Colin Davis
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
7-10 July 1978
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannHans Sotin
TannhäuserSpas Wenkoff
Wolfram von EschenbachBernd Weikl
Walther von der VogelweideRobert Schunk
BiterolfFranz Mazura
Heinrich der SchreiberJohn Pickering
Reinmar von ZweterHeinz Feldhoff
ElisabethGwyneth Jones
VenusGwyneth Jones
Ein junger HirtKlaus Brettschneider
Stage directorGötz Friedrich
Set designerJürgen Rose
TV directorThomas Oloffson

One of the greatest Wagner productions of modern times arrives for the first time on DVD with crystal clear surround sound, and it could not be more welcome. Let me nail my colours to the mast at the outset, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating the case here: this is the greatest Wagner experience that DVD has to offer.

This production of 1972 (filmed here in its 1978 revival) came at a turning point in the history of the Bayreuth Festival and did much to set the tone for the decades that followed. Wieland Wagner had been dead for six years and his productions, lacking the hand of their creator, were beginning to seem tired. His successor, Wolfgang, always an able administrator, was nowhere near as talented a director/producer as his brother. New blood was needed, so Wolfgang turned to guest directors to produce some of the festival’s repertoire. He offered Tannhäuser to Götz Friedrich, disciple of Felsenstein at the East Berlin Komische Oper. Friedrich’s style of working stripped the work bare of all preconceptions and sought for meaning in the circumstances of the work’s composition as well as in the text itself. He produced a masterpiece, filmed here with great assurance by Brian Large and sung by one of the best Bayreuth casts of the 1970s.

Friedrich presented Tannhäuser as an outsider in a grim world, who can find belonging in neither the Venusberg nor in the Wartburg. During the prelude, which defies Bayreuth convention by being staged, Tannhäuser appears alone in a barren landscape with only his harp, which he looks through as if it were the bars of a prison cell. The Venusberg looks like a spider’s web in which Tannhäuser is trapped. The opening Bacchanal is indeed an orgy: young, attractive dancers, wearing next to nothing, writhe and twist around one another, representing sexual attraction at its most raw. Yet the titillation which this produces is countered by some scenes of disturbing violence as other members of the party take sexual gratification to a violent and disturbing climax. Significantly, we see some of these “satyrs and bacchantes” wearing Death’s Head masks. Erotic yet repugnant, this Venusberg objectifies its inhabitants; its only natural conclusion is enslavement, and this is the state in which we find Tannhäuser, sitting indolently at Venus’ feet.

Friedrich’s masterstroke was to show Venus and Elisabeth not as antitheses but as two sides of the same coin, neither of which producing the fulfilment or freedom that Tannhäuser desires. Both roles are sung by Gwyneth Jones (a remarkable achievement) who acts her roles magnificently as well as singing them brilliantly. When we first see her she too wears an anonymous mask, and it seems that she herself has become enslaved by her passion for Tannhäuser. Once the Venusberg disappears Tannhäuser is plunged into a bare landscape with nothing save the young shepherd to relieve the gloom: this return to the “real” world brings no comfort.

The Wartburg of Act 2 is a closed club; a faceless, unforgiving environment. Hermann’s retinue all dress in identical uniforms, black with a suspiciously familiar medal hanging round their necks. They even have identical hairstyles, though it is a testament to Friedrich’s attention to detail that the women and lower orders in the Hall of Song wear full medieval costume: a reference to authoritarianism in his own country? The banners that are raised at the entrance of the guests: medieval standards or another Nuremburg Rally? This restricted, authoritarian society can brook no individuality, and this is one of the reasons why they turn on Tannhäuser with such alarming force. When he sings his hymn to Venus he is cast out with disturbing violence, the whole company rounding on him with their swords, and almost cutting down Elizabeth in the process.

Friedrich’s often shocking direction of the actors reaches its climax at the start of Act Three where we see Elisabeth, emaciated and starving, driven to what genuinely seems the point of death by her intercessions for Tannhäuser. Jones’ acting is superlative here, vehemently rejecting Wolfram’s offers of help lest they diminish the value of her penance. Her disappointment when she realises that Tannhäuser is not among the returning pilgrims is gutting for us too. She literally crawls off-stage to her death, inspiring Wolfram to cast away his harp during the Abendstern solo: in the face of what he has seen, its usefulness, together with all it symbolised, is over for ever.

When Tannhäuser reappears he has failed to find fulfilment in either the Venusberg or the Christian world, so he embraces the Venusberg as the lesser of the two horrors. This time when she appears, however, Venus herself is masked behind a Death’s Head: all illusion about her world is gone and Tannhäuser loses all hope of finding satisfaction. Even when he receives the news that Heaven is open to him he dies despairing and alone among a sea of anonymous clones who show him no compassion whatever.

Friedrich’s vision of the work is undoubtedly a grim one, but it fits the work surprisingly well. It is one of those all too rare productions that made me see new things in a work that I thought I knew well. It is a testament to the success of the production that it is quite feasible, if you so choose, to take it as a purely literal interpretation of Wagner’s directions. Peel back they layers, though, and you find layers of richness which enhance your understanding of the work rather than get in the way. Brian Large’s direction, always dependable, here is superlative. When necessary he zooms in on faces and he monitors every reaction, so essential to a production like this one. The Bacchanal is filmed sensitively but he does not shy away from lewd close-ups when they achieve a certain effect. It seems, in fact, as if the sequence was filmed in a special studio then edited in later, though there is nothing to that effect in the booklet notes. Unusually for a Bayreuth film, an audience is present in the theatre during the filming, though you would never guess from the things the camera manages to achieve, and there is barely a sound from them throughout. The picture quality is also notably superior to other contemporary Bayreuth films, such as the Chéreau Ring.

To match such inspired direction we have remarkable singing and, as important here, acting. Spas Wenkoff is a marvellously assured Tannhäuser. His baritonal voice gives his character authority, but he tempers it well to accommodate his anguish and uncertainty too. In particular his telling of the Pope’s judgement in Act 3 is suitably dark. Gwyneth Jones gives a truly remarkable performance, equally convincing as the erotic siren in Act 1 and the holy innocent of Acts 2 and 3. Furthermore she tempers her voice astoundingly so as to provide entirely different colours for the two characters. Sotin is a dark and sinister Hermann who looks as grim as he sounds. His authoritative projection in Act 2 is marvellous. Perhaps the most purely beautiful singing of the set, however, comes from an incredible Bernd Weikl. His Wolfram is a stoical victim who surrenders to his circumstances selflessly. His voice, never sounding better, captures the characters extremes of goodness and sorrow. The Abendstern solo alone is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

In the pit Colin Davis, not a name one naturally associates with Wagner, keeps things ticking along nicely. His Entrance of the Guests has great momentum and he keeps his foot on the pedal excitingly during the Bacchanal. He is not afraid to be expansive during the big moments like the Pilgrim’s Chorus, however, and he judges the long arc of the final act particularly well.

I repeat, then: this set offers what, for my money, is the best Wagner experience that DVD has to offer. A production with incredible attention to detail, coupled with impeccable singing, an orchestra on the top of its form, with top notch picture and sound quality. This is essential not just for Wagnerians but for anyone interested in the power of the theatre. Get it now.

Simon Thompson

Mostly Opera

This 1972 Tannhäuser was the production initiating a new era, both in Bayreuth and elsewhere, where it was overdue finding an alternative to the New Bayreuth stagings of Wieland Wagner, which 4 years after his death now seemed to have stagnated.

When Götz Friedrichs Tannhäuser opened in 1972 it created the biggest scandal in 16 years (since Wieland Wagner dared to dispense with a naturalistic Nürnberg for this 1956 Meistersinger) at the Bayreuth Festival, including the conductor Erich Leinsdorf walking out in the middle of the run.
Why? one may ask after having seen it, as it is indeed rather tame judged by todays standards. One reason was Götz Friedrichs intensive personenregie, where characters actually roll on the floor and interact with one-another, apart from being half-naked. However, the major controversy surrounded the on-stage appearance of the chorus in the final scene in reddish costumes, which were perceived as representing the communism of Götz Friedrichs native East Germany. In fact, this part of the staging was a last-minute alteration as Friedrich originally had planned only Wolfram and Tannhäuser to be present on the stage during the final, and was not intended to symbolize communism in any way. Furthermore, some of the flags on display during the entrance to the Singers Hall was not un-similar to Nazi-symbols. And that, apparently was too much for Erich Leinsdorf and many critics and audiences.

However, in 1978 the production was hailed as a masterpiece and recorded as the first complete opera from the Bayreuth Festival.

Götz Friedrichs Personenregie is still alive, the sets and rest of production unfortunately have succumbed to the passing of 30 years, in contrast to the contemporary Chéreau Ring.

Seemingly set around Wagners time, the production is minimalistic and semi-abstract.
Götz Friedrich clearly wishes to emphasize Tannhäuser’s role as the artist-outsider in a militaristic and hostile society. Thus, the opera begins with him looking through the strings of his harp as were they jail bars. An he seems almost caught in an odd Web spanning the width of the otherwise naked stage in the Venusberg scene of the complete Paris version, where naked nymphs in webs dance to John Neumeiers choreography.

To say that Gwyneth Jones looks good as Venus would be an understatement in a production, which basically has her wearing an upper body fishing net. Exciting as ever on stage, and recorded before her wobble became too pronounced, she is still more of a Brünnhilde than Venus/Elisabeth. But I cannot imagine anyone else around that time, who would look equally good in that fishing net. Where she really shines is in Elisabeth’s final prayer “Allmächtge Jungfrau”, acted with tears rolling down her chin in a very committed and moving performance.

Spas Wenkoff is a great Tannhäuser, perhaps not an overly committed actor, however that is rather picky comment considering he immense vocal challenges of the part, which he navigates seemingly without effort. The young Hans Sotin is a noble Landgraf and Bernd Weikl is a superb Wolfram, a portrait which I cannot imagine being done better.

Accompanied by a fresh and engaged reading from Sir Colin Davis.
Curiously, much has been done to make this look like a live Bayreuth Festival performance: Applause after each act and even curtain calls. Though it is done rather amateurish with the applause not really being coordinated with the appearance of the singers.
I would categorize this sort of thing as misleading the DVD-viewing public. For recorded in the beginning of July 1978, approximately 3 weeks before the Festival opened it clearly is not an official Bayreuth performance. And I doubt, based on the appalling applause coordination, that an audience was present in the auditorium at all. A good thing they didn´t repeat this in future Bayreuth DVDs.


At last on DVD, a legendary staging which really did revitalise its subject. In this 1972 Bayreuth production, filmed in 1978, the late Götz Friedrich’s concept is striking, but rooted in Wagner’s original concept rather than arrogantly imposed. He reveals the somewhat fustian plot as sharply relevant, yet without distorting or relocating it in ways Wagner wouldn’t have recognised. Friedrich’s Tannhäuser is the universal artist, torn between idealism and raw desires. In John Neumeier’s genuinely erotic choreography, the ballet becomes images of love from the innocent to the destructive. The medieval totalitarianism of the knights is no less sinister and the quest of the pilgrims a gruelling, earthbound redemption. Tellingly, both aspects of Tannhäuser’s desire, the alluring but morbid Venus and the innocent Elizabeth, are embodied by Gwyneth Jones. The staging’s intensity, on a single stark rostrum, is supercharged by the committed, first-rate ensemble 1970s Bayreuth could still produce. Colin Davis conducts the usual hybrid Paris-Dresden edition with theatrical drive. The chorus is simply stunning. Spas Wenkoff surpasses himself as a credible hero, sung with ardour and beauty. Jones is also in fine shape, singing with tragic fervour and little unsteadiness. Bernd Weikl’s Wolfram is strong, and Hans Sotin’s Landgraf resonantly powerful. This isn’t a beautiful staging like the Met’s, but musically superior and more dramatic.

Michael Scott Rohan

Michael Richter


Solid, modern performance filmed live from the Festspielhaus. Sets are highly symbolic but sufficient to set a clear stage for the action and to differentiate the situations. Period costumes in somewhat stylized form predominate, though the noblemen are suspiciouly late in style for medieval; Venus and her coterie are more grotesque than seductive. Action is conventional and static, with Jones’ somewhat overdrawn passion a notable exception. Surprisingly for Bayreuth, this is a collection of performances rather than an embodiment of an overall concept.


Davis manages the forces well but provides neither a dynamic nor a lyrical reading. The orchestra and chorus are impeccable and balance the singers well. Wenkoff is acceptable for the most part, though disjoint and approximate high notes provide a petulant sound to match his limited interpretation. Jones is excellent as Elisabeth, with passion and sumptuous tone that remind the listener of Lemnitz; her Venus is less satisfactory, lying low for her instrument and calling for dramatic traits she dons uncomfortably. Weikl lacks the grace in tone and style that would contrast him well with Wenkoff. Sotin looks right but needs more authoritative tone and more accurate pitch. None of the supporting characters stands out for good or ill.


Video is not sharp, but focus is well maintained. Lighting is low so that spotlighted figures stand in relief against near blackness. Sound is fine for the era, though highs are minimized. Camera work is remarkably good for so early a live recording, exploiting closeups that would work better if lighting were sufficient. Overall video direction is good, although focus does not always remain near the center of musical action. This is Jones’ show, and she makes it well worth while. Unfortunately, she cannot make it Wagner’s show without support from the pit and the other soloists.


Légendaire, cette production de Tannhäuser l’est à plus d’un titre, d’abord parce qu’il s’agit du premier opéra intégral filmé à Bayreuth, deux ans avant le Ring de Chéreau, ensuite parce que lors de sa création, six ans plus tôt, elle avait connu un succès retentissant au parfum de scandale, non seulement à cause de sa modernité mais aussi parce qu’une partie du public avait cru déceler quelques allusions politiques dans le travail de Götz Friedrich metteur en scène est-allemand, qui venait de passer à l’ouest. Légendaire enfin, la distribution qui réunit quelques unes des plus grandes voix wagnériennes des années soixante-dix, à leur sommet.

Si l’aspect novateur de cette production n’est plus perceptible par le spectateur d’aujourd’hui qui en a vu d’autres, sa force dramatique est demeurée intacte et la vision de Friedrich n’a pas pris une ride. L’action est située dans un moyen-âge imaginaire, tel que le concevait le dix-neuvième siècle. Les décors sont d’une grande sobriété : au sol, des planchers rectangulaires qui s’entrecroisent et sur scène quelques accessoires utiles à l’action, des bancs, un prie-Dieu, une statue de la Vierge, le tout dans des coloris plutôt sombres qui tranchent avec la scène du concours de chant au deuxième acte, richement colorée.

Durant l’ouverture à rideau ouvert, Tannhäuser entre sur le plateau en courant comme un fuyard, tenant devant son visage une harpe dont les cordes évoquent les barreaux d’une prison. Tandis qu’il jette au loin son instrument et se débarrasse de sa cape, surgissent des jeunes gens à demi-nus qui entament une danse lascive. Ainsi le Venusberg est présenté comme un songe érotique sorti tout droit de l’imagination de Tannhäuser dans lequel le jeune homme se réfugie pour échapper à l’austérité d’une société puritaine et castratrice, un songe où il n’y a plus d’interdits et où la femme aimée n’est pas une vierge intouchable mais la matérialisation d’un fantasme sexuel. C’est pourquoi Vénus a les traits d’Elisabeth, une Elisabeth voluptueuse et sensuelle aux charmes presque entièrement dévoilés.

Au dernier acte elle apparaîtra (dé)vêtue de noir, une cape rouge sur les épaules et un masque mortuaire sur le visage. Eros et Thanatos. La distribution est dominée par Gwyneth Jones qui réalise l’exploit d’incarner les deux rôles féminins(1). Théâtralement, la réussite est totale tant l’actrice parvient à différencier avec brio ces deux personnages opposés. Vocalement, la performance force l’admiration même si la cantatrice ne possède pas tout à fait les couleurs voluptueuses dans le grave que l’on attend dans le rôle de Vénus. Son Elisabeth en revanche n’appelle aucune réserve, le timbre est lumineux, la voix saine n’est pas encore affectée par ce vibrato envahissant qui entachera certaines de ses prestations ultérieures et l’aigu est triomphant. Radieuse dans son air d’entrée, volontaire dans le final du deux et poignante dans sa prière au trois, la cantatrice galloise obtient un triomphe mérité au rideau final. Chapeau ! A ses côtés Spas Wenkoff est un Tannhäuser de grande classe. Très crédible scéniquement, le ténor bulgare est capté ici à l’apogée de sa courte carrière, son timbre clair et juvénile ne manque pas de séduction et sa voix solide ne trahit aucune fatigue jusque dans le monologue final, particulièrement halluciné. Sans aucun doute l’un des meilleurs Tannhäuser de la vidéographie.

Bernd Weikl impressionne par l’insolence de ses moyens et son timbre aux couleurs somptueuses n’est pas dépourvu de charme. Pourtant, ce Wolfram apparaît un peu brut de décoffrage et l’on a entendu des « Romances à l’étoile » plus subtilement nuancées ailleurs, mais quelle belle voix ! Hans Sotin est un Landgrave de luxe, Robert Schunk et Franz Mazura sont parfaits en Walter et Biterolf. Les autres rôles sont tous bien tenus, en particulier celui du pâtre, chanté avec justesse par le jeune Klaus Brettschneider.

Sir Colin Davis, surtout connu pour ses interprétations mozartiennes et berlioziennes, livre ici une direction extrêmement précise et équilibrée dépourvue de toute emphase. Les tempi sont vifs dès l’ouverture et la Bacchanale particulièrement réussie (il s’agit ici de la version dite « de Paris »). L’entrée des invités au deux est plus brillante que solennelle et le drame est constamment sous-jacent durant tout le dernier acte. Cette conception tout à fait cohérente n’avait pas fait en son temps l’unanimité.

Enfin, la bande, correctement restaurée, ne trahit pas son âge. Certes, ce n’est pas du numérique, mais l’image est nette et le son est comparable à celui des enregistrements en studio des années soixante-dix. Seuls certains ensembles paraissent un rien confus.

Une version qui rejoint sans peine le peloton de tête de la vidéographie de l’œuvre.

Christian Peter

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