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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.