Franz Welser-Möst
Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich
4 September 2003
Opernhaus Zürich
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannAlfred Muff
TannhäuserPeter Seiffert
Wolfram von EschenbachRoman Trekel
Walther von der VogelweideJonas Kaufmann
BiterolfRolf Haunstein
Heinrich der SchreiberMartin Zysset
Reinmar von ZweterGuido Götzen
ElisabethSolveig Kringelborn
VenusIsabelle Kabatu
Ein junger HirtMartina Jankova
Stage directorJens-Daniel Herzog
Set designerBernhard Kleber
TV directorChloé Perlemuter
Mostly Opera

In brief, I find this production virtually unbearable to watch, reflected in the extraordinarily low overall rating below.

First of all, the camera work is quite easily the worst I have yet encountered in opera, jumping back- and forwards between backstage shots of the characters in their dressing rooms (even in the middle of the opera), overhead shots of the pit, close-ups of the sweating Peter Seiffert (whom we also see putting on his final costume during the ouverture before he heads downstairs) and Franz Welser-Mösts wedding ring, shots from the stage aiming at performers waiting backstage etc etc. Furthermore, fans of Jonas Kaufmann, beware: During his only aria we do not see him at all, as the camera only focuses on the faces of Tannhäuser and Elisabeth. Extremely annoying..

This moving back and forth between pre-production and performance shots, takes away a significant part of the potential pleasure of the staging, which I cannot even describe properly due to the odd camera angles. The sets are simple, the stage is bare, but aesthetic it is not. I simply cannot imagine that, visually, this DVD will appeal to anyone.

Musically things are rather better, though not exceptional. Solveig Kringelborn does make a rather fine Elisabeth (though I personally find her irritating), not entirely matched by Isabelle Kabatu as Venus. Fine performance from Roman Trekel (slightly neurotic) and Peter Seiffert (equally boring). Franz Welser-Möst is more than competent though not overly imaginative.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Peter Seiffert: 3
Solveig Kringelborn: 3
Roman Trekel: 3
Isabelle Kabatu: 2
Franz Welser-Möst: 4

Jens-Daniel Herzog: 2

Overall impression: 1


In Tannhäuser, we witness Wagner starting the process of liberating himself from the constraints and confines of traditional operatic form. He is not yet the master of transition, or of through-composed structures, but we can sense him stretching conventions, whilst still revelling in them and making them, to some extent, his own. The big second-act concerted music is positively Verdian in its swagger, and hero and heroine even have a duet in which they sing mostly in sixths and thirds – as do Leonora and Florestan in Fidelio by Wagner’s musical god, Beethoven.

Although no mention was made of the fact in the programme, this performance was of the original, Dresden version (1845, with subsequent revisions), and very interesting it was to hear, since it is often the later, Paris version of 1861 which is given, or an inauthentic ’hotchpotch’ of the two versions. Towards the end of his life, Wagner remarked to is wife Cosima, “I still owe the world Tannhäuser”, suggesting that the work had not achieved a form that was satisfactory to him. Be that as it may, there is still plenty to ponder and relish in a work which, in many ways, is a pointer for the ideas – both musical and philosophical – which Wagner was to explore subsequently. A strong cast was assembled under Franz Welser-Möst, and if the results were not exactly earth shattering, this was a solid, decently sung performance, probably as good, vocally speaking, as one is likely to find today.

The overture revealed the fine qualities of the Zurich Opera’s orchestra, whose Music Director Welser-Möst was from 1995 until last year, subsequently becoming Principal Conductor. There was good tone and blend from the winds and horns, and the powerful brass were strong without being strident – a difficult feat to achieve in this hall. If the strings initially were a little matter-of-fact, they later on made up for this with some warm and expressive playing. Indeed the orchestra throughout was commendably secure, attentive and responsive to Wagner’s requirements. The principal winds – the oboe in particular, to which Wagner entrusts many a poignant phrase – were thoroughly praiseworthy.

Peter Seiffert, widely regarded as currently one of the leading Wagner tenors, was confident and heroic in demeanour and utterance. Sadly, there was little variety in his delivery. If he did not suffer the fate of the first interpreter of the role, Joseph Tichatschek, who had a reputation for unbridled vocal power and sang himself hoarse, Seiffert did little to suggest the vacillating figure of Wagner’s imagining. His security and stamina were, however, much to be much to be admired, and he did touch a vein of eloquence in the third act narration.

At the start of the opera, Tannhäuser is discovered languishing in the court of Venus. This was the scene much expanded for Paris where Wagner drew on his later ’Tristan’ style to suggest the voluptuous of Venusberg. In this more austere Dresden version, Liuba Chuchrova suggested an authoritative goddess, with more than a hint of an imperious quality. Her cajoling of Tannhäuser to remain with her could have done with a softer edge at times, but she was certainly commanding in her tone and relish of the text. After Venus and her followers have vanished, following Tannhäuser’s invoking the name of the Virgin Mary, his return to the Wartburg – the place of his origin – is heralded by the song of a young shepherd. Martina Jankova made much of this small role – perhaps too much so to suggest a young shepherd boy. The men’s chorus was also heard for the first time as the pilgrims, and its excellence throughout the opera – and it plays a substantial and crucial part – was one of the highlights of the performance. A pity that no chorus-master was named in the programme.

The Landgrave and Tannhäuser’s fellow knights now appear, and there was no weak link in their casting. Alfred Muff was supremely authoritative as the Landgrave – subsequently displaying an appropriate warmth and avuncular affection towards his niece Elisabeth – and Thomas Hampson was superb as Wolfram von Eschenbach – one of those rare figures in Wagner who is without a trace of selfishness or malice. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the welcoming of Tannhäuser’s return, and Welser-Möst brought spirited animation to the final bars of the first act.

In Act Two, Elisabeth’s greeting to the Minstrels’ Hall found Solveig Kringelborn in radiant voice, if without the sense of ecstatic excitement and expectation that characterises, say, Gwyneth Jones’s interpretation of this role. Later on, Kringelborn demonstrated firmness and resolve when intervening on Tannhäuser’s behalf following his admission to the shocked company that he has been indulging himself at the Venusberg. In the scene where the crowds assemble to witness the singing contest, the various choral groups were splendidly virile and vigorous – how remarkably this passage pre-figures Verdi’s ’Triumphal March’ from Aida some 25 years later! And if we were not granted the 12 on-stage trumpets requested by Wagner, there was half that number sensibly divided on the balconies either side of the platform.

Welser-Möst marshalled his forces efficiently enough, although a greater sense of anticipation and commotion would not have gone amiss. The solos in praise of love were well delivered, and Wagner would not have cut Walther’s song (as he did in Paris where the singer was inadequate) had he had Christoph Strehl in his cast. It would be no surprise if he were to go on to sing some of Wagner’s more substantial tenor roles. Rolf Haunstein lived up to the name of his character, with appropriate bluster and impetuosity. The moments of stillness and reflection were well caught, and some notoriously awkward ensemble passages were smoothly negotiated. A small cut was made towards the end of this act, though on what authority I am uncertain.

In the prelude to Act Three, some of the reservations regarding the conducting were most apparent, with little sense of anguish and despair in this forward-looking music. The orchestra played well enough, but one did not sense that Welser-Möst was sufficiently inside the idiom for a full realisation of the dramatic situation or Tannhäuser’s psychological state.

Kringelborn and Hampson were responsive to each other in their scene together, and the latter sang most touchingly in ’O du mein holder Abendstern’ which was moving and without a trace of false sentimentality. In fact, Thomas Hampson consistently demonstrated that he was comfortable and fully in command of his role, something that is not always apparent in some of the operatic characters he has ventured on stage and on record. Kringelborn rose to the challenges of her prayer to the Virgin, ’Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’, and her emotional response to the text and music was affecting.

Seiffert was at his best in his long narrative describing his pilgrimage to Rome, not without a trace of rancour in his exchanges with Hampson, and quite graphic in his despair. The conclusion of the drama, with Tannhäuser calling upon Venus, and Wolfram invoking the name of Elisabeth had a good sense of theatrical frisson, and there was cumulative power in the final chorus.

Any sense of disappointment from the main protagonist and the frankly prosaic conducting, which did little more than keep things reasonably efficiently together, was more than offset by the overall strength of the cast and company – not to mention the inherent worthiness of Wagner’s interesting score.

Timothy Ball – Tannhäuser – Zurich Opera (30 March)


Commençons par un constat simple. On le sait, on le dit du moins, le dvd est destiné, à terme, si ce n’est à remplacer purement et simplement le classique cd, du moins à ouvrir à prix équivalent une autre voie dans le marché du disque d’opéra. En pérennisant des interprétations captées dans le feu du live, ce que ne faisait pas ou peu (de manière moins institutionnalisée en tout cas) le disque officiel, un tel produit amène cependant à revoir les critères d’évaluation qui avaient cours jusqu’à maintenant, comme aussi l’idée que l’on a pu se faire d’un produit musical “fini”. Ainsi la présente production zurichoise pose-t-elle problème, soulevant un certain nombre de réserves auxquelles il va falloir, à l’avenir, s’habituer.
A Zürich, on enregistre beaucoup, et les chaînes spécialisées font leur miel de ces captations régulières, le plus souvent très bien distribuées (on pense évidemment au Cosi d’Harnoncourt, mais aussi à la Nina de Paisiello ou au récent Fidelio du même Harnoncourt). L’acoustique de la salle est particulièrement propice à la voix et l’agréable esprit de troupe qui y règne offre au spectateur l’attrait d’un travail toujours professionnel.

Franz Welser-Möst est communément le maître d’ouvrage de ces productions solides. Kapellmeister dans la meilleure tradition, il se révèle dans ce Tannhäuser un architecte probe, menant une ouverture sans vertiges, parfaitement tirée au cordeau et d’une belle rigueur. Sachant, au Venusberg surtout, imprimer à son orchestre une poésie sombre, moite, le chef joue d’une trame instrumentale dense, touchant en de rares instants (manière magnifique de poser les premiers accords du “Wie Todesahnung” de Wolfram au 3) des sommets de musique pure… Peut-être finalement manque-t-il seulement à cette lecture un peu de l’élan romantique du Sawallisch des années 60, un peu de l’hédonisme virtuose (on est presque tenté de parler d’esbrouffe sonore) de Solti, un peu de cette fièvre, enfin, qui va si bien à Tannhäuser.

Sur le plateau, personne n’est gêné par la mise en scène sobre de M. Herzog. A ce sujet encore, il conviendrait de parler d’une intense probité, qui nous épargne avec bonheur les errements exégétiques dont les pays alémaniques détiennent le très hermétique secret. La direction d’acteur est quasi nulle (il faut voir Tannhäuser au concours de la Wartburg !) et cela est d’autant plus visible que la mise en image colle au plus près des visages, accrochée à chacune des attitudes molles des artistes impavides. Elle y colle surtout avec partialité (pourquoi ce plan presque fixe sur Tannhäuser pendant le lied de Walther au 2?), suivant les déplacements de chacun avec une frénésie frôlant la cyclothymie. Cela se regarde pourtant sans déplaisir, parce que la gamme colorée mise en place est très bien venue, que le jeu de matières est très finement observé (l’univers minéral, froid, imperméable au sentiment, de la Wartburg par exemple) et qu’en fait rien ne vient perturber l’écoute.

Il reste de toute façon possible de n’écouter que la piste audio, laquelle piste n’est pas, non plus, exempte de défauts agaçants. Commençons d’abord par le meilleur, cet esprit de troupe qui fait merveille, avec surtout un Walther de Jonas Kaufmann absolument magnifique. Même curieusement habillé au 1, il émane de l’artiste un rayonnement animal qui irradie la voix, sombre et magnifiquement projetée, parfaitement déliée et dans laquelle on sent l’un des ténors qui comptera dans les années à venir (à Zürich déjà, il a donné, sous la férule d’Harnoncourt un Florestan triomphant, frôlant l’idéal en termes de vocalité pure comme d’investissement scénique). On comptera aussi au nombre des très belles réussites de ce coffret le Landgrave d’Alfred Muff, qui peine un peu dans une tessiture tout sauf confortable, mais royalement, avec une dignité de phrasé et une prégnance de timbre impressionnantes. On gardera enfin pour l’éternité le Wolfram de Roman Trekel. La voix comme le port sont ascétiques, le son est presque rude, sans apprêts, mais l’émission joue de colorations infinies sur tout le spectre dynamique. Trekel a forgé son éloquence à l’école du lied et cela s’entend, dans une “Romance à l’étoile” de miel surtout, irisée d’éclairages diaphanes, de piani à peine effleurés, jouant d’un grave rugueux et d’un aigu parfaitement placé, à la fois fier et sincère. Simplement anthologique.

Le duo antithétique des dames affiche lui aussi de beaux moments. Isabelle Kabatu, Venus à la poésie trouble, au timbre sombre, témoigne d’une ligne très artistement menée, d’une réelle intelligence du texte, d’un registre médian plein, coloré, d’une belle gamme de nuances. Hélas la voix, dans l’aigu, ploie sous les vagues d’un vibrato désagréable, véritable grelot qui dérange l’ordonnance d’un final particulièrement douloureux. L’Elisabeth de Solveig Kringelborn appelle les mêmes éloges et les mêmes reproches. L’artiste a la demi-teinte aisée, très bien timbrée surtout, ce qui est rare; elle a aussi la projection altière, mais elle a surtout un aigu charnu et charnel qui, dans l’urgence du direct accroche la fin de la “teure Halle”. Elle met pourtant beaucoup de grâce juvénile et virginale à son duo et son “allmächt’ge Jungfrau” est même magnifique, parée d’un legato soyeux, d’un timbre aux liquidités opalescentes, installée dans un piano à la fois extatique et doloriste, à l’image de son Elisabeth à la chevelure mutilée, en lambeaux.

On restera enfin bien dubitatif face à Tannhäuser en qui l’éditeur met sans doute beaucoup de ses espoirs de vente. Peter Seiffert qui est un Max magnifique, un Florestan splendide aussi, a été promu au rang de heldentenor au prix de ce que l’on reconnaît communément (et depuis bien longtemps sans que le problème ne se solutionne vraiment) comme une crise du landernau wagnérien. Pour tous ceux, cependant, qui ont Melchior ou Lorenz dans l’oreille, Seiffert ne restera jamais qu’un Froh idéal, un Erik monté en graine. Et si Lohengrin lui va comme un gant, par (paradoxalement) son italianité rayonnante, il touche aux limites extrêmes de ses moyens dans Tannhäuser, en termes de tessiture comme de pur format. On l’y a pourtant entendu en bien meilleure voix (à Paris récemment, par exemple), et il n’est pas impossible que l’artiste ait été, au moment de cette captation, dans un moment de méforme passagère. Car la voix est grise d’harmoniques, uniment poussée dès ses premiers “zuviel”, condamnant de fait son éloquence à un héroïsme bien univoque. L’artiste souffre, peine et la sudation torrentielle que la caméra dissèque de manière bien cruelle témoigne de l’effort constant fourni, dès son entrée en scène, par le ténor. “Dir töne Lob” a pourtant un bel emportement, mais il y a du mauvais Kollo dans ces aigus irrémédiablement poussifs. Seiffert retrouve pourtant une certaine délicatesse, sa belle souplesse de phrasé comme aussi sa morbidezza le temps d’un beau duo avec Elisabeth. Et c’est paradoxalement le retour de Rome qui le voit le plus à son affaire, là où l’on a pu entendre un Windgassen, un Vinay à bout de souffle. La ligne est absolument royale, sans histrionisme, intériorisée et nourrie d’une véritable narration, d’un sens du récit qui laisse rêveur.

Ce qui dans la salle a pu apparaître comme un spectacle de tout premier ordre, exposé ici à une caméra inquisitrice, au jeu cruel aussi de la fragmentation que permet le dvd, restera dans les esprits comme un enregistrement de fort bonne qualité, mais stopé dans le processus de mythification auquel peut se livrer la seule mémoire. Il y a beaucoup à retenir de cet enregistrement : le meilleur Walther entendu depuis longtemps, un Wolfram d’exception, un très bon Landgrave, mais aussi des dames qui ont du mal à s’installer dans un Panthéon déjà bien fourni, un chef seulement solide, un héros, enfin, empoté scéniquement qui peine à imposer un vrai standard d’interprétation en regard du passé. Pas de quoi faire, donc, une version de référence… hélas !



In every respect except technical accomplishment, this release is a disappointment. The insert, loose between the two DVDs, has no information except cast and chapter divisions. Even the need for two discs is unclear given the total running time. The concept of the performance appears to focus on the psychology of Tannhäuser himself, but Seiffert lacks the sort of appeal to make that approach viable. His singing is adequate (though it shows stress) and his acting effective, but the mechanics of the production and the erratic, incomprehensible video direction leave one aware only of how much work the rôle demands.

Only Seiffert and Trekel sing the text; the other principals variously approach a vocalise. Kringleborn and Muff sound far older than they are, though otherwise the soprano is appealing. Kabatu’s German is worst of the lot with barely a consonant to be heard; she is attractive physically, but that is counterbalanced by a complete lack of sensuality in her singing and her movement. Trekel is matter-of-fact, though whether that is his choice or direction cannot be determined; again, there is no sensuality in the voice or performance.

The production is highly stylized. When video direction provides clues, they are incomprehensible. For example, the Venusberg scene features an image of an empty dormitory. One cannot determine where it is on the stage from what one sees. Video direction often seems wantonly disruptive; during a solo, the camera may stroll onto other singers or focus on an instrument of the orchestra.

Welser-Möst leads a surprisingly uninflected performance. The notes are there, but the edge of the music has been lost. The orchestra and chorus are dutiful but subdued. Video is sharp and generally well lighted; audio is admirable though as usual surround offers nothing significant. In all, one is left wondering why this production was deemed worthy of recording, let alone release.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
720×480, 1.8 Mbit/s, 2.4 GByte (MPEG-4)
Telecast (3SAT)