From my experience, I’d suggest that Orfeo’s live opera recordings tend to fall into three categories:
- entirely expendable/why did they bother? (Ozawa’s Viennese Ernani
- indispensable/of huge historic interest (Böhm’s Viennese Elektra
- an interesting adjunct to another existing interpretation (Karajan’s Vienna Don Carlo
This Bayreuth Tannhäuser
falls into the third category. A recording of this production on Philips from the 1962 festival has long been in the catalogue - though it appears currently to be unavailable. It features a very similar cast, though with two changes which I shall come to below, and is in far superior stereo sound. While this Orfeo release is interesting, it’s primarily for reasons of comparison, and I prefer the 1962 recording.
This Wieland Wagner production caused a famous storm for featuring Grace Bumbry as the “Black Venus” and, once the storm over her skin colour had subsided, it was possible to review the performance as a tremendously interesting one. The sultry, sensuous side of her voice has always been one of Bumbry’s strongest assets, and that makes her a great shout for the goddess of love. It’s difficult to hear how Tannhäuser could resist her in the first act, and her switch from seductress to spurned harpy is a striking one. Windgassen himself is on very fine form here. The baritonal character of his voice struck me much more here than on the 1962 recording, and he radically alters the colour of his voice for the Rome narration, sounding utterly desperate in his dejection and rising to a thrilling snarl of “verdammt”. Josef Greindl was not above the occasional bark in his day, and so it comes through on this recording, but he is an authoritative Landgraf, and he is backed by a very distinctive Gerhard Stolze as Walther and, hidden away among the minstrels, Theo Adam as Reinmar. The chorus sound brilliant, especially in the second act, and Sawallisch controls the whole drama with his characteristic flair for drama.
So to the two major cast changes. While Anja Silja took Elisabeth in 1962, 1961 featured Victoria de los Angeles, who brings an entirely different colour to the role. She is much brighter and the Mediterranean hue of her voice makes her sound much less conventionally Germanic, which is by no means necessarily a bad thing. That works very well for her in Dich, teure Halle
and in the duet with Tannhäuser that follows it, but not quite so well in the scenes of existential pleading, either at the end of Act 2 or in her Act 3 prayer. Furthermore, I love the peculiar hue that Silja brings to the role; every bit as bright as de los Angeles, but in a very different way, and she is heart-rending at the climaxes where de los Angeles falls that little bit short.
The other change is in the role of Wolfram, which is more evenly matched. Fischer-Dieskau sounds great here, bringing all of his famous smoothness and characteristic importance of the words to what is probably the most sympathetic character in the opera. He is particularly good at this at the start of Act 3 and then in the “Abendstern” solo and he is worth hearing for that. However, in 1962 Eberhard Wächter was on duty and he did a very good job too, bringing his own vocal stamp and great measures of mellifluousness to great effect, so there is less to choose between the two.
Interesting as this is, though, there is no doubt in my mind that if you really need Sawallisch’s Bayreuth Tannhäuser
then it is to Philips in 1962 that you should turn, if you can get it. The conductor’s interpretation doesn’t really change significantly. It’s an amalgam of the Paris and Dresden versions, if you’re interested. Importantly, the stereo sound from Philips is infinitely superior, helping the famous Bayreuth acoustic to cast its magic in a way that Orfeo’s limited mono simply cannot.