Tannhäuser

Giuseppe Sinopoli
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
Date/Location
23-28 June 1988
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
HermannHans Sotin
TannhäuserRichard Versalle
Wolfram von EschenbachWolfgang Brendel
Walther von der VogelweideWilliam Pell
BiterolfSiegfried Vogel
Heinrich der SchreiberClemens Bieber
Reinmar von ZweterSandor Solyom-Nagy
ElisabethCheryl Studer
VenusRuthild Engert-Ely
Ein junger HirtRoy Robinson
Stage directorWolfgang Wagner
Set designerWolfgang Wagner
TV directorBrian Large
Gallery
Reviews
MusicWeb-International.com

This recording adds substance to the idea that running Bayreuth as a family business does Richard Wagner no favours. Yes, this is created by Wolfgang, the composer’s grandson, but the genius doesn’t lie in genes. Wieland Wagner had the same visionary courage as the composer, and to build on the artistic inheritance, but Wolfgang is no Wieland. Bayreuth will always be the Holy Grail, but it’s waiting for Parsifal.

The Ring is so powerful that it can withstand all manner of interpretation, but Tannhäuser is, literally, a different story. Wagner is still grappling with ideas from Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin: in some ways Tannhäuser is a kind of prototype for Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. All the more reason then, that a production of this opera needs to meaningfully enhance it. There are lots of ways of thinking it through, but this isn’t one of the more inspired. The sets are nice and clear, a simple circular, rotating disc with details created by coloured light. By commissioning Chéreau, Wieland cleared away the debris of Cosima orthodoxy, refocusing on the spirit of Wagner’s music, rather than the outward form. That’s critical. It isn’t the set that makes an opera, but what the set contributes to extending its essential meaning. It’s irrelevant whether the staging is modern or not, as long as it’s intelligent.

Thus, when Wolfgang’s Venusberg is a halo of sexless ballet dancers waving their arms. Is this what Tannhäuser gave up Wartburg for? And why is he so driven to leave it? In the beginning of the third act, there’s nothing on stage at all, but the wooden icon of the Virgin Mary, which we’ve been shown at length in the first Act. For ten whole minutes, the audience might just as well be listening at home, in greater comfort than the stifling heat and hard seats of Bayreuth. Of course, people don’t necessarily go to Bayreuth for artistic enlightenment, but they do deserve something that enhances the opera as opera. Five years later, Brian Large, who directed the filming of this version, was to make another version in Munich, conducted by Mehta and staged by David Alden. It was horrifying at the time, because Venusberg was depicted as a place full of excessive lust, shading off into the bestial and sinister. Unfortunately, many people didn’t see past the nudity, and appreciate that its point was to show the fundamental depravity of Venusberg. How ironic it was that the “degenerate” staging was actually reaffirming the purity and spirituality Elisabeth represents. The Landgrave and Wartburgers don’t have much to worry about in this Bayreuth Venusberg, so its essential horror is dissolved. Similarly, although there is connection between Elisabeth and the Virgin Mary, here the costuming makes the point with too heavy a hand. Elisabeth is human, not a wooden icon come alive.

Were this production musically stimulating, it might still work. After all, this is Wagner. Sadly the uninspired approach affected the conducting and orchestra too. Much of Sinopoli’s reputation rests on his work in opera. Tannhäuser was his debut at Bayreuth, but this DVD was made after he’d conducted it for several years. Unfortunately, the frequent and long drawn-out episodes when nothing happens on stage only serve to highlight the fairly lacklustre playing. The slow pace is particularly grating in the long dialogues in the hall of Song. Wagner may have written longueurs into the score, but dragging them out militates against the drama at the heart of opera.

Fortunately, the third act is transformational in many ways. It’s the critical turning point of the opera, where suddenly, so much happens – Tannhäuser returns from Rome, cursed, ready to return to Venusberg. Fortunately, the tension in the power struggle sparks much more animated playing. This is tighter ensemble writing than has gone before, for in this smaller, more intense grouping, Wagner can focus on the claustrophobic tensions. The singers rise to the challenge. Richard Versalle’s Tannhäuser may have started a little unsteadily, but grows more interestingly as the opera proceeds, rather like the character he’s playing. His portrayal of Tannhäuser now has quite well defined hysteria – after all, he’s decided to return to hell. This role was close to Versalle’s heart, for it gave him his big break, when René Kollo pulled out just forty-five minutes before the curtain went up in an earlier production. Versalle may not have the depth of Kollo, but he compensates with thoughtful interpretation. Alas, during a 1996 production at the Met, he was to fall and die on stage in a freak accident.

Elisabeth was also Cheryl Studer’s big international breakthrough, when she was called to substitute at short notice in 1985, despite never having sung the role before. Again, this recording is taken from the last season in which this production was used, so we’re hearing her more at ease in the role. How lovely and fresh she sounds here! It’s no surprise that she made such an impact. Nonetheless, film techniques, when this recording was made, do her no favours.

Though crucial, Elisabeth’s role is relatively straightforward. Wolfram von Eschenbach, however, is a more complex character, especially when played by Wolfgang Brendel. Nearly everything Brendel does has individual character. His Eschenbach bridges the gap between Tannhäuser, knights and minstrels. Moreover, he exudes sexuality despite the chasteness of his songs. Whether or not Wolfgang Wagner had this in mind when he cast Brendel, I don’t know, but Brendel’s characterization brings out a deeper undercurrent in the dynamic between purity and lust. Elisabeth’s Tannhäuser is, despite her virtue, clearly erotic. The warmth and sensuality with which Brendel sings, show another kind of sanctified love. Later, Brendel was to create an equally virile Hans Sachs, making it obvious why Eva was willing to marry him. His Song to the Evening Star is utterly gorgeous, fervent and refined at the same time. Indeed, it is Brendel who pulls this production together in conjunction with Versalle and Studer.

Anne Ozorio

Mostly Opera

This production is quite simply a disgrace. Admittedly, Former Bayreuth Festival Intendant Wolfgang Wagner is not the most ingenuous of directors, mainly expanding on the ideas of the New Bayreuth of the 50´s conceived with (or by) his brother Wieland. And if this production belonged to this time period it would have been acceptable, at least to a certain extent. However, the year is 1989. 15 years previously at the same house, Götz Friedrich staged a ground-breaking Tannhäuser, but here we are back at year zero: Uninspired sets, no individual direction to speak of. In short, dusty and boring. I have been told that Wolfgang Wagner is not a hands-on stage director, that he works on an entirely different (read: higher) level. That may be so, but what matters is the final product, which in this case is an outdated staging not worthy of the Bayreuth Festival.

The cast is solid enough, lead by the magnificent Cheryl Studer, with simply perfect jugendlich-dramatisch expression as Elisabeth. Ruthild Engert-Fly is certainly no Waltraud Meier, but on the other hand Wolfgang Brendel gives a convincing performance as Wolfram. As Tannhäuser himself, a monstrously difficult role to sing, Richard Versalle was easily forgettable. Giuseppe Sinopoli was quite refreshing in the pit. But in the end, it amounts to nothing, being forced to look at these sets. You may always close your eyes. But after all, this release is labelled as a DVD.

Classical.net

I expect that many people don’t care about minnesingers or song contests anymore, or does the popularity of “American Idol” prove me wrong? Tannhäuser continues to mean something to modern audiences, however, and that is because it compellingly dramatizes the conflict between the purity of the soul and the “dirty” desires of the flesh. It also reminds us that God may judge very differently than those who believe that they are doing His will. Most of us have paid our own little visit to the Venusberg, and that is why Tannhäuser’s story still grips us today.

Tannhäuser goes on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness, but Wagnerians have their own “holy city,” and that is Bayreuth. That is where this production was taped in June 1989, although this particular staging comes from 1985. At that time, Gabriela BeÁa…ková and René Kollo were slated for the lead roles, although he cancelled less than an hour before opening night, and she never even showed up for rehearsals! They were replaced by two Americans, Cheryl Studer and Richard Versalle, and both made such positive impressions that they were invited back for subsequent revivals, which is why they are on this DVD.

Versalle is most famous, unfortunately, for being only the second singer to die on stage while singing at the Metropolitan Opera. (The first was Leonard Warren.) Far less famous than Kollo, he’s actually a very good Tannhäuser, although he is rather bearish of appearance. His trumpeting timbre is metallic and very penetrating, and he has no difficulty being heard, no matter what is going on around him. His is not a honeyed voice, by any means, but he emerges at the end of the opera not just unscathed, but with a badge of honor. As an actor, he’s better with his voice than with his body.

Apart from a couple moments of questionable pitch, Studer is a glorious Elisabeth. She also has a brilliant, penetrating tone, although it falls on the ear more gratefully than Versalle’s, and they sound particularly good together in Act Two. Her “Dich, teure Halle” is so exciting, you want to write home about it. She’s a better actor than Versalle, and while Wieland Wagner’s production doesn’t give her much to do – it doesn’t give anyone much to do – Studer still makes a real character out of Elisabeth.

Engert-Ely’s Venus is smokier of timbre, so there is a nice contrast between her and Studer. I don’t know if the goddess of Love is supposed to be a likeable character, but Engert-Ely did make me feel bad for Venus when Tannhäuser turned his back on her not once but twice. (Minnesingers are all alike!) As Wolfram, Brendel sings and acts sympathetically, and his “Evening Star” aria would stop the show, were show-stopping allowed at Bayreuth! Sotin’s classic Landgraf is sonorously sung and authoritatively acted, and the other knights of the Wartburg make uniformly good impressions. Joy Robinson’s Shepherd is appropriately boyish in sound.

Although Sinopoli’s tempos are slow, he doesn’t hold the action back, and he coaxes glorious work not just out of the orchestra, but also from the chorus – Bayreuth’s great glory. There’s a big cut in the overture and Venusberg ballet, however. In the case of the latter, perhaps it’s alright, because the members of the Györ Ballet prance around in spandex and big hair, 1980s style. (The costumes in this production are not especially attractive.)

Brian Large’s excellent direction puts the cameras where you want them to be, most of the time, and there is a nice blend of close-up detail and full-stage panoramas. (The hammy close-up on Versalle’s hand as he comes to the climax of the Rome Narrative just looks silly, though.) The full-screen image is clear and clean, and the sound (in the three usual formats) is wonderful, as long as you turn it up. The English subtitles are serviceable, although they are of the “my heart is palpitating wildly” type.

In short, this is a good, traditional Tannhäuser which embarrasses none of the big names, and which gives Versalle something for which to be remembered, other than his spectacular demise, which someone on the Internet actually described as “hilarious.” How insensitive!

Raymond Tuttle

Opera Today

The ever-busy Brian Large directed the 1989 filming (for TV) of a Wolfgang Wagner Tannhäuser production which had debuted at Bayreuth in 1985.

Now available on DVD, the opera performance as filmed has a stage-bound perspective oddly hitched to the occasional “movie” editing effect, such as a sudden and seamless fade from Venusberg to Wartburg in act one. Not a hint of a live audience can be detected (which is also true of other Bayreuth filmed performances), and many of the singers throw a glance slightly off-screen at times, as if to catch a glimpse of the conductor (this is especially noticeable with Richard Versalle, singing the lead role). All this underlies the unsatisfactory sense that this filming neither captures the electric charge of a live performance nor the smooth perfection of a studio-filmed affair.

The brief booklet essay (apparently authored by a Werner Pfister, although that name only follows the synopsis) relates Wolfgang Wagner’s inspiration for the set: “the archetypal shape of a circle symbolizing both the life cycle and the terrestrial globe,” per the essay. For Wagner the director, the circle’s center “may be likened to an ancient place of worship occupied by Venus and Mary.” It may indeed, but it also may be visually dull – a stark space that neither captures the rich eroticism of Venusberg nor the verdant terrain of Wartburg. The ballet of cape and thong-clad dancers might possibly have been “steamy” at the original time of production; in 2006, the effect is more of bad mid-80s music video. However, the act two hall set succeeds in putting some realistic detail into a sort of timeless limbo, with a deep gray-white galaxy serving as backdrop.

The essay details how the original leads for the production’s debut dropped out, leading to a major debut for Cheryl Studer and a worthy effort by Richard Versalle. Studer’s basically lovely tone, though lacking much distinctive character, meets the role’s demands. Responses to intonation often have a subjective cast; suffice it to say, to your reviewer’s ears, Ms. Studer often seems slightly below the note. Her dignified, properly feminine Elsa could use some other shades, and she is not flattered when the camera catches her at the end of act two perspiring under the camera lights.

Versalle’s impassive countenance hardly captures much of the torment and potency of Tannhäuser, although an excellent make-up job in act three helps him find some conviction for the final collapse into despair. However, for a notoriously difficult role, Versalle manages well vocally, with just some occasional tightness at the top.

Costumed in a most unsexy white nightgown, Ruthild Engert-Ely as Venus cannot produce any erotic spark in the inert first scene of the opera (after an overture featuring the Pilgrims wandering around the stage as if lost). William Pell’s unfocused tone as Walther makes his an unimpressive contribution to act two, which is otherwise the most effective part of the staging. A youthful Wolfgang Brendel produces the vocal highlight here, as well as at the start of act three, with his fresh tone and appealing stage presence most welcome as Wolfram. Sinopoli leads the Bayreuth forces to a fresh, vital reading of the score.

The Met has a handsome Tannhäuser on DVD, in a typically lush traditional production, and with the priceless Venus of Tatiana Troyanos but a troubled Richard Cassilly. Rene Kollo, the originally signed lead for this Bayreuth production, appears in a controversial Munich staging. Your reviewer has not seen a more recent DVD with Peter Seiffert, who will be singing the role shortly in Los Angeles (March 2007). Lovers of the opera will probably find some enjoyment in this Bayreuth DVD. Otherwise, Wagner’s supremely melodic grand opera awaits a truly all-around successful DVD incarnation.

Chris Mullins

Michael Richter

PRODUCTION

Live performance of high quality by contemporary standards. Set is the basic ring with drops setting the location. Costumes are stylized mediæval in ample dimensions to match the singers. The chorus moves rather busily, but does not distract significantly except for the sound of their clomping. The principals generally act minimally and conventionally. Enunciation is excellent; subtitles tend to be verbose.

PERFORMANCES

Sinopoli barely holds the forces together while offering no significant insight or coloration. The orchestra is outstanding; the chorus only satisfactory, with some sloppy entrances and generally less precision than one expects. Versalle has the right timbre and usually the right notes. Studer’s is the least steady voice (though the competition is fierce) and conveys little of the purity of the character. Solyom-Nagy is shrill and hectoring, never seductive. Brendel, Sotin and the other singers are capable if not notable. Except for Versalle and occasionally Studer, the dynamic range is compressed to a consistent forte; the content and drama are well conveyed, but there is little magic.

TECHNICAL COMMENTS

Video is clear but not crisp, matching the singing in tending to flatten out the performance. Sound is clear with wide range and effective imaging of the stage. Camera work is unobtrusive and direction cannot be faulted. Overall, this recording is recommended as a fine dramatic experience and an acceptable musical one.

Rating
(4/10)
User Rating
(2/5)
Media Type/Label
EuroArts
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Technical Specifications
992×720, 1.8 Mbit/s, 2.4 GByte, 4:3 (MPEG-4)
DTS 5.1, DD 5.1 (DVD)
Remarks
Telecast (Mezzo TV)