Tannhäuser
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In Review > North America

Tannhäuser

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
10/8/15

IN REVIEW MET TANNHAUSER HDL 116
Mattei as Wolfram in Tannhäuser at the Met
© Beatriz Schiller

THE MET'S PRODUCTION of Tannhäuser, first seen in 1977, is of a type nearly extinct in the world. A literal representation of Wagner’s directions in every way, it returned to the house on October 8, with Otto Schenk’s staging faithfully reproduced by Stephen Pickover and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets, aided by Gil Wechsler’s youth-enhancing lighting, still looking like a story book. 

Also returning from 1977 was conductor James Levine. He had a tentative start, looking frail, and there was a most un-Levine-like passage of orchestral uncertainty when Venus conjured her vision of delights. But the end of Act I was surprisingly boisterous, the entrance of the guests was prancey, and the accompaniment to the Landgraf’s big solo was absolutely crackling. Best of all was the final stretch of Act II, with the male choral ensemble music warm and carefully sustained. The prelude to Act III and the Rome narration were blunter and more primary-colored than they have been on other occasions, but the ceaselessly lapping “O du mein holder Abendstern” was perfect, and Levine actually seemed more energetic and powerful at the end of the long evening than he had at the start.

Johan Botha had the tricky pacing of the title role—with the enlarged Venusburg scene of the Paris version favored by Levine, the gigantic Act II, the sadistically low tenor writing of the Rome story—well in hand, and it was an eminently honorable vocal performance. The Rome narration, in fact, poised and tonally beautiful, became an unimagined highlight. Peter Mattei won all hearts from his early cry of “Bleib bei Elisabeth,” and his master-singing would have stolen the show had not Günther Groissböck’s Landgraf been such a stunner; it’s hard to remember the last time an audience listened so attentively to “Gar viel und schön.”

The women did not reach that level. Michelle DeYoung’s Venus, indistinct of word and pitch, was unsteady in long notes. To a lesser extent the same flaws afflicted Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Elisabeth as well. Moving into heavy verismo roles, Westbroek has lost command of the defined, clean lines of the hypervirginal character. Spending all of her breath on power, she broke many of Wagner’s long lines into pieces. 

One cannot help but feel the passing of thirty-eight years. Norbert Vesak’s choreography, valiantly danced by people who were not born yet when it was created, seems chaste rather than orgiastic. The four page boys are now eight girls and boys. Donald Palumbo’s Met chorus raised the bar on excellent intonation from far and near. The Met’s maintenance of eight onstage trumpets, full offstage hunting horn complement, sixteen flagbearers for the song contest and a retinue for each contestant no longer provokes nostalgia. It provides renewed enchantment.  —William R. Braun 

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