helps to delineate her character. The overt welcoming of “Dich, teure Halle” shifts to a more personal tone as Elizabeth interacts with Tannhäuser and defends him. Yet her interpretation of the extended prayer scene in the third act is even more impassioned in its parallel of the intensity that Troyanos brings to her sensual interpretation of Venus.

As Wolfram von Eschenbach, Bernd Weikl is quite effective, with a ringing baritone sound that plays off Cassily’s tenor. Yet the extended “Blick’ ich umher” shows Weikl’s commanding vocality that anticipates his fine work in the third act. John Macurdy is a solid Landgraf, with proper stage presence, and the other men fit well the court that Wagner created in what becomes essentially a morality play in the final act. While the third act maintains the traditional staging of the opera in its medieval trappings, the interpretation diverges a bit. Levine focuses on the more recitative-like exchanges in the third act, which contrast pointedly the more isolated lyricism “Song to the Evening Star” of Wolfram and Elizabeth’s “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau.” The dramaturgy verges, at times, to expressionist images, as the closeups on Cassilly point to a Tannhäuser on the edge of reality. This sets up the dénouement, which resolves the conflict implicit in the story, as pure and sacred love redeem the more self-directed hedonism that attracted Tannhäuser almost to the end. Wolfram is an agent of salvation, and Weikl acts well with Cassilly in bring out the inner struggle that essentially involves both of them.

It is a triumphant presentation that is captured well on for television and preserved here on DVD. The limitations that exist with filming opera on stage are mitigated by varying camera angles and a careful selection of long shots and close ups. At times the production captures the intimacy of the stage in ways that would be difficult to see from the audience’s perspective. A quarter century after its presentation on stage and subsequent broadcast, this Met performance remains compelling for musical, dramatic, and scenic qualities that coalesce here. The final bows seem all to swift for such an impressive production, and it calls to mind the late evenings that typified many productions of “Live from the Met.”

The two-DVD set is accompanied by a useful booklet that includes a detailed listing of the tracks, along with a synopsis of the scenes. It does not include a full libretto, but the text is readily available. In terms of presentation, the DVD is appropriate to an international audience with subtitles available in German, French, English, Castillian Spanish, and Chinese. The sound allows for DTS and Dolby Digital. Not listed in the booklet are the bonuses found on the DVD, which include a photo gallery that documents the continuing presence of Tannhäuser in the repertoire of the Met. (The other bonus is an extensive set of excerpts from Deutsche Grammophon’s DVD of the Patrice Chereau’s Ring for Bayreuth, and it is unfortunate that space was not devoted to the Met’s Ring, also available on the same label.) As a whole, this DVD presents a solid production of Tannhäuser that bears repeated viewings.

James Zychowicz

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