Wolfgang Sawallisch
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
23 July 1961
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannJosef Greindl
TannhäuserWolfgang Windgassen
Wolfram von EschenbachDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Walther von der VogelweideGerhard Stolze
BiterolfFranz Crass
Heinrich der SchreiberGeorg Paskuda
Reinmar von ZweterTheo Adam
ElisabethVictoria de los Ángeles
VenusGrace Bumbry
Ein junger HirtElse-Margrete Gardelli
Opera News

In 1961, Wieland Wagner caused an international scandal by casting African-American mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry as Venus in Bayreuth performances of the Dresden version of Tannhäuser. Bumbry’s pronounced success backfired on the neo-Nazi protesters and catapulted her to international prominence. Philips long since issued commercially a vividly enacted recording compiled from that season’s Tannhäuser performances and rehearsals. Philips’s lead cast is the same as in this new offering from Myto, with the exception of its Elisabeth and its Wolfram. Anja Silja and Eberhard Wäechter sing the roles on Philips, whereas Myto boasts an even starrier and (certainly) more consistently mellifluous pair in Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The other change is an upgrade, as well: Theo Adam instead of Gerd Nienstedt as Reinmar.

The overture’s contrasts — dynamic and thematic — remind us how alert and responsive a Wagner conductor the late Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923–2013) was. A collective scream erupts during the orgiastic music — clearly a part of Wieland’s Regie, as it’s on the commercial set as well. One can imagine a greater performance but hardly one better prepared as an ensemble effort. The ever-canny Wolfgang Windgassen supplies characteristically committed, musical and textually intelligent work, at first showing less than ideal vocal freedom in “Dir töne Lob,” and occasionally pushing sharp elsewhere, but rising acceptably to all of the Act II’s concertato’s severe challenges and delivering a Rome Narration that showcases him at his best. De los Angeles was not a stranger to Wagner; her Met roles included Eva in Die Meistersinger and earlier in the year of this Bayreuth debut she offered New York a single Elisabeth. Her soprano is clean and lovely, with the high B of “Dich, teure Halle” firmly in place, though she must carefully guard against flatness in other high notes. Her Elisabeth, simply drawn, invites sympathy. Bumbry — then only twenty-three years old — understandably doesn’t quite match the tonal grandeur of Christa Ludwig, who recorded the role in full magnificence for Georg Solti on Decca’s 1970 set. But Bumbry delivers a fine performance, seductive and imperious in turns and (unlike many Venuses) never sounding unduly taxed by Act III. Bumbry returned in triumph to Venus in the opera’s “Paris” version at the Met in 1977. She later essayed Elisabeth in Germany; what a shame she never gave us Ortrud, Waltraute or Kundry.

Fischer-Dieskau lends Wolfram dignified nobility of utterance, and more consistent legato flow than some of his live performances evidence: all three set pieces are highlights. Doubtless one had to see Josef Griendl (Landgrave) fully to appreciate his much-admired artistry; the voice per se is and gnarled and wobbly, though always infused with drama. Else-Margrete Gardelli makes a prosaic Shepherd. The four ancillary knights include Bayreuth mainstay Georg Paskuda (Heinrich) and — along with Adam — artists who made international careers, tenor Gerhard Stolze (Walther) and bass Franz Crass (Biterolf). None of these effective voices was precisely beautiful save for that of Crass; ironically, his grumbly character here scarcely needs the bass’s fine-caliber tone.


User Rating
Media Type/Label
Melodram, Teatro Dischi
Myto, Opera d’Oro, OOA, TOL, OA, OD, CA
Technical Specifications
592 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 688 MByte (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (premiere)
The “black Venus” of Grace Bumbry created quite a sensation in Bayreuth.