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S & H Opera Review

Wagner, ‘Tannhäuser’ – Zurich Opera, Franz Welser-Möst, Royal Festival Hall, Sunday March 30, 2003 (ME)


 

What is ‘Tannhäuser’ about and who is the eponymous hero? For the ladies in the loo queue, there was no doubt – it’s an offensive study in misogynistic judgment, uncomfortably overlaid with Catholic guilt. For the ‘gentleman’ in the row behind us who chose to clear his throat loudly during Thomas Hampson’s magical singing of Wolfram’s phrase ‘der mich blendet, steht’ it clearly possesses little of musical interest. The subtitle ‘und der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg’ is singularly unhelpful, since, as the composer’s wife recognised, this is one of the weakest parts of the work, only succeeding in its reworked version in ‘Meistersinger’. The opera certainly presents us with questionable portraits of ‘Das ewig Weibliche’ in its opposition of the sensual and the pure – the woman-as-whore in the shape of Venus encapsulating all that certain traditionalists regard as dangerous in the female, and the virginal Elisabeth as a kind of Victorian dream-version of the Madonna. It also provides plenty of material for the arch-Romantic, since the protagonist could be seen as the image of the Promethean hero who creates art from his own self-destructive impulses.

How much of this conflict was reflected in this concert performance? In some ways, very little, since the Venus, despite her lovely form, lacked vocal allure, and the Tannhäuser did not fulfil, either in voice or in person, one’s ideal of the hero whose poetic imagination could wake and find his dream true. Nevertheless, this was one of the most powerful operatic performances I have heard, mainly due to the superb orchestral playing and choral singing, the Wolfram of Thomas Hampson, and the presence amongst the nobles of Thuringia of the finest Hermann one could wish for, and a Walther of the highest promise.

Franz Welser-Möst’s time with the LPO was probably not the happiest of his musical life, but as Principal Conductor of the Zurich Opera he seems to have found his niche: from the very first bars of the overture, characterised by the superb horns and an ideal balance between the strings and the brass, it was clear that this orchestra is completely at his command – indeed, there were times when I felt that they were playing as though they were terrified of him; no bad thing, really – keep them in line, that’s what I say. The Zurich Opera choruses, a couple of squally moments aside, sang with biting attack and moving emphasis, especially in ‘Der gnade Heil’.

Peter Seiffert’s hero had some lovely moments, notably in his poignant reflections of the real world and his Act III narrative to Wolfram, but his characterisation is not very engrossing and his voice is rather constricted at the top. ‘Dir, Göttin der Liebe’ did have dramatic impact, but his tendency to snatch at some of the notes detracted from this, and he was at his best in the more tender phrases like ‘Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich’. Liuba Chuchrova’s Venus was also variable: she managed the notes and looked wonderful, but neither her phrasing nor her tone remotely suggested the requisite magnetism, ‘Geliebter, komm!’ sounding more like an invitation to a spot of light shoe shopping than a summons to forbidden pleasures. In complete contrast, the Shepherd of Martina Jankova was utterly enticing in her summons to revel in the joy of spring, her tone so ideally fresh and ethereal that her brief scene still stands out as one of the most moving of the evening.

Solveig Kringelborn’s Elisabeth volunteered herself for sanctity most beautifully, although her tone is a little slender for ‘Dich, teure Halle’ and she was rather muted in her scenes with Tannhäuser – nevertheless, there was some lovely singing especially in ‘Allmacht’ge Jungfrau’. Her uncle, the Landgrave of Thuringia, was superbly sung by Alfred Muff, whose utterances were not only beautifully phrased but carried real authority, and amongst the knights Christoph Strehl’s Walther von der Vogelweide displayed a limpid tenor perfect for expressing those sentiments about the ideal of love which refreshes only the spirit – Strehl will sing Don Ottavio in this year’s Salzburg Festival, and his is clearly a name to watch.

Thomas Hampson’s Wolfram was a completely rounded characterisation, intensely sympathetic, utterly convincing and sung with tenderness, implicit understanding and his familiarly beautiful tone, heard to best advantage in ‘Wie Todesahnung’ and holding the audience spellbound during ‘Blick ich umher’ – well, most of them anyway given the presence of the phantom throat-clearer.

In ‘Sentimental Education’ Flaubert wrote of his hero’s two loves that ‘The company of these two women made as it were two melodies in his life: the one playful, wild, amusing: the other grave and almost religious. And the two melodies, sounding at the same time, swelled continually and gradually intermingled…’ If the contrast between the ‘two melodies’ in this performance was not ideally strong, the intermingling of orchestral forces and some exceptionally fine singing compensated for it.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 


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