May 09, 2013


Wagner: Tannhäuser. Albert Dohmen, Robert Dean Smith, Christian Gerhaher, Peter Sonn, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Michael McCown, Martin Snell, Nina Stemme, Marina Prudenskaya, Bianca Reim, Sabine Puhlmann, Isabelle Voßkühler, Roksolana Chraniuk, Bettina Pieck; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $49.99 (3 SACDs).

     Tannhäuser is Wagner’s “problem opera.” Written between Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, it lacks the straightforward and propulsive drama of the former and the rarefied religious sentiment – itself laced with drama – of the latter. Its title character is never even called by that name in the opera – he is always referred to only as “Heinrich” – and while Wagner knew what personal conflicts he himself was trying to solve through the character, those dilemmas are by no means clear to a modern audience. Apparently they were not particularly clear to operagoers in Wagner’s time, either. This is why Wagner made multiple versions of Tannhäuser – the original one in 1845, slightly changed in 1847 and now called the Dresden version; a revised one in 1862 known as the Paris version; and a late one created between 1867 and 1875 and called the Munich/Vienna version. None of these was fully satisfactory, and Wagner knew it, saying near the end of his life that he still owed Tannhäuser to the world. The world never received it: there is no definitive version of this opera.

     The work’s problems are twofold. One is that, as noted, the title character’s difficulty is not particularly clear: he has been enjoying sensual love in the Venusberg, abruptly decides to return to everyday life because he longs for the imperfect, seems rather half-heartedly to want a wholly conventional form of salvation, and eventually receives it posthumously through the contrived deaths of both himself and the magnificently pure Elisabeth (who does express sensual feelings but is considerably better than Tannhäuser himself at suppressing them). Ostracized by his fellow men, as Venus predicted he would be, and turned back even by the Pope, Tannhäuser dies (exactly how, except as a plot point, is never made clear) before learning that he has been granted redemption by direct divine intervention, apparently not because he deserves it but because Elisabeth has died (again, exactly of what except the exigencies of the plot is never made clear) and thus is able to intercede on his behalf with God.

     The story is weird even by operatic standards, and does not hold together nearly as well as the plots of Der fliegende Holländer or Lohengrin. Furthermore, Tannhäuser is highly dependent on exceedingly careful staging: it opens with nearly 20 minutes of absolutely marvelous pure symphonic music, and the first singing is from an invisible chorus. More significantly – and this second significant problem of the music drama is really the heart of the matter for listeners away from the opera house – the bad guys get most of the good music. Venus, with her pre-Christian sensuality, is certainly supposed to be “bad” in this very conventional little morality play, although it is noteworthy that Wagner the librettist shows his inner ambivalence by having Tannhäuser call Venus “queen” and Elisabeth only “princess.” In any case, although the leitmotif concept is not yet fully formed here, Wagner is already experimenting with chromaticism and unusual sonorities, and the Venusberg benefits tremendously from the composer’s groping toward a new musical language. By contrast, when Wagner brings his protagonist into the realm of mankind as a launching pad for salvation, the sunlit music – which is highly accessible and quite easy on the ears – is so conventional that it is difficult to believe that it comes from Wagner at this stage of his compositional development. Much of it sounds like a throwback not even to Rienzi but to Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot – perfectly serviceable and wonderfully tuneful, but comparatively undistinguished and not “Wagnerian” in any significant sense.

     So what does Marek Janowski do with all this in the sixth of his 10-Wagner-opera series for PentaTone, the last entry before he begins a new Ring cycle? The answer is that he produces yet another top-notch performance that never glosses over the imperfections of Tannhäuser but does not allow them to impede its progress. Propulsive tempos – sometimes, indeed, a bit too speedy – are part of Janowski’s approach; clear communication of emotion by the singers is another element. This is particularly effective in Robert Dean Smith’s elegant and nuanced portrayal of Tannhäuser, although somewhat less so in Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus – her intensity gets in the way of her pronunciation, and some lines are muddied. Nina Stemme, in contrast, sings with beauty and grace as Elisabeth, and makes her a more down-to-earth person than her role as an angel of purity – whose very name is a holy charm for Tannhäuser – might otherwise indicate.

     Christian Gerhaher performs with a fine sense of style as Wolfram von Eschenbach – who behaves nobly and does everything right but still ends up second-best to Tannhäuser within the “morality play” of the opera (and this is another flaw of the whole concept).  Wolfram’s famous song to the evening star is in fact a paean to Venus: the evening star has been given that identity since ancient times, and there is no reason to believe Wagner was unaware of this – although he may not have intended any irony but may simply have been conflicted, as with the “queen” and “princess” references.

     The other solo roles are all handled more than capably; Albert Dohmen as the Landgrave is especially effective, with a voice of considerable power and depth. The orchestral forces for Tannhäuser are huge even by Wagner’s standards, and Janowski manages them beautifully, while the Rundfunkchor Berlin again turns in an absolutely first-rate performance from start to finish. The sound quality is outstanding in this live recording of a concert performance of May 5, 2012, and the production quality will surely whet listeners’ appetites for the four remaining Wagner operas that PentaTone will bring out this year: if Janowski can do this much, this successfully, with an opera whose dramatic and musical elements are as flawed as are those of Tannhäuser, his upcoming Ring cycle bids fair to be an absolute stunner.

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