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Johan Botha as Tannhäuser [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]
26 Mar 2015

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Johan Botha as Tannhäuser

Photos © Todd Rosenberg


The Chicago performances include Johan Botha as Tannhäuser, Amber Wagner in the role of Elisabeth, Gerald Finley as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Michaela Schuster as Venus, and John Relyea as Landgraf Hermann. Also participating in these performances are Jesse Donner as Walter, Daniel Sutin as Biterolf, Angela Mannino as the Shepherd, Corey Bix as Heinrich, and Richard Wiegold as Reinmar. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black has prepared the chorus, both groups here performing at the level of a festival. The production is directed by Tim Albery. Messrs. Bix, Wiegold, and Albery are in their debut season at Lyric Opera.

10_Gerald_Finley_Johan_Botha_Amber_Wagner_TANNHAUSER_LYR150204_358_cTodd_Rosenberg.pngGerald Finley as Wolfram, Johan Botha as Tannhäuser, and Amber Wagner as Elisabeth

Staging the Venusberg scene is a perennial challenge to dramatic credibility. The current production makes a valiant effort to capture the spirit of music and drama, while matching a modernist updating in dress and stage props. After an impressive performance of the overture’s opening with the horns squarely on pitch and sensitive playing by the violas, the viewer notes a straight-back chair positioned at stage front on the right-hand side. Seated in the chair, dressed in a contemporary suit, is Tannhäuser. From the darkened stage recesses a figure emerges, and a miniature theater-frame with curtain descends onto the main stage, just as the Venusberg music intensifies. As the curtain in this stage-upon-a-stage opens, Venus - draped in a black evening dress - appears at its center. Dressed likewise as a match to the principals in style and formality, the male and female dancers participating in the bacchanal populate the center stage around a longish table. The choreographed motions suggest the physical pleasure to which Tannhäuser has committed himself after his departure from the society of the court. The dancers fulfill here Wagner’s textual summary of undulating movement interspersed with the sirens’ chorus of “Naht euch dem Strande” [“Draw near to the shore”]. Once the pair is alone, Venus questions the grounds for Tannhäuser’s distraction; his reveries simply recall images of nature which are now banned from his experience. In this response Mr. Botha’s recitation signals the tedium of his present, timeless state with drawn-out emphasis on “Tage, Monde …” [“Days, months …”]. In reaction to Ms. Schuster’s expressive “Ergreife Deine Harfe” [“Seize your harp”], Botha begins his praise of Venus [“Dir töne Lob” (“Praise be to you”)] with a lilting and embellished line. Yet in the midst of his love-song Botha’s tone changes effectively with the realization that he is a “Sterblicher” [“mortal”]. After Venus’s offended reaction Tannhäuser repeats both his praise and his appeal to leave her realm. Botha’s lyrical decorations on the line “nach unsrer Vöglein liebem Sange” [“for the sweet song of our beloved birds”] in describing the homeland build the grounds for his repeated declarations on “Freiheit” and “Laß mich ziehn!” [“Freedom” “Let me depart!”]. Resulting from his final dramatic statement, “Mein Heil liegt in Maria” [“My salvation remains with Mary”], delivered by Botha with exciting forte pitches, Tannhäuser is released from the control of Venus and returns to his origins.

Once Tannhäuser is anchored in a familiar landscape, his sense of sinfulness is enhanced. He sees a shepherd beneath a tree, located here toward the rear of the stage, and soon the latter’s song, “Frau Holda,” celebrates the return of pleasant weather. As the shepherd Angela Mannino sings with bright, unforced line, executing lovely decoration on “strahlte” to emphasize the play of the sun’s rays in “da strahlte warm die Sonne” [“and the sun began to shine warmly”]. A troop of pilgrims sings of its devotional passage just as the shepherd wishes them Godspeed to Rome. As an observer Tannhäuser is struck by their piety and laments his guilt even more intensely. In the balance of Act I the remaining male characters of the opera are introduced. The identity of the isolated penitent is first questioned by Landgraf Hermann, then immediately recognized by Wolfram. Messrs. Relyea and Finley inhabit these roles seamlessly. After individual welcoming words the knights and singers encourage Tannhäuser collectively to remain in their midst. Wolfram’s appeal, “Bleib bei Elisabeth!” [“Stay for the sake of Elisabeth!”] turns the tide in the returning knight’s resolve. While elaborating on this statement, Finley’s Wolfram sings a lush melodic passage recalling the effect of Tannhäuser’s departure on Elisabeth. Beginning with thoughts confined to individual verses [“Als du in kühnem Sange uns besrittest” (“When you in daring song did strive with us”)], Finley’s application of legato and transition builds as he proclaims, “O kehr zurück, du kühner Sänger” [“O return to us, you bold singer”]. The palpable effect of these lines, echoed by Relyea’s Landgraf, show Tannhäuser proclaiming his determination to remain in this company at the close of the act.

Act II introduces from its start the heroine Elisabeth. The interior of the palace whose hall she addresses in “Dich teure Halle” [“You, beloved hall”] suffers from neglect. By showing a state of decay, the set seems to externalize the inner ruin of Elisabeth’s and the court’s temperament. Ms. Wagner sings her opening aria with a commitment and power that bodes well for her assumption of yet additional roles in the dramatic-lyric repertoire. Wagner’s believable emphasis in her middle and lower registers to describe the effects of Tannhäuser’s earlier departure [“aus düstrem Traum” (“from gloomy dreams”)] transformed into a joyful declaration of welcome, squarely on pitch, in the repeat of “Sei mir gegrüßt!” [“Be greeted by me!”]. The subsequent duet with Tannhäuser, as they celebrate their reunion in the hall, shows both voices in elevated, forte excitement [“Gepriesen sei die Stunde!” (“Praised be the hour!”)], yet also woven together in emotional harmony.

An orchestral interlude heralds the arrival of guests who will observe the singers perform at the festivity. The latter are addressed directly by the Landgraf [“Ihr lieben Sänger” (“You dear singers”)] when he encourages each to describe while singing “der Liebe Wesen” [“the nature of love”]. Relyea’s diction and sense of communicating the text are exemplary in this extended depiction of the singers’ task. The first to sing is Wolfram in an address which shows Finley lingering convincingly on “die Seele” [“the soul”] and “der Liebe reinstes Wesen” [“love’s purest essence”], as he emphasizes the spirituality of love. Tannhäuser’s demur at this characterization of love is contradicted roundly by Walter von der Vogelweide. Mr. Donner’s Walter is sung with full, nicely rounded voice, laying emphasis on “die Tugend wahr” [“true virtue”] and decorating skillfully the “Inbrunst” [“fervor”] which he derides Tannhäuser for lacking. That very spirituality is flaunted in Botha’s resounding subsequent paean to sensual love. The court’s shocked denunciation of Tannhäuser is interrupted passionately by Elisabeth. Ms. Wagner’s recitation of this monologue contains striking shifts between describing Tannhäuser’s fall and her own sense of inner piety. As she reminds the others that “auch für ihn einst der Erlöser litt” [“the Redeemer suffered once for him as well”], Ms. Wagner leads the assembled members of the court to encourage forgiveness and repentance. In the final ensemble before Tannhäuser leaves on a pilgrimage - tellingly to Rome, as an echo of Act I - individual voices blend here yet are also perceived distinctly in a plea for a potential miracle.

The final act of Tannhäuser continues the passage to that very miracle, yet only after the demonstration of true sacrifice. Elisabeth’s prayer near the start of the act is achingly delivered by Ms. Wagner, as she begs the Virgin Mary to be taken from this earth as a means to atone “für seine Schuld” [“for his transgression”]. Wolfram’s response, when his attempts to follow her to the palace are gently rebuffed, is the prayer to the evening star to accompany Elisabeth in her journey heavenward. Finley’s performance of this piece, “O du, mein holder Abendstern,” is justly lauded, and here his singing matches the wistful yearning of the production’s movements. His voice quivers with devotion, as he graces the words “ein sel’ger Engel dort zu werden” [“to become a blessed angel there”] with fervent embellishment. Tannhäuser’s return signals his final confrontation with the character Wolfram. Botha details with dramatic gesture the rejection of his entreaties at Rome and his determination to return to Venus. In the struggle over the fate of Tannhäuser’s soul, Finley and Botha act with urgency to the point of the chorus announcing Elisabeth’s sacrifice. As the penitent now begs a departed Elisabeth to pray for him, the miracle of the pope’s staff is revealed. The final scenes in these performances are not simply a denouement but rather a convincing resolution of love’s dilemma.

Salvatore Calomino

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