Reviewed by James Karas
Otto Schenk’s production of Tannhäuser for The Metropolitan Opera is 38 years old and it may be a throwback to a style that is more derided than emulated these days. It may be called loosely “realistic” but it is opera on a grand scale and a production that is a thrill to watch.
Wagner’s fifth opera opens in Venusberg, the abode of the goddess of love where the knight Tannhäuser has spent a year having the time of his life. Set Designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen provides a grandiose grotto with rising bluffs in the background. The lighting was not perfect and we missed the full effect of the set in the movie house. This is a place for carnal pleasure and perhaps even orgies.
Peter Mattei as Wolfram, Johan Botha in the title role, Günther Groissböck as Landgraf Hermann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Choreographer Norbert Vesak gives a sensuous ballet sequence that is erotic to the point of decadence. Muscular men and gorgeous women dance with erotic wildness and Dionysian abandon.
The scene in the valley near Wartburg castle is equally grandiose. Mountains can be seen in the distance and there is a dirt road leading upward into the mountains and down into the valley. The castle of the next act is drawn on a similar scale. This is grand opera on a grand budget.
The singing is generally outstanding. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has a mellifluous voice and her Elisabeth shows passion and compassion. She scales the Wagnerian heights and appears to sing quite effortlessly.
Tenor Johan Botha has a fine voice but his Tannhäuser is problematic. Botha’s acting skills can charitably be described as limited. His facial expression remains practically unchanged through most of his performance. He does break into a mirthless smile on occasion and he attempts some emotional expression near the end of the opera with very little success. His body language is almost non-existent and he barely moves his arms when singing. In other words he looks like a lump that can sing.
Botha suffers in comparison to baritone Peter Mattei in the role Wolfram. Mattei has an impressive and expressive voice but he is also an effective actor. He sings and moves with ease. His face and body movements express what he is singing and he gives us a sympathetic characterization. On the other hand, Botha’s Tannhäuser never gains our sympathy.
Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung made a visually and vocally stunning Venus. The goddess dominates the first act of the opera and the singer must do some impressive vocal somersaults that require unerring agility and amplitude.
Wagner composed some stunning and some loud choruses for Tannhäuser and the Met chorus does quite a stupendous job.
The Met Opera Orchestra under James Levine deserves to be described as mighty. Hearing the overture to Tannhäuser alone is almost worth the price of admission. Well, I exaggerate but not by much.
Tannhäuser has some unpleasant aspects. The knight’s trip from a life of carnal pleasure in it to practically a brothel to severe piety is unconvincing not to say nauseating. Then there is Elizabeth’s faith in him and let’s not forget his pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope and coming home empty-handed! Are we supposed to take these things seriously?
Schenk’s production, the outstanding singing and the mostly fine performances of the singers and the great Met Orchestra iron out many of the problems and you end up enjoying the opera despite some of its shortcomings.