Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

WAGNER: Tannhäuser

spacer Stemme, Prudenskaya; R. D. Smith, Gerhaher, Dohmen; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunk-Sinfonierorchester Berlin, 
Janowski. Text and translation. PentaTone PTC 5186 405 (3)


For Tannhäuser,the sixth installment in his traversal of the ten canonical Wagner operas, Marek Janowski has chosen the early Dresden version of the score. This choice informs just about everything in his interpretation. For Janowski, Tannhäuser is a post-Classical opera. The end of the Elisabeth–Tannhäuser duet has never sounded more like Leonore and Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio; the stopped horns in Act III come straight out of Weber's Freischütz. In Act II, the guests enter to prancing, not sumptuous, music. The Dresden version of the Venusberg scene, far shorter than it would later be in the Paris revision now favored at the Met for decades, is mostly a post-Bacchanalian affair, seconded by Janowski, who gives an almost restful feeling to the phrasing. (His Venus, Marina Prudenskaya, is a severe, imperious and not very alluring singer, which is in keeping with the Dresden score; however, she doesn't make much of her words, which is not.) Janowski is completely in control of everything he desires from his musicians. At the end of Act II, he somehow gives the illusion of a gradual accelerando without actually making one.

The Walther von Stolzing, the Isolde and the Hans Sachs of Janowski's earlier Wagner installments return here. Robert Dean Smith manages to do some surprisingly beautiful things in the strenuous role of Tannhäuser, notably the elision of two phrases in the second verse of the hymn to Venus and some pleasing clear tones when he calls on the Virgin Mary. But there is an odd effect in the sound engineering. The recording is billed as a single live performance, but Smith is in a substantially different acoustic. Nina Stemme, today's reigning Isolde and Brünnhilde, mostly has the role of Elisabeth in her rear-view mirror at this point. When she faces off against all the men of the cast and chorus at the end of Act II, she is commanding, rather than desperate and rueful, and her Act III prayer is sung with decisiveness and finality, rather than as a plea. But she can hardly be faulted for her vocal technique and her assurance. 

Albert Dohmen is a conventional Landgraf, particularly in contrast to Christian Gerhaher's Wolfram. Gerhaher must be tired of constant comparison to the impeccable performances of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but the way he has apparently thought about every vowel sound he sings in the entire opera, and his ability to sing the three notes of a major triad perfectly in tune, make this point of reference unavoidable. Perhaps it's all just a bit precious, and Janowski has the technique to induce an orchestra to accompany him with the precision of a lieder pianist. But Wagner did provide Wolfram with a tasteful orchestral ensemble of a harp and a few discreet strings for almost the entire role. Gerhaher and Janowski make Wolfram's contribution to the song contest the aural equivalent of a stroll up a flowery hillside and back.

In the Dresden Tannhäuser, the roles of Biterolf and Walther are prominent in Act II. They are well enough sung here to reveal how the three main solos in the song contest echo the three strophes of Tannhäuser's hymn to Venus in Act I. But some of the discouraging elements in this recording would have been easy to put right. The principal oboe part needs a more soloistic quality than it gets here. And the five roles for boys (a shepherd and four pages) are here sung by adult women. This is often done for security's sake, although for a generation at the Met, boys have often done the roles superbly. (One was little Adam Guettel, who grew up to write the musical The Light in the Piazza.) The women here do not sing nearly well enough to justify the substitution. But it is important to take a step back and view the recording as a whole. I've been a firm partisan of the Paris Tannhäuser for thirty years, and Janowski converted me to Dresden. spacer


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10