WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2015 – The New York Metropolitan Opera has been outdoing itself during the fall stanza of its 2015-2016 “Met in HD” series of opera simulcasts, which are beamed to hundreds of cities around the world. Moving right along from fine productions of industrial-strength Verdi earlier this month—namely “Il Trovatore” and “Otello”—the company stretched itself a bit more Halloween afternoon with Richard Wagner’s quasi-religious epic, “Tannhäuser” (1845).
As is generally the case with a Wagner opera, “Tannhäuser” is a long one, roughly four hours and 20 minutes running time including two lengthy intermissions to accommodate the opera’s substantial set changes. Happily for Met in HD theatergoers, this also allows ample time for bathroom breaks and popcorn recharges.
Reality or allegory?
“Tannhäuser” runs on a familiar Wagner track, namely, the composer’s tendency to conflate ancient mythologies with Christianity, lending a religious aura to his mystical belief in the inspirational beauty and sublimity of art to elevate the spirit of man.
The story of “Tannhäuser”
Tannhäuser himself is the most talented and skillful of a guild of troubadour artists famed for the beauty of their songs, which, we are led to understand, are often spiritual and philosophical in nature and at times linked to the chaste ideal of courtly love.
But Tannhäuser (Johan Botha) has a problem. As the opera opens, we are greeted not with its central characters but by an exuberant ballet of—in this production—tasteful but erotic dancers pantomiming an orgy of carnal love.
That sets the scene for us to discover our noble troubadour entangled with none other than Venus (Michelle DeYoung), the goddess of love herself. It seems he’s strayed from the path of Christian virtue and has succumbed to the carnal pleasures of love as symbolized by Venus.
But perhaps in a fit of conscience, Tannhäuser breaks with the furious goddess and is transported back to the real world, where he must insinuate his way back into the guild of noble musicians he’d suddenly left as well as his earthly love, the Princess Elisabeth (Eva-Maria Westbroek), whom he had abandoned.
But, after a touchy initial encounter with a cadre of his fellow singers, including his onetime friend and confidant Wolfram (Peter Mattei) and the kingdom’s “Landgraf” or Duke, Hermann (Günter Groissböck), Tannhäuser is accepted back into the fold.
Unfortunately, during a grand royal music competition (Act II), Tannhäuser betrays himself as a sinner and is banished from the kingdom forever, only escaping death because, in a fit of remorse, he chooses to join a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution for his mortal sin. As one might imagine, however, this being grand opera, Tannhäuser’s redemptive end—as well as that of the heartbroken Elisabeth—is ultimately not of this earth.
The music of “Tannhäuser”
As is true of much of Wagner, the length of this opera is largely linked to the careful and elaborate working out of Wagner’s linkage between religion, spirituality and the arts. As a result, many of his operas, including “Tannhäuser,” are not recommended for newbies seeking a short entertainment.
That said, the composer always paints a rich, thoughtful tapestry of music and thought that remains provocative today. As if to prove the point, the choral and religious imagery “Tannhäuser” glows almost celestially with the well-known songs and dramatic hymns that have become signature identifying elements of his music.
Production and singers
With the company’s music director and resident Wagner expert James Levine back at the podium, this marvelously sung operatic production is a revival of its sumptuous and very traditional 1977 Otto Schenk production, last seen at the Met in 2004—a production that’s still likely to send traditional Wagnerites into ecstatic transports, given what the Eurozone has been doing to Wagner productions in recent decades.
Under Maestro Levine—still confined to a wheelchair on a specially-designed podium—the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra gave a showy, though sometimes understated reading of this complex score that provided plenty of pageantry and skills while still giving its singers plenty of room to maneuver.
A special hat tip also goes to the Met’s new principal harpist, Frenchman Emmanuel Ceysson.
Somewhat unusual in Wagner’s generally heroic and larger-than-life operas, key scenes in “Tannhäuser” revolve around the moving songs of its several minstrels. Each accompanies himself—at least symbolically—on a small, portable, medieval harp. But it’s actually up to the orchestra’s harpist to deliver the good, playing at times entirely alone as the large Wagnerian orchestra remains silent.
Mr. Ceysson performed his behind-the-scenes work with uncommon precision and character, to the point where he actually provided slightly different characteristics in his accompaniment to better reflect the very different characters of each noble troubadour.
The principal singers themselves devoted almost fanatical attention to the development and projection of their characters as well. The big role here is, of course, “Tannhaüser” himself, sung in this production by veteran Wagner tenor Johan Botha. This is a big, taxing role. But Mr. Botha, in general, proved more than a match for it, singing this bigger-than-life role with great conviction and passion.
During Saturday’s performance, however—which I believe marked the final live performance of this production in New York—Mr. Botha’s voice seemed a bit hoarse and weary, understandable at the end of a taxing run of Wagner in almost any case. The evident strain came and went as the opera unfolded, making this an uneven performance for the artist.
However, Mr. Botha did manage to come on strong for his final aria-story-statement of despair near the end of the final act, perhaps drawing on an extra reservoir of energy to close the opera’s run.
As Venus—whose appearance is largely confined to that epic Act I tussle of love—mezzo Michelle DeYoung’s husky, earthy voice was a great match for her character, who in the context of the opera is more of a symbol for carnality than a real ancient Roman goddess.
But for a character “type,” Ms. DeYoung certainly embodied the lustfulness and imperiousness of an ancient god, providing Tannhäuser with a believable dilemma when his guilty conscience prods him to break free from his life of debauchery.
As the earthly opposite of Venus, the silvery yet substantial voice of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth provided a poignant and delicate contrast. Even in an opera that’s more allegorical than realistic, the fragility and essentially religious love and devotion embodied in Ms. Westbroek’s finely nuanced Elisabeth makes her a worthy ideal love for Wagner’s sinful troubadour and an inspiration for his possible redemption.
While the key story and theme of “Tannhäuser” is the central character’s dangerous triangle involving the symbols of carnal and spiritual love, the opera’s base in reality stems from the thoughts, feelings, actions and music of its supporting characters, particularly the contributions of Hermann (Günter Groissböck) and Wolfram (Peter Mattei).
Both singers are remarkable examples of male voices in the lower range that can articulate the emotional ranges that somehow seem a bit easier in the higher male and female vocal ranges. As the Landgraf or leader, Mr. Groissböck’s deep bass voice conveys great and at times gravelly authority. Yet, particularly when expressing his fondness and affection for his delicate niece, Elisabeth, his voice melts into the kind of paternal tenderness that is often absent in the bass range.
Even more impressive is Peter Mattei, whose endlessly expressive baritone voice gives full range to the sympathetic yet passionate character of Wolfram, Tannhäuser’s conflicted friend and, perhaps, would-be suitor to Elisabeth.
Mr. Mattei’s golden, sumptuous, yet clear and articulated baritone is one of the most remarkable instruments we’ve yet heard after decades of regular opera attendance. His endless ability to shape moods and tones, and his shimmering top notes—even when coupled with the kind of heroic “heldenbaritone” volume Wagner so often requires—was never hoarse or strained in Saturday’s performance, demonstrating a beauty and control we rarely encounter in a really “big” opera. It was, perhaps, the single finest vocal performance in Saturday’s HD simulcast production.
Hat tips to the rest of the cast here as well, including Noah Baetge (Walther), Ryan McKinny (Biterolf), Adam Klein (Heinrich) and Ricardo Lugo (Reinmar). An extra hat tip to young soprano Ying Fang, whose brief yet refreshing Act I turn in the trouser role of the Young Shepherd was like a brief ray of sunshine parting the clouds amidst the great spiritual turmoil of this opera.
Kudos as well for the fine Met chorus, which performed robustly and well throughout an opera that’s well-known for the importance of its key choral moments.
The only negative about this production is − for the third time in a row in this HD season − is the tomb-like quality of this production’s lighting. Note to Met: Can we please turn the lights up a bit in the next production? (Which, BTW, will be Alban Berg’s “Lulu.”)
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
Run Time: three hours 50 minutes (approximate).
Encore performance: As is generally the case, the recorded version of this simulcast will be presented at most participating movie theaters Wednesday.
For theater locations, advance tickets and information, visit the Met’s website. If online ticketing isn’t available for your location, you can purchase your tickets by visiting the box office at your local participating cinema. To the best of our knowledge, ticket price in most venues is $25, an astounding bargain for anyone who’s familiar with purchasing seats to a live performance.
Reserved seats? Met tickets at the theater complex where we attend (AMC Tysons Corner16, now accessible via the Tysons Corner Silver line Metro stop) have all offered reserved seats this season. Other theaters may offer open seating only, so for guaranteed-popular operas—i.e., “Carmen” or anything by Puccini—it’s best to arrive extra early (and bring something to read) to guarantee yourself a decent seat.