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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tannhäuser

Peter Seiffert (tenor) - Tannhäuser
Jane Eaglen (soprano) - Elisabeth
Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Wolfram
Waltraud Meier (soprano) - Venus
René Pape (bass) - Hermann
Gunnar Gudbjörnsson (tenor) - Walther
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass) - Biterolf
Stephan Rägamer (tenor) - Heinrich
Alfred Reiter (bass) - Reinmar
Dorthe Röschmann (soprano) - Shepherd
Staatsopernchor Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Rec June 2001, NLG Berlin
TELDEC 8573 88064 2 [3CDs: 66.38+71.50+56.14]

 

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 skilfully taken.

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.

Terry Barfoot


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