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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser (Paris Version)
Spas Wenkoff (tenor) – Tannhäuser
Gwyneth Jones (soprano) – Venus/Elisabeth
Bernd Weikl (baritone) – Wolfram von Eschenbach
Hans Sotin (bass) – Landgraf Hermann
Franz Mazura (baritone) – Biterolf
Reinmar von Zweter (treble) – Shepherd
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival/Colin Davis
rec. live, Bayreuth Festival, July 1978
Region Code 0, Aspect Ratio 4:3, PCM Stereo & DTS 5.1
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4446 [2 DVDs, 64:24 + 123:43]
Experience Classicsonline


One of the greatest Wagner productions of modern times arrives for the first time on DVD with crystal clear surround sound, and it could not be more welcome. Let me nail my colours to the mast at the outset, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating the case here: this is the greatest Wagner experience that DVD has to offer.

This production of 1972 (filmed here in its 1978 revival) came at a turning point in the history of the Bayreuth Festival and did much to set the tone for the decades that followed. Wieland Wagner had been dead for six years and his productions, lacking the hand of their creator, were beginning to seem tired. His successor, Wolfgang, always an able administrator, was nowhere near as talented a director/producer as his brother. New blood was needed, so Wolfgang turned to guest directors to produce some of the festival’s repertoire. He offered Tannhäuser to Götz Friedrich, disciple of Felsenstein at the East Berlin Komische Oper. Friedrich’s style of working stripped the work bare of all preconceptions and sought for meaning in the circumstances of the work’s composition as well as in the text itself. He produced a masterpiece, filmed here with great assurance by Brian Large and sung by one of the best Bayreuth casts of the 1970s.

Friedrich presented Tannhäuser as an outsider in a grim world, who can find belonging in neither the Venusberg nor in the Wartburg. During the prelude, which defies Bayreuth convention by being staged, Tannhäuser appears alone in a barren landscape with only his harp, which he looks through as if it were the bars of a prison cell. The Venusberg looks like a spider’s web in which Tannhäuser is trapped. The opening Bacchanal is indeed an orgy: young, attractive dancers, wearing next to nothing, writhe and twist around one another, representing sexual attraction at its most raw. Yet the titillation which this produces is countered by some scenes of disturbing violence as other members of the party take sexual gratification to a violent and disturbing climax. Significantly, we see some of these "satyrs and bacchantes" wearing Death’s Head masks. Erotic yet repugnant, this Venusberg objectifies its inhabitants; its only natural conclusion is enslavement, and this is the state in which we find Tannhäuser, sitting indolently at Venus’ feet.

Friedrich’s masterstroke was to show Venus and Elisabeth not as antitheses but as two sides of the same coin, neither of which producing the fulfilment or freedom that Tannhäuser desires. Both roles are sung by Gwyneth Jones (a remarkable achievement) who acts her roles magnificently as well as singing them brilliantly. When we first see her she too wears an anonymous mask, and it seems that she herself has become enslaved by her passion for Tannhäuser. Once the Venusberg disappears Tannhäuser is plunged into a bare landscape with nothing save the young shepherd to relieve the gloom: this return to the "real" world brings no comfort.

The Wartburg of Act 2 is a closed club; a faceless, unforgiving environment. Hermann’s retinue all dress in identical uniforms, black with a suspiciously familiar medal hanging round their necks. They even have identical hairstyles, though it is a testament to Friedrich’s attention to detail that the women and lower orders in the Hall of Song wear full medieval costume: a reference to authoritarianism in his own country? The banners that are raised at the entrance of the guests: medieval standards or another Nuremburg Rally? This restricted, authoritarian society can brook no individuality, and this is one of the reasons why they turn on Tannhäuser with such alarming force. When he sings his hymn to Venus he is cast out with disturbing violence, the whole company rounding on him with their swords, and almost cutting down Elizabeth in the process.

Friedrich’s often shocking direction of the actors reaches its climax at the start of Act Three where we see Elisabeth, emaciated and starving, driven to what genuinely seems the point of death by her intercessions for Tannhäuser. Jones’ acting is superlative here, vehemently rejecting Wolfram’s offers of help lest they diminish the value of her penance. Her disappointment when she realises that Tannhäuser is not among the returning pilgrims is gutting for us too. She literally crawls off-stage to her death, inspiring Wolfram to cast away his harp during the Abendstern solo: in the face of what he has seen, its usefulness, together with all it symbolised, is over for ever.

When Tannhäuser reappears he has failed to find fulfilment in either the Venusberg or the Christian world, so he embraces the Venusberg as the lesser of the two horrors. This time when she appears, however, Venus herself is masked behind a Death’s Head: all illusion about her world is gone and Tannhäuser loses all hope of finding satisfaction. Even when he receives the news that Heaven is open to him he dies despairing and alone among a sea of anonymous clones who show him no compassion whatever.

Friedrich’s vision of the work is undoubtedly a grim one, but it fits the work surprisingly well. It is one of those all too rare productions that made me see new things in a work that I thought I knew well. It is a testament to the success of the production that it is quite feasible, if you so choose, to take it as a purely literal interpretation of Wagner’s directions. Peel back they layers, though, and you find layers of richness which enhance your understanding of the work rather than get in the way. Brian Large’s direction, always dependable, here is superlative. When necessary he zooms in on faces and he monitors every reaction, so essential to a production like this one. The Bacchanal is filmed sensitively but he does not shy away from lewd close-ups when they achieve a certain effect. It seems, in fact, as if the sequence was filmed in a special studio then edited in later, though there is nothing to that effect in the booklet notes. Unusually for a Bayreuth film, an audience is present in the theatre during the filming, though you would never guess from the things the camera manages to achieve, and there is barely a sound from them throughout. The picture quality is also notably superior to other contemporary Bayreuth films, such as the Chéreau Ring.

To match such inspired direction we have remarkable singing and, as important here, acting. Spas Wenkoff is a marvellously assured Tannhäuser. His baritonal voice gives his character authority, but he tempers it well to accommodate his anguish and uncertainty too. In particular his telling of the Pope’s judgement in Act 3 is suitably dark. Gwyneth Jones gives a truly remarkable performance, equally convincing as the erotic siren in Act 1 and the holy innocent of Acts 2 and 3. Furthermore she tempers her voice astoundingly so as to provide entirely different colours for the two characters. Sotin is a dark and sinister Hermann who looks as grim as he sounds. His authoritative projection in Act 2 is marvellous. Perhaps the most purely beautiful singing of the set, however, comes from an incredible Bernd Weikl. His Wolfram is a stoical victim who surrenders to his circumstances selflessly. His voice, never sounding better, captures the characters extremes of goodness and sorrow. The Abendstern solo alone is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

In the pit Colin Davis, not a name one naturally associates with Wagner, keeps things ticking along nicely. His Entrance of the Guests has great momentum and he keeps his foot on the pedal excitingly during the Bacchanal. He is not afraid to be expansive during the big moments like the Pilgrim’s Chorus, however, and he judges the long arc of the final act particularly well.

I repeat, then: this set offers what, for my money, is the best Wagner experience that DVD has to offer. A production with incredible attention to detail, coupled with impeccable singing, an orchestra on the top of its form, with top notch picture and sound quality. This is essential not just for Wagnerians but for anyone interested in the power of the theatre. Get it now.

Simon Thompson


 


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