Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
9 February 2015
Chicago Lyric Opera
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannJohn Relyea
TannhäuserJohan Botha
Wolfram von EschenbachGerald Finley
Walther von der VogelweideJesse Donner
BiterolfDaniel Sutil
Heinrich der SchreiberCorey Bix
Reinmar von ZweterRichard Wiegold
ElisabethAmber Wagner
VenusMichaela Schuster
Ein junger HirtAngela Mannino

Johan Botha Leads an Impeccably Sung Tannhäuser

Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Dresden, 1845; revised for Paris, 1861) is a stunning part of the current Chicago Lyric Opera season. The singing throughout is impeccable, led by the rich voice of Johan Botha in the title role, which he delivered with ease and aplomb. In the first act he gave a flawless reading of “Dir, töne Lob,” and later, his parlando delivery was seamless. The ardor he exhibited in the first act returned in the second as Tannhäuser responds to the contest’s challenge to explain the true nature of love, and the reprise of the first-act aria was even more intense. Botha’s interpretation had the polish of a studio recording, while retaining the excitement of a festival performance.

Amber Wagner was similarly impressive as Elisabeth, a role that suits her voice. In the familiar aria that opens the second act, “Dich, teure Halle,” she brought out the opening exuberance, while never missing the subtleties of the more retrospective passages that recall happier times.These nuances were not lost on the audience, which responded warmly. Wagner’s impassioned scena at the beginning of the final act had the appropriate pathos.

As Wolfram, Gerald Finley gave a stellar performance, with exceptional diction, phrasing, and dynamic control; his assurance balanced Botha’s tragic dejection. Finley’s delivery was vivid, impassioned, and heartfelt, with the famous “Song to the Evening Star” (“O du, mein holder Abendstern”) exquisitely blended into the scene. John Relyea offered a sonorous Landgraf, with fine diction and enunciation. Jesse Donner gave a distinctive reading of Walther, with his full tenor showing promise for other Wagner roles. Michaela Schuster was also impressive as Venus, and while the house announced that she had a cold, the performance was not lacking in physical seduction. As the shepherd, Angela Mannino was strong, especially in the passages where the accompaniment thins out, creating a texture unique in the score. In fact, Sir Andrew Davis was laudable for shaping the orchestra, and bringing out details and colors that sometimes blur in recordings. In addition to the strings, the woodwinds were particularly clear, and the brass suitably burnished. It was a pleasure to see the audience sit up to take notice of the well-rehearsed offstage brass for the entrance of the guests in the second act. Michael Black’s chorus was also notable, and while the text was sometimes indistinct, the well-blended and carefully voiced textures enhanced the entire evening. For this season’s performances, Lyric used Covent Garden’s recent production, a staging that suits the Civic Opera House, though the modernist perspective is somewhat stark, and as a result the audience must use its imagination to fill in the settings described in Wagner’s text. Also, the costumes were somewhat disturbing: modern U.S. military fatigues for the knights and ladies. Granted the full title Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg makes use of the word “Krieg” (“war”), but the meaning focuses on the pivotal singers’ contest or competition. This production emphasizes military details, with automatic weapons and bandoleers sometimes competing for attention, especially in the second act. Also the depiction of Wartburg through wreckage and debris seems inconsistent with the fully functional modern dance-club style Venusberg and its proscenium arch. The choreography was more athletic than sensual, alternating between body rolls on the table or dancers running around the stage in a circle. The bacchanale could have been alluring if it were infused with more spontaneity.

But these quibbles are minor overall. The focus is the music, which is extraordinary in execution, especially with the soloists, chorus, and orchestra here. In short: an outstanding Tannhäuser, and Lyric deserves credit for bringing it to Chicago.

James L. Zychowicz | Civic Opera House, Chicago. 14.2.2015


As light falls, Tannhäuser finds its tone in Chicago

Glitzy showbiz collides with modernist realism in the Lyric Opera’s new production of Tannhäuser. Collides, literally, as when the golden proscenium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – decked out in red velvet – gets dropped squarely into the middle of Michael Levine’s beautifully desolate set, and carnival lights sweep suddenly away the darkness that pervades most of this production’s four-hour-plus running time. But, of course, the light isn’t holy, and in director Tim Albery’s hands Tannhäuser’s closing trade of spiritual absolution at the expense of female life (this is, as Catherine Clément reminds us, the economics of opera) has never felt less cathartic.

The Lyric’s recent production of Parsifal made excellent use of vertical space; here, it is the diagonal that takes center stage, beginning with a long formal dinner table that is canted up on one end to serve as a Slip ‘n’ Slide for Venus’ sexy subjects. I admired, during Wagner’s expansive and roiling overture, in which string motifs act like thermals that buffet soaring horn lines, the visual dizziness of the table being spun round and round. Otherwise, the opening orgy, in which men and women make a transition from formal- to underwear, is pretty vanilla. Wouldn’t it have been nice, at this moment of historic shift in U.S. civil rights, to see a little gay action in erotophilic Venusberg? The glossy, brightly lit bodies from the overture give way to a bombed-out landscape; in striking contrast, everyone is now swaddled in too-big mercenaries’ uniforms. Even the supplicants returning from Rome in the third Act hardly look transformed as they shuffle onstage in heavy rags. But Albery and Levine offset the coarse detail of the set with a clean, box-like approach to the horizon, which works remarkably well in its suggestion of the infinite.

The German mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster plays Venus as a svelte presence who nicely contrasts Amber Wagner’s doe eyes as Elisabeth. Perhaps taking a cue from Johan Botha’s utterly relaxed Tannhäuser, Schuster starts the first act a little sleepily. The character only starts to kick into place when she gets campy, a mode perfectly suited to the garishness and commercialism of her Venusberg. Flinging bedspreads dramatically across the stage, Schuster pairs her histrionic deity with a rich, pleasantly warbled voice that occasionally slides around the tone she wants.

Botha, meanwhile, shows up only vocally in Act I, singing with a stunning tenor richness that seems to spill out of his throat like a swarm of gold flashes. I have to speculate that our admiration of his sound is meant to compensate for a total lack of dramatic intensity in the role and even the voice; rhythmically, Botha was somewhat lazy, rarely hitting any of his dotted rhythms with precision. And that beautiful sound isn’t neutral dramatically: it conveys a sense of ease, complacency, and general contentment that severs the sound of the opera from what’s happening scenically. Who would guess that being the recipient of a goddess’ rage would feel so pleasant?

As if to prove that one can have sound and dramatic intent, Amber Wagner sings Elisabeth with a gorgeous, pearly-yet-warm sound that alternately conveys worry, pride and even faintness of spirit. These states are part of the sound, mind you: when Elisabeth is anxious, for example, Wagner’s voice pairs a quick vibrato with an attack that is never late, capturing a mind that’s spinning faster than her words. And while Botha livens up a little in the later acts, finding moments of urgency, it is Wagner who really shines as this opera progresses. In the third act, her already exemplary voice seems to enter a new zone of relaxation and openness. She sings with a deepened command and an access to a horizon of sound that make it seem as though her throat had found six more inches of release. It’s a phenomenal performance.

Andrew Davis and the Lyric’s orchestra were remarkable this night, conveying fullness while never swallowing the singers. Listen to the way Davis composes the orchestra’s sound in the ardent passages that underscore Venus’s opening supplications: the sound is tight and focused, with a searing solo violin.

Admiration, too, must be expressed for the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who captures Wolfram’s charming innocence and nervousness during the Act II song contest but comes back on stage in the third act to deliver “Lied an den Abendstern”, the opera’s show-stopper and one of Wagner’s most indelible arias. Although not everything in this production works (the second act set, featuring the proscenium from the opening in shattered form across a rubbled stage, yields a one-second moment of recognition that fails to sustain or generate interest for the rest of the hour), the subtlety and utter simplicity of the way the light falls across an empty stage over the course of Wolfram’s five-minute ode to the coming of death shows that the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s grand conception of all the senses working toward a unified dramatic goal, doesn’t need to be showy. Directors who stroke their own egos with pyrotechnics and shabby ideology should feel chastened by what felt, dare I say it, like a true moment of Wagner – Tannhäuser quietly watching Wolfram address the audience as we all fell into night. This was twilight not for the gods but for those parts of ourselves that returned from Rome, untransformed and unrepentant.

Dan Wang | 13 Februar 2015

Chicago Classical Review

Magnificent singing triumphs over drab, postmodern staging in Lyric’s “Tannhäuser”

Coming between The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin, Tannhäuser stands as a sort of way-station for the themes and elements that Wagner would develop in the years and operas to come: the plight of the solitary outcast, the conflict between sacred and profane love, a quest for spiritual redemption, and even a pre-Meistersinger sing-off between knights. The opera also contains some of Wagner’s most indelible inspiration from the stirring overture to Elisabeth’s arias and Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star.”

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its first production of Tannhäuser in 26 years Monday night at the Civic Opera House. While the opportunity to create an unforgettable Tannhäuser was squandered by an unremittingly ugly, postmodern production, the singing was magnificent from top to bottom, and managed to carry the day. But so low were the low moments it was often a tossup as to which would prevail.

The evening began on a surreal note with an intrusive Terpsichorean pantomime during the overture depicting the sensual charms of the Venusberg. Instead of amorous nymphs and shepherds we have male dancers in formalwear getting lap dances from women in evening gowns. Clothes are shed and they cavort about in twisting, undulating moves evoking memories of the Solid Gold dancers, the shirtless chorus boys jumping and tumbling over a large banquet table. If I wanted to see The Boys From Syracuse, I would have bought a ticket.

Mercifully, that was the appalling low point but the dark, post-apocalyptic Royal Opera House staging by Tim Albery and Michael Levine makes Lyric’s concurrent bleak Tosca seem like Annie. Far from being edgy or original, the staging catalogs virtually every trendy revisionist opera cliche of the past two decades.

In the postmodern style, Levine’s empty scenic design is perversely apposite Wagner’s detailed instructions. The Venusberg is a stage within a stage with a golden proscenium arch, Venus enticing Tannhäuser on the same raked banquet table. The gleaming Wartburg hall is an empty barren landscape of bombed-out rubble and overturned chairs on which the principals sit for extended periods. (Did some of the heavyset singers need to take a load off?)

The Christian knight-singers are dressed as gun-toting mercenaries who (apparently) shoot the Shepherd boy for no good reason. Jon Morrell’s drab, gray-green costumes are the opposite of visual resplendence—the guests look like scruffy refugees, while the knights wear ill-fitting tuxedos for the song contest. (If you plan to go, buy a cheap seat, since David Finn’s inexplicable lighting is so dark you can barely see past the 15th row.)

And, of course, as in last season’s Parsifal, the Christian iconography that is such a central part of the opera is entirely absent. One would have no idea that spirituality had anything to do with the scenario were it not for the supertitles, which were about the only thing in this hapless production that respected Wagner’s intentions.

What a wasted opportunity. The one thing that could save this misconceived production is some world-class Wagner singing and, fortunately, that’s exactly what this stellar cast served up in spades.

In the title role of the conflicted knight minstrel torn between the sensual pleasures of Venus and the pure religious love of Elisabeth, Johan Botha offered his finest Lyric performance to date. Botha was in supreme voice opening night, singing easily with his big, gleaming tenor secure, powerful and evenly produced ringing out with impressive impact. He delivered an impassioned rendering of Tannhäuser’s ode to Venus and, at the end of the long evening, had ample stamina in reserve for the extended pilgrimage narration of the final act, with only a hint of fatigue palpable. Botha has been justly criticized for his stolid stage presence in the past, but his Tannhäuser was a much more energized and dramatically engaged figure, as much as the staging allowed.

With her impressive performance as Elisabeth, Amber Wagner showed that she is coming into her own as a complete, major artist. She sang with creamy, resplendent tone throughout, with an imposing “Dich teure Halle,” and plumbing a striking emotional depth in Elisabeth’s prayer. Most importantly, she brought a credible dramatic urgency to a character that can easily become a saintly cardboard archetype.

There appeared to be some sort of staging glitch opening night at Venus’s return in Act 3, which was handled smoothly by Michaela Schuster. The German mezzo-soprano made a worthy temptress, singing with ample fruity tone, an intermittent wobble apart.

The nearly pitch-black stage and lack of visual clarity virtually defied anyone to create a convincing characterization. But Gerald Finley succeeded more than anyone in creating a fully rounded character, and his Wolfram was a masterful work of dramatic singing. The Canadian bass-baritone brought a human quality to Tannhäuser’s rival for Elisabeth’s hand—endearingly shy and self-conscious in the song contest yet strong in his denunciation of Tannhäuser in Act 3. Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star” was a highlight—poised and limpid, sung by Finley with beautiful burnished tone and the expressive detailing of a great lieder singer (which Finley is, as well).

Even though his goofy hunter getup afforded little dignity as the Landgraf, John Relyea anchored the ensemble at the low end with his sonorous bass. Of his ragtag band, Jesse Donner was a vibrant Walther and Daniel Sutin a light-voiced Biterolf with capable turns by Corey Bix as Heinrich and Richard Wiegold as Reinmar. Angela Mannino had the right boylike timbre for the Shepherd.

There were some brass lapses early in the evening and the climax of Act 1 felt strangely underplayed by Davis. After that both conductor and orchestra were in the Wagner zone, with gorgeous playing, big ensembles well-balanced and thrilling, and the woodwinds bringing great refinement and tonal beauty to the interior moments. Special kudos to harpist Marguerite Lynn Williams, whose prominent playing was stellar throughout the long evening.

Michael Black’s chorus delivered on the same superior level as the principals. It’s too bad all of these fine artists weren’t provided with a production worthy of their talent.

Lawrence A. Johnson | Wed Feb 11, 2015

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, PO
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 363 MByte (MP3)
A production by Tim Albery
Possible dates: 9 Februar – 6 March 2015