James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
24 January 1987
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannJan-Hendrik Rootering
TannhäuserRichard Cassilly
Wolfram von EschenbachHåkan Hagegård
Walther von der VogelweideGary Lakes
BiterolfRichard J. Clark
Heinrich der SchreiberThomas Booth
Reinmar von ZweterTerry Cook
ElisabethJessye Norman
VenusEva Randová
Ein junger HirtDawn Upshaw
New York Times


THE trouble with coming upon real quality at the opera is that it makes you impatient with anything less. That happened last night at the season’s first ”Tannhauser” when Jessye Norman suddenly illuminated the Metropolitan stage with her second-act ”Dich, teure Halle” and went on to create as vocally electrifying and dramatically moving an Elisabeth as that stage has known in years. Though different in almost every way from the Elisabeth of Leonie Rysanek, long the reigning soprano in this Wagnerian role, Miss Norman’s Elisabeth was on the same high level, up there where the air is thin and few singers survive.

This was the first Wagnerian part for Miss Norman at the Metropolitan and certainly should not be her last. A woman built on super-Wagnerian lines, she nonetheless looked imposing and regal rather than merely large. She exuded an irresistible magnetism that made it entirely credible that a word from her could stop a roomful of sword-swinging knights dead in their tracks. But most important, she showed what is meant by the familiar phrase ”acting with the voice”: this was an Elisabeth who not only produced thrilling sounds but who made words tell in the manner of a great lieder singer. It helped, too, that her stage movements, economical and carefully controlled, were those of a sensitive, well-prepared actress.

Without Miss Norman as its centerpiece, this would have been one more long evening at the Metropolitan, kept alive not by what happened on the stage but in the pit, where James Levine’s astute pacing of the score and the orchestra’s splendid playing made the performance’s vocal deficiencies stand out all the more starkly. When all else failed, one could still savor the subtleties of the Schenk/ Schneider-Siemssen production, still the most successfully evocative Wagnerian staging this company has brought into being in this generation.

However, both before and after the high drama of that second act in the Hall of Song, this ”Tannhauser” tended to stumble along, dragged down by subgrade performances in several leading roles. Elisabeth’s Prayer and a gracefully sung ”Evening Star” by the evening’s Wolfram, Hakan Hagegard, provided islands of excellence in last act. The pilgrims intoned their famous choruses well, and the flutey singing of the Shepherd (Dawn Upshaw) in the first act’s pastoral second scene was a sweet interlude.

But ”Tannhauser” without a satisfactory Tannhauser or a suitably voracious Venus is hard to bear. This time the title part had to suffer with Richard Cassilly, the onetime City Opera tenor who has made a career singing Wagner in smaller European houses but who invariably seems under stress in this spacious one. In the early going, he sounded well rested and was able to keep his hard-edged voice under fair control, but by the time he arrived at Tannhauser’s long third-act monologue, he was barking and wobbling dismayingly. The unfortunate thing is that Mr. Cassilly is an intelligent artist whose grasp of the character is so much firmer than his voice at this late stage.

The evening’s Venus, the suitably alluring Eva Randova, fared much better, though only in the words of the libretto did she seem a serious rival to Miss Norman’s Elisabeth. Miss Randova’s mezzo-soprano could be lustrous at times, but under the pressure of passion atop the Venusburg it tended to lose color and expressive nuance. Other than Mr. Hagegard, whose bright-hued baritone lent an aptly innocent sound to the hapless Wolfram, the minstrels of the Wartburg were a forgettable lot. Jan-Hendrik Rootering, a German bass making his Metropolitan debut as the Landgrave, acted a bit timidly but looked the part and sang with fresh, solidly placed tones. THE CAST TANNHAUSER, opera in three acts by Richard Wagner; libretto by the composer; James Levine, conductor; production by Otto Schenk; sets designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen; costumes designed by Patricia Zipprodt; lighting designed by Gil Wechsler; choreography by Norbert Vesak. At the Metropolitan Opera.

By DONAL HENAHAN Published: January 16, 1987

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189 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 261 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Otto Schenk (1977)