During the 1840s Wagner, now based at Dresden, became
convinced that legend and medieval poetry should be his source material,
and the knightly tale of Tannhäuser (1845) reflects his
new confidence and artistic assurance. But the Dresden production of
this romantic opera was only its first version, for a new one with added
ballet music and various other changes was prepared for Paris in 1861.
It tells us much about the production standards of
this new Teldec-Barenboim recording that the booklet immediately makes
it clear which the performance options have been chosen. A clear and
unequivocal statement lays out the terms of reference: 'The present
recording is based on the Dresden version. However, Act I Scene II is
based on the Paris version.' It then cross-references to information
in the accompanying essay. All this bodes well, and shows a concern
for detail that is matched in the performance.
There are several distinguished recordings of Tannhäuser,
to which Barenboim can be added with the utmost confidence. While he
does not eclipse the versions conducted by Haitink (EMI), Solti (Decca),
Sinopoli (DG), Konwitschny (EMI) or Sawallisch (Philips), his performance
is as authoritative as any, and anyone wanting to add this opera to
their library can be pleased to have this recording on their shelves.
All praise too to the Teldec engineers, who have risen
to the perennial challenge of recording a Wagner opera, by managing
an acoustic and perspective that accommodates both grandeur and intimacy.
Listen to the marvellous performance of the overture and this already
becomes absolutely clear.
Wagner wanted, as he put it, 'to turn away from operatic
diffuseness' in this work, by which he meant that he wanted to avoid
a sequence of set pieces that had the effect of stopping and starting.
Therefore one of the challenges to the conductor is to ensure dramatic
variety and tension while maintaining the flow of the musical design.
This Barenboim achieves with great concentration, though he does tend
to become very slow and introspective at times. An example, and perhaps
the least convincing aspect of the whole performance, is Wolfram's Evening
Star scene, in which one cannot help feeling that only the vocal
excellence of Thomas Hampson keeps the experience free from dullness.
The cast matches the standards required, though Jane
Eaglen's enthusiasm sometimes comes close to derailment and loss of
tone. She is at her best in the quieter, more thoughtful music, in which
she achieves the necessary radiance. Waltraud Meier joins a distinguished
roll-call of singers to have successfully taken the part of Venus on
record: Christa Ludwig (with Solti) is perhaps the best of them all.
The admirable René Pape takes the role of Hermann,
which Wagner created with consummate skill; rarely did even he compose
more gratefully for the bass voice. The various smaller roles are all
What then, of Tannhäuser himself? Peter Seiffert
has the advantage of being a native German speaker, and in fine voice
he delivers the text with assurance. This role is one of the great challenges
to a singer, since he has not only to sing the notes and inflect the
meaning of the text, he has to go further and convey the strange tensions
he feels behind the attractions of the two opposites of sacred and profane
love. Perhaps Seiffert does not match the warm tone of Domingo (DG)
in the role, but his delivery of text is more confident, and that counts
for a great deal.
Barenboim, the Berlin orchestra and the excellent State
Opera Chorus emerge with huge credit from their encounter with this
challenging score. The pacing of the drama is sure and purposeful, so
too the handing of the larger ensemble scenes, the most striking of
which closes Act II.
However, if you want to have the complete Venusberg
Music, following the Overture, think carefully about which recording
you buy. It is only Solti (Decca) who gives us the full Paris revision
of the score, and in typically opulent sound. It is worth hearing this
because the Venusberg Music is quite extraordinary, and, to put
it unequivocally, is the most extreme music Wagner ever composed. It
is not a better performance of Tannhäuser that includes
the full Paris revisions, it is simply a different one, but most of
the recordings feature either the original Dresden score or - as here
- a particular mixture of the two versions.
So Tannhäuser is a problematic work, though
it undeniably remains a great opera. With so much about it that is excellent,
in terms of both performance and presentation, this new Barenboim set
can be recommended with confidence.