Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Direction: Stephen Pickover
Tannhaüser: Johan Botha
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Peter Mattei
Elisabeth: Eva-Maria Westbrock
Venus: Michelle DeYoung
Hermann, Landgraf of Thuringia: Günther Groissböck
The eternal fight between virtue and, well, less virtue had to tempt a man as preoccupied with philosophical dilemmas as Richard Wagner, and sure enough, Tannhaüser actually kept him preoccupied for most of his adult life, or more precisely from 1842, when he was 29, to 1883, right before he died.
Inspired by German medieval literature, Tannhaüser is about a troubadour who, during the course of roughly four and a half hours, cannot make up his mind between sensual Venus and chaste Elisabeth. He eventually dies and is redeemed after the virtuous woman sacrificed herself. Wagner being Wagner, he composed a sumptuously Romantic score for it, and at some point even threw some ballet in as well so that it could be premiered at the Paris Opera according to the house's rules (Never mind that said premiere was a total fiasco for political reasons).
As I have been conscientiously making progress into Wagnerian territory with whatever the Met is kind enough to program, I was more than excited to see that Tannhaüser was up this season, and with an all-around impressive cast to boot. So it was with almost no regrets that I walked down to the Lincoln Center on a beautiful October day to confine myself for the entire afternoon in the Met's packed Family Circle.
Typically long and challenging, Wagnerian operas are not for the faint of hearts, and I am not talking only about the audience here. They also require the singers to have bottomless reserves of power and stamina on top of the expected professional-level singing. But the carefully hand-picked international cast we had in the house on Saturday afternoon proved that they could handle it all without apparently even breaking a sweat.
South African tenor Johan Botha, who had already proved his Wagnerian credentials last season with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, was an indefatigable Tannhaüser. If physical acting is not his forte, the myriad of subtle and not so subtle emotions he openly expressed in his compelling, well-articulated singing certainly more than made up for it.
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who had easily vowed the New York crowds in Parsifal two seasons ago, was a wonderful Wolfram, all dignified elegance and sensitive righteousness. His appealing voice and impeccable phrasing made a flawless accompaniment to the magnificent music.
The ladies fared very well too, with virtuous Elisabeth being brilliantly embodied by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in a role eons away from her superb Lady Macbeth of Mtensk from last season. Purity, however, obviously did not mean demureness in this case, and this Elisabeth stood up to the world with remarkable poise and authority.
American mezzo-sporano Michelle DeYoung was a decidedly seductive if moody Venus, oozing carefree sensuality galore, and seemed to relish every minute of it. You go, girl!
The ever-versatile chorus sounded totally at ease in Wagnerian land and authoritatively delivered pitch-perfect ensemble singing throughout the performance, with a special mention for an absolutely stupendous Pilgrims' Chorus. Hallelujah, indeed!
With singing so consistently mesmerizing, the production did not attract much attention, but it did not call for it either. Discreet and serviceable, such as a bunch of semi-clad young people frolicking in the Venusberg scene or a traditionally attractive German medieval Hall of Song, the sets got the job done unimaginatively, but efficiently.
The costumes were equally good-looking and predictable.
The composition, on the other hand, is as memorable as they come. Starting with the iconic overture, which is seamlessly followed by the enchanting ballet segment, it goes on with highly dramatic solos such as Elisabeth's salute to the hall, "Dich, teure Halle" or inconspicuously delicate hymns like Wolfram's greeting to the evening star, "O, du mein older Abendstern". Wagner may have intermittently agonized for four decades over Tannhaüser, but we can now say that it was worth it.
James Levine is a well-known Wagner expert, and there is no doubt that he had the score and the orchestra under tight and loving control. It is in fact hard to imagine any other conductor being able to unfold those seemingly endless and impossible gorgeous Romantic lines with the same mastery as he does. He ensured the right balance between orchestra and singers, expertly pacing the entire proceedings with deeply insightful command. The result was a musical performance as transcendental as the score, and that is saying a lot.