Well, I never thought I would turn 60, but the time has finally come and to celebrate I took a week’s vacation and my wife and I travelled to Chicago to attend a performance of Tannhauser at Lyric Opera. This is the first time this opera has been performed at Lyric since the 1980’s and only the 3rd time in the history of the company. Tannhauser has always been a favorite of mine. I became familiar with it when I was much younger and have always enjoyed the music. There was a time I might have said this was my favorite Wagner opera, but as I have gotten older I’m afraid Tannhasuer has been pushed aside in favor of the Ring, but also Meistersinger and Tristan. Even so, I do love Tannhauser and it has some wonderful music. Unlike a lot of Wagner’s other operas it actually has set pieces – an overture, arias, ensembles and the like. It also has a really cool onstage English Horn part which I always lusted after, not as glorious as the one from the 3rd act of Tristan, but still a lovely solo. So I was very excited to get to see this opera which is produced so infrequently.
A little background: without going into great detail let me just say that Wagner created several different versions of this opera. The Paris version, which is what Lyric performed and the one that is most popular, is the later version and was expanded to includ the Venusberg ballet music in particular for a series of performances in Paris, where ballet in opera was ubiquitous. For a variety of reasons it was a disaster and Wagner never felt that Tannhasuer was complete or finished.
So, after all this anticipation I have to say the experience was a mixed bag. Musically it was mostly strong, the production however was really odd. Let’s start with the musical performance. The key role in this opera is, no surprise, Tannhauser himself. This taxing heldentenor part is a very difficult role. One reason the opera is performed so infrequently is the difficulty in casting this main role. Luckily for Lyric, South African heldentenor Johan Botha is available and I am certain that he is glorious in the role. Unfortunately, he was sick for the Thursday performance I attended. What a disappointment! This was made all the more acute by the fact that the cover or understudy, Richard Decker, was really not quite up to the task. While he had his moments (most notably the Rome Narrative in Act 3 where he was wonderful) mostly his just didn’t have enough power for the role. Act 2 was especially weak I'm sorry to say. His interjections in act 2 should soar, and they just didn’t. I had the feeling at times that the wonderful Amber Wagner, who played Elizabeth, was pulling her very large voice back to keep from overpowering him. Musically act 2 was also not as tight as it should be. Having said that, I understand that singers are humans and they get sick. I am sorry that Mr. Botha was sick, so Lyric did what they had to do. But for me it was a big disappointment, especially since out of 3 operas I attended this year at Lyric the leads were replaced in two of them (the other one being Don Giovanni where Marius Kwiecien was replaced by a fine young bass baritone – but still!)
That said the star of the evening for me was by far the Wolfram von Eschenbach of Gerald Finley. He has some of the most beautiful music in the score and was amazing. I loved absolutely every note he sang. His “Hymn the Evening Star” in act 3 was glorious. Amber Wagner as Elizabeth and Michaela Schuste sang Venus and they were both excellent. John Relyea sang the Landgraf Hermann and he was outstanding, as always – has has always been a favorite of mine. The chorus was one of the stars of the evening – they were glorious, especially the men in all of the men’s choruses. The orchestra was good. The English Horn was flat though when he first started, I’m not sure if the orchestra had drifted sharp or if he was just flat, but the first phrase was flat. I would say that act 3 was the strongest and best performed. Act 2 was the weakest and act 1 in between.
This leads to the staging and what a odd production! Why did Lyric engage this odd production from Covet Garden? The oddest thing is that part of the set is the stage and curtain of the Royal Opera House, Covet Garden. It is in tact for the Venusberg scenes and in ruins for act 2. I am sure this setting had some kind of special resonance in London, but it did not work in Chicago, IMHO. It just came across as weird. What exactly was the point? By act 3 the rubble was covered in snow so the setting became pretty much irrelevant. I am not one that automatically dismisses updated productions and I am willing to give these Regietheater productions a chance, but this one just did not work.
However, some of the elements were more successful – the opening Venusburg ballet was terrific. It was erotic and extremely physical. The use of the chairs and the large table were very effective and the choreographer used all of this to stunning effect. I was sorry there was no curtain call for the dancers. They deserved one.
Quibbles: Why did Venus initially enter dressed as Elizabeth? 2 dimensions of the same woman? Ho hum, yes, ok… boring - nothing like being hit over the head with the obvious! Usually the pilgrims walk across the stage in act 1 singing that glorious chorus. Not here – it was all back stage, too bad. At least they walked on in act 3 and sang the Pilgrim’s chorus from onstage. Why did the hunters shoot the shepherd? Why were there two shepherds - a child along with the singer? Why did all the hunters and the chorus in act 2 look like they just got back from a deployment in Afganistan? The costumes were at odds with the libretto. Why was the singing contest in act 2 set amidst the rubble of a bombed out ROH Covet Garden? I understand that Wagner was making a lot of pronouncements about the feudal society in which he lived and there is much that is relevant to today, but I found this production just muddled.
If you are interested in learning more about this wonderful opera I highly recommend this series of articles by my friend and former colleague Dr. Karl Seigfried: http://www.norsemyth.org/2015/02/myth-legend-in-wagners-tannhauser-part.html
Lastly, I want to mention that if you scroll down you will find my reflections on my fall trips to LOC to see Don Giovanni and Capriccio. I had tickets on the floor and near the back and I hated it! Mostly I hated it because I found the people on the floor to be very, very rude and obnoxious. The leaving throughout the last hour was particularly galling for me. I am happy to report however that my experience in the Dress Circle (3rd Floor) was very, very different. I seemed to be surrounded by other opera lovers who, except for the odd crinkly candy wrapper now and then were quiet and respectful. In the future, this is where I will sit and I am sorry I didn’t experience those other operas from this vantage point last fall.
In closing, I am very glad I got to see Tannhauser. It wasn’t quite as glorious as I had hoped it would be, but it was a fine performance and I enjoyed it very much.
Finally - here is the wonderful overture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTM7E4-DN0o