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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser (1845)
Tannhäuser: Richard Versalle (tenor); Elisabeth: Cheryl Studer, (soprano); The Landgrave von Thüringen: Hans Sotin, (bass); Wolfram von Eschenbach: Wolfgang Brendel, (baritone); Venus: Ruthild Engert-Ely, (mezzo)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
Director: Wolfgang Wagner; Director for film: Brian Large
rec. Bayreuther Festspielhaus, 23-28 June 1989
DVD all regions
EUROARTS 2072008 [188:00]

This recording adds substance to the idea that running Bayreuth as a family business does Richard Wagner no favours. Yes, this is created by Wolfgang, the composer’s grandson, but the genius doesn’t lie in genes. Wieland Wagner had the same visionary courage as the composer, and to build on the artistic inheritance, but Wolfgang is no Wieland. Bayreuth will always be the Holy Grail, but it’s waiting for Parsifal.
The Ring is so powerful that it can withstand all manner of interpretation, but Tannhäuser is, literally, a different story. Wagner is still grappling with ideas from Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin: in some ways Tannhäuser is a kind of prototype for Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. All the more reason then, that a production of this opera needs to meaningfully enhance it. There are lots of ways of thinking it through, but this isn’t one of the more inspired. The sets are nice and clear, a simple circular, rotating disc with details created by coloured light. By commissioning Chéreau, Wieland cleared away the debris of Cosima orthodoxy, refocusing on the spirit of Wagner’s music, rather than the outward form. That’s critical. It isn’t the set that makes an opera, but what the set contributes to extending its essential meaning. It’s irrelevant whether the staging is modern or not, as long as it’s intelligent.
Thus, when Wolfgang’s Venusberg is a halo of sexless ballet dancers waving their arms. Is this what Tannhäuser gave up Wartburg for? And why is he so driven to leave it? In the beginning of the third act, there’s nothing on stage at all, but the wooden icon of the Virgin Mary, which we’ve been shown at length in the first Act. For ten whole minutes, the audience might just as well be listening at home, in greater comfort than the stifling heat and hard seats of Bayreuth. Of course, people don’t necessarily go to Bayreuth for artistic enlightenment, but they do deserve something that enhances the opera as opera. Five years later, Brian Large, who directed the filming of this version, was to make another version in Munich, conducted by Mehta and staged by David Alden. It was horrifying at the time, because Venusberg was depicted as a place full of excessive lust, shading off into the bestial and sinister. Unfortunately, many people didn’t see past the nudity, and appreciate that its point was to show the fundamental depravity of Venusberg. How ironic it was that the “degenerate” staging was actually reaffirming the purity and spirituality Elisabeth represents. The Landgrave and Wartburgers don’t have much to worry about in this Bayreuth Venusberg, so its essential horror is dissolved. Similarly, although there is connection between Elisabeth and the Virgin Mary, here the costuming makes the point with too heavy a hand. Elisabeth is human, not a wooden icon come alive.
Were this production musically stimulating, it might still work. After all, this is Wagner. Sadly the uninspired approach affected the conducting and orchestra too. Much of Sinopoli’s reputation rests on his work in opera. Tannhäuser was his debut at Bayreuth, but this DVD was made after he’d conducted it for several years. Unfortunately, the frequent and long drawn-out episodes when nothing happens on stage only serve to highlight the fairly lacklustre playing. The slow pace is particularly grating in the long dialogues in the hall of Song. Wagner may have written longueurs into the score, but dragging them out militates against the drama at the heart of opera.
Fortunately, the third act is transformational in many ways. It’s the critical turning point of the opera, where suddenly, so much happens - Tannhäuser returns from Rome, cursed, ready to return to Venusberg. Fortunately, the tension in the power struggle sparks much more animated playing. This is tighter ensemble writing than has gone before, for in this smaller, more intense grouping, Wagner can focus on the claustrophobic tensions. The singers rise to the challenge. Richard Versalle’s Tannhäuser may have started a little unsteadily, but grows more interestingly as the opera proceeds, rather like the character he’s playing. His portrayal of Tannhäuser now has quite well defined hysteria – after all, he’s decided to return to hell. This role was close to Versalle’s heart, for it gave him his big break, when René Kollo pulled out just forty-five minutes before the curtain went up in an earlier production. Versalle may not have the depth of Kollo, but he compensates with thoughtful interpretation. Alas, during a 1996 production at the Met, he was to fall and die on stage in a freak accident.
Elisabeth was also Cheryl Studer’s big international breakthrough, when she was called to substitute at short notice in 1985, despite never having sung the role before. Again, this recording is taken from the last season in which this production was used, so we’re hearing her more at ease in the role. How lovely and fresh she sounds here! It’s no surprise that she made such an impact. Nonetheless, film techniques, when this recording was made, do her no favours.
Though crucial, Elisabeth’s role is relatively straightforward. Wolfram von Eschenbach, however, is a more complex character, especially when played by Wolfgang Brendel. Nearly everything Brendel does has individual character. His Eschenbach bridges the gap between Tannhäuser, knights and minstrels. Moreover, he exudes sexuality despite the chasteness of his songs. Whether or not Wolfgang Wagner had this in mind when he cast Brendel, I don’t know, but Brendel’s characterization brings out a deeper undercurrent in the dynamic between purity and lust. Elisabeth’s Tannhäuser is, despite her virtue, clearly erotic. The warmth and sensuality with which Brendel sings, show another kind of sanctified love. Later, Brendel was to create an equally virile Hans Sachs, making it obvious why Eva was willing to marry him. His Song to the Evening Star is utterly gorgeous, fervent and refined at the same time. Indeed, it is Brendel who pulls this production together in conjunction with Versalle and Studer.
Anne Ozorio



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