Tannhäuser – Zurich Opera (30 March)

Tannhäuser (concert performance)

Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth – Solveig Kringelborn
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Thomas Hampson
Venus – Liuba Chuchrova
A young shepherd – Martina Jankova
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Alfred Muff
Walther von der Vogelweide – Christoph Strehl
Biterolf – Rolf Haunstein
Heinrich der Schreiber – Martin Zysset
Reinmar von Zweter – Pavel Czekala

Choruses and Orchestra of Zurich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In Tannhäuser, we witness Wagner starting the process of liberating himself from the constraints and confines of traditional operatic form. He is not yet the master of transition, or of through-composed structures, but we can sense him stretching conventions, whilst still revelling in them and making them, to some extent, his own. The big second-act concerted music is positively Verdian in its swagger, and hero and heroine even have a duet in which they sing mostly in sixths and thirds – as do Leonora and Florestan in Fidelio by Wagner’s musical god, Beethoven.

Although no mention was made of the fact in the programme, this performance was of the original, Dresden version (1845, with subsequent revisions), and very interesting it was to hear, since it is often the later, Paris version of 1861 which is given, or an inauthentic ’hotchpotch’ of the two versions. Towards the end of his life, Wagner remarked to is wife Cosima, “I still owe the world Tannhäuser”, suggesting that the work had not achieved a form that was satisfactory to him.

Be that as it may, there is still plenty to ponder and relish in a work which, in many ways, is a pointer for the ideas – both musical and philosophical – which Wagner was to explore subsequently. A strong cast was assembled under Franz Welser-Möst, and if the results were not exactly earth shattering, this was a solid, decently sung performance, probably as good, vocally speaking, as one is likely to find today.

The overture revealed the fine qualities of the Zurich Opera’s orchestra, whose Music Director Welser-Möst was from 1995 until last year, subsequently becoming Principal Conductor. There was good tone and blend from the winds and horns, and the powerful brass were strong without being strident – a difficult feat to achieve in this hall. If the strings initially were a little matter-of-fact, they later on made up for this with some warm and expressive playing. Indeed the orchestra throughout was commendably secure, attentive and responsive to Wagner’s requirements. The principal winds – the oboe in particular, to which Wagner entrusts many a poignant phrase – were thoroughly praiseworthy.

Peter Seiffert, widely regarded as currently one of the leading Wagner tenors, was confident and heroic in demeanour and utterance. Sadly, there was little variety in his delivery. If he did not suffer the fate of the first interpreter of the role, Joseph Tichatschek, who had a reputation for unbridled vocal power and sang himself hoarse, Seiffert did little to suggest the vacillating figure of Wagner’s imagining. His security and stamina were, however, much to be much to be admired, and he did touch a vein of eloquence in the third act narration.

At the start of the opera, Tannhäuser is discovered languishing in the court of Venus. This was the scene much expanded for Paris where Wagner drew on his later ’Tristan’ style to suggest the voluptuous of Venusberg. In this more austere Dresden version, Liuba Chuchrova suggested an authoritative goddess, with more than a hint of an imperious quality. Her cajoling of Tannhäuser to remain with her could have done with a softer edge at times, but she was certainly commanding in her tone and relish of the text. After Venus and her followers have vanished, following Tannhäuser’s invoking the name of the Virgin Mary, his return to the Wartburg – the place of his origin – is heralded by the song of a young shepherd. Martina Jankova made much of this small role – perhaps too much so to suggest a young shepherd boy. The men’s chorus was also heard for the first time as the pilgrims, and its excellence throughout the opera – and it plays a substantial and crucial part – was one of the highlights of the performance. A pity that no chorus-master was named in the programme.

The Landgrave and Tannhäuser’s fellow knights now appear, and there was no weak link in their casting. Alfred Muff was supremely authoritative as the Landgrave – subsequently displaying an appropriate warmth and avuncular affection towards his niece Elisabeth – and Thomas Hampson was superb as Wolfram von Eschenbach – one of those rare figures in Wagner who is without a trace of selfishness or malice. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the welcoming of Tannhäuser’s return, and Welser-Möst brought spirited animation to the final bars of the first act.

In Act Two, Elisabeth’s greeting to the Minstrels’ Hall found Solveig Kringelborn in radiant voice, if without the sense of ecstatic excitement and expectation that characterises, say, Gwyneth Jones’s interpretation of this role. Later on, Kringelborn demonstrated firmness and resolve when intervening on Tannhäuser’s behalf following his admission to the shocked company that he has been indulging himself at the Venusberg. In the scene where the crowds assemble to witness the singing contest, the various choral groups were splendidly virile and vigorous – how remarkably this passage pre-figures Verdi’s ’Triumphal March’ from Aida some 25 years later! And if we were not granted the 12 on-stage trumpets requested by Wagner, there was half that number sensibly divided on the balconies either side of the platform.

Welser-Möst marshalled his forces efficiently enough, although a greater sense of anticipation and commotion would not have gone amiss. The solos in praise of love were well delivered, and Wagner would not have cut Walther’s song (as he did in Paris where the singer was inadequate) had he had Christoph Strehl in his cast. It would be no surprise if he were to go on to sing some of Wagner’s more substantial tenor roles. Rolf Haunstein lived up to the name of his character, with appropriate bluster and impetuosity. The moments of stillness and reflection were well caught, and some notoriously awkward ensemble passages were smoothly negotiated. A small cut was made towards the end of this act, though on what authority I am uncertain.

In the prelude to Act Three, some of the reservations regarding the conducting were most apparent, with little sense of anguish and despair in this forward-looking music. The orchestra played well enough, but one did not sense that Welser-Möst was sufficiently inside the idiom for a full realisation of the dramatic situation or Tannhäuser’s psychological state.

Kringelborn and Hampson were responsive to each other in their scene together, and the latter sang most touchingly in ’O du mein holder Abendstern’ which was moving and without a trace of false sentimentality. In fact, Thomas Hampson consistently demonstrated that he was comfortable and fully in command of his role, something that is not always apparent in some of the operatic characters he has ventured on stage and on record. Kringelborn rose to the challenges of her prayer to the Virgin, ’Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’, and her emotional response to the text and music was affecting.

Seiffert was at his best in his long narrative describing his pilgrimage to Rome, not without a trace of rancour in his exchanges with Hampson, and quite graphic in his despair.The conclusion of the drama, with Tannhäuser calling upon Venus, and Wolfram invoking the name of Elisabeth had a good sense of theatrical frisson, and there was cumulative power in the final chorus.

Any sense of disappointment from the main protagonist and the frankly prosaic conducting, which did little more than keep things reasonably efficiently together, was more than offset by the overall strength of the cast and company – not to mention the inherent worthiness of Wagner’s interesting score.

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