Tannhäuser

Georg Solti
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Date/Location
17 December 1960
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
HermannJerome Hines
TannhäuserHans Hopf
Wolfram von EschenbachHermann Prey
Walther von der VogelweideRobert Nagy
BiterolfMarko Rothmüller
Heinrich der SchreiberPaul Franke
Reinmar von ZweterNorman Scott
ElisabethLeonie Rysanek
VenusIrene Dalis
Ein junger HirtMildred Allen
Gallery
Reviews
Musical America

How fortunate that this admirable revival of Tannhäuser was broadcast in its first performance, when the excitement of the occasion gave an added glow to everything! The sensitive, intelligent, ever-alert conductor, Georg Solti, was making his debut at the Metropolitan. And most of the artists were new to their roles there: Herman Prey (Wolfram), who was also making his debut with the company, Hans Hopf (Tannhäuser), Leonie Rysanek (Elisabeth), Irene Dalis (Venus), Robert Nagy (Walther), Marko Rothmuller (Biterolf), and Mildred Allen (Shepherd).

The extremely important choreography in Act I was new, also, the work of Antony Tudor, whose profound musical instincts, highly personal plastic invention and impeccable taste came to the fore. Tudor’s choreography for the Bacchanale does not have the volcanic power and voluptuous splendor of Wagner, but it is by far the best that the Metropolitan has had for it in our time.

Tannhäuser had not been heard at the Metropolitan since 1955, and then in the original Dresden version, which was revived in 1953. This present revival brings back the Paris version, in which the fantastic evolution of Wagner’s genius between 1845 and 1860 is fully revealed in the new Bacchanale, the rewriting of the role of Venus, and in many other places.

The Paris version is (from the point of view of stylistic consistency) a thing of shreds and patches-but what glorious shreds and what ravishing patches! Even in the original version, Tannhäuser never fails to grip audiences, for, with all its touches of clumsiness, old-fashioned tricks of the trade and banality, it is still overwhelming. No wonder that Eduard Hanslick (later to become one of Wagner’s bitterest enemies) exclaimed, on seeing it in Dresden in 1845, that Wagner was “the greatest living dramatic talent”!

In some ways, Tannhäuser is a severer challenge to the conductor than the Ring operas or Wagner’s other mature masterpieces, but Mr. Solti had solved every one of its ticklish problems of tempo, balance, phrasing and dramatic emphasis. Most notable were the fluidity of his tempos, the transparence of texture he achieved and the emotional vitality of his conception. True, the Bacchanale was pale and certain of the ensembles could have been weightier and more majestic. But this was a price willingly paid for the flow and clarity of Mr. Solti’s conception. He kept the audience absorbed every minute up to the last note and he richly deserved the prolonged ovations he received (in which the orchestra, be it noted, joined).

Mr. Prey proved himself an intelligent and sensitive artist. (I am told that he is an admirable Lieder singer, and I am not surprised.) His voice was light for the role, but so clear was his diction and so musically finished his delivery that one overlooked the small scale of his performance. He actually succeeded in removing every trace of cliche from O du, mein holder Abendstern!

But the overwhelming performance of the afternoon was that of Leonie Rysanek as Elisabeth, one of the most searching and beautiful interpretations of this role I have ever encountered. Flagstad and Traubel used to sing it superbly; Varnay acted it with her accustomed intelligence and sense of Wagnerian style; Lotte Lehmann brought to it a radiance and human comprehension that were unforgettable. But Rysanek combined all of these qualities, and she had had the advantage of actual youth and physical beauty. Yet she did not capitalize upon outward appearance or superficial appeal. She brought the surprising intensity and religious mysticism of Elisabeth’s nature home to us. Her “Heinrich! Heinrich! was tatet Ihr mir an?” was a cry of the heart; and in the last act she was like a pure wax taper, purged of all dross and ready to melt into death almost imperceptibly. How different was her singing of the Prayer from the usual self-conscious, concert delivery!

Mr. Hopf was, fame de mieux, a very welcome Tannhäuser. He was struggling with a cold at this performance, but he came through with flying colors and saved his strength for the Narrative, which he delivered with considerable dramatic and vocal power. He is not a very subtle actor and his voice is frequently too nasal in quality for comfort (especially until he warms up), but he deals with this fearsomely difficult role with the confidence of a veteran. One thing I should like to plead about. Will he please stop dropping final consonants in words like “Göttin” and “Königin”, just for the sake of ease in vocal production? It is very disturbing to a listener who is actually following the text with absorption.

Another memorable performance was that of Irene Dalis as Venus. She had the passion, the power and the voice for the role, and she reveled in the ravishing passages which Wagner added for the Paris production, on March 13, 1861, which proved so disastrous. Unless the Venus is a highly intelligent and skilled actress, as well as singer, much of the marvelous First Act is robbed of its magic. But Miss Dalis gave us both the goddess and the woman. The eloquent dancing of Mr. Tudor’s Three Graces. Pina Bausch, Audrey Keene, and Carole Kroon, and the performance of the corps de ballet, notably in the dramatic, characteristically Tudor lifts, also helped to create illusion.

Miss Allen sang the tricky unaccompanied Shepherd’s song charmingly. It was amusing to hear Robert Nagy letting out his voluminous voice in the ensembles. He has roof-shattering tones and he certainly does not intend to hide them. But I must admit it was a pleasure to hear them, most of the time, and he was discreet in his use of them. Mr. Rothmuller (an admirable artist whose Wozzeck with the New York City Opera some years ago gave the full measure of his abilities) made the most of the minor role of Biterolf.

The rest of the cast was familiar from previous productions. Mr. Hines’s glorious voice took full advantage of his role, though he might sing it with a bit more weight and darker coloring. And the others were all in good form.

This revival enjoyed a triumphant success with the audience and reminded us that Tannhäuser, like Rigoletto and Carmen, is one of the indestructibles of opera.

Robert Sabin

Rating
(6/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
SRO, Walhall Eternity, Line, Fiori, OOA, TOL, PO
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Technical Specifications
632 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 851 MByte (flac)
Remarks
Matinee broadcast
A production by Herbert Graf (1953)
Solti’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera New York