When a marriage between an opera and its mise-en-scène works, it is wondrous to behold. Otto Schenk’s 1977 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, with sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and costumes by Patricia Zipprodt, still mesmerizes visually as a suite of enchanting Romantic paintings—with touches of Northern Renaissance—that host the thirteenth-century plot gently, supportively, without intruding on the music. This is one of the most appealing and successful revivals in recent years at the Met. This was Opera with a capital, ravishing O, Opera wrapped in the mantle of grandeur and beauty that has, by certain modern standards, not kept up with the times, yet seldom fails to draw one in and stir the senses. None of it would be possible, of course, without the brilliant artists who bare their souls, and offer up their voices with generosity and courage, a courage that grew into undaunted valiance, like it did on November 30th during the rattling and unnerving climate protesters’ interruption.
During the second performance on December 3rd, the excitement to be back onstage in anticipation of going through the entire performance without interruptions was palpable, both in the audience and among the performers. Since I left after the second interruption on November 30th, on December 3rd, I saw Act 1 and half of Act 2 again. It was immediately obvious that every single one of the singers, chorus included, was taking the intensity of their performance up a notch. That’s not to say that the November 30th performance—the half that I experienced—lacked any element of a thrilling delivery. It’s just that in this second performance, the appetite to sing, the zest in performing, the vibrant presence of everyone onstage and in the pit felt doubled.
Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, Georg Zeppenfeld as Landgraf Hermann, and Andreas Schager as Tannhäuser
This passionate commitment to performing was especially intense in Andreas Schager’s interpretation of the title role. Heroic and unbounded, Schager unleashed a Heldentenor voice that reverberated through every corner of the house, pushing the walls back and the ceiling higher, as if to create even more space for his larger-than-life vocality, whether in ardent worship of Venus or in tender adoration of Elisabeth or in railing against the lack of forgiveness by the Pope despite his acts of penitence. Schager’s Tannhäuser is a phenomenon to behold, a character of uncontainable passion and unfathomable depth, an artist equally capable of deriving inspiration from pleasure as well as saintliness. He is a man of many facets, self-aware and brave, and Schager’s voice encompassed those facets like a breathtaking rollercoaster riding a torrent of unquenchable vitality. His ode to Venus rang out in fervent and gleaming phrases, an artesian fountain of clear, brilliant tones alternating with darker shades that reflected his anguished determination to leave her, making his struggle between staying in Venusberg and returning among the mortals real and soulful.
Tannhäuser’s reunion with Elisabeth was filled with tenderness and reverence as Schager’s fiery, heroic vocality took on mellower resonances without losing echoes of its passionate reverberations held, like the character’s love and knowledge of pleasure, under respectful restraint. During the singing contest, that restraint crumbled as the love for Elisabeth and the love for Venus lost the boundary between them and sublimation and pleasure became one and the same. Add to this Tannhäuser’s defiance and mocking of the other singers for their prudish understanding of love, and you’ve got a thrilling edge-of-your-seat scene that made the contrast with his eventual submission to his accusers even more poignant and crushing.
From glorious to tender to defiant to subdued, Schager’s voice transmitted an entire universe of emotions. In Act 3, his account of his penitence and rejection by the Pope struck harrowing and ominous, and infinitely heartbreaking. In the struggle between Christianity and paganism at the core of the story, Schager’s interpretation gave the impression of an artist whose creativity knows no bounds, but who is trapped and stunted in a world of binaries and imposed contrasts cloaked under the terms of Good and Evil. Schager’s vocal capabilities and dramatic range are ideally suited for the role of this hard-to-tame man-songbird whose wings flutter valiantly against the human-made cage around him while he seeks to obliterate the margins between physical love, spiritual love, and salvation.
As Elisabeth, Elza van den Heever seemed to float in her own dimension through her angelic, translucent voice and luminous presence. Still, this did not make her an inaccessible character; her warm, soft tones and emotional inflections brought humanity into the epitome of innocence that is her role. She sang her opening aria, “Dich, teure Halle”, with exuberant brilliance. In the reunion with Tannhäuser, she modulated her vocal expressions between nobility, bashfulness, and childlike joy, coloring her opalescent sound in melting hues that expressed both love and wonder. Her plea to her uncle and to the singing knights to grant Tannhäuser a chance at redemption, resounded heartfelt and sorrowful, never losing the purity of sound that she brought to the entire role. In the third act prayer, “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau”, her voice acquired a hypnotic allure, like an otherworldly, meditative chant of resigned, sublime beauty in her appeal to be removed from life.
À propos otherworldliness and sublimity, similar transcendent qualities emanated from Christian Gerhaher’s interpretation of Wolfram. Gerhaher created a character endowed with grace, compassion, and nobility of soul. His detailed attention to the text, his coloring of every syllable, especially in his ode to the true essence of love in Act 2 as in his final aria, amplified the poetic dimensions of Wagner’s music and brought in an exquisite element of theater. His Act 3 aria, “O du mein holder Abendstern”, turned into a spellbinding monologue that could have lived on spoken words alone in Gerhaher’s pronunciation. But wrapped in the velvety, enveloping, nuanced sound of his soft singing, this was among the most heart-stopping moments of the evening. In his entrancing interpretation, there was hardly any distinction between the words and the music, yet every word was understandable. Nonetheless, the clearer those words were and the deeper the colors they acquired, the more profoundly intertwined with the music they became, so that everything that made up that particular moment—singer, orchestra, and plot—became a perfect union transmitted by Gerhaher’s artistry into a magnetic delivery.
Elza van den Heever as Elisabeth and Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram
Ekaterina Gubanova infused the role of Venus with such sensuality and fire that even the occasional hollow-sounding high note did not take away from the credible, engaging totality of her interpretation. Her responses to Tannhäuser’s pleas to release him poured out in avalanches of caressing, enticing phrases. She alternated with ease between seduction, desperation, anger, and genuine concern for the judgment and pain awaiting Tannhäuser among mortals, and her voice undulated through the change of moods with luscious substance of tone and earthy passion.
As Landgraf Hermann, Georg Zeppenfeld conveyed both authority in public, and paternal concern for Elisabeth in his private moments with her. His strong bass voice, channeled into a noble and elegant delivery, made for a powerful and compassionate figure, torn between power and tenderness. Le Bu, a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program is definitely a rising singer to watch. He made the small role of Biterolf memorable through the sheer beauty and radiant timbre of his bass-baritone voice. There was enormous promise contained in the phrases he sang, and one looks forward to experiencing that voice in larger roles in the future. Maureen McKay was a sweet and nostalgic Shepherd, in a voice at once suave, playful, and filled with dreaminess and longing. As Heinrich der Scheiber, Tony Stevenson’s ringing, bright tenor made one wish to hear him longer. Kyle van Schoonhoven and Harold Wilson made notable impressions as Walther von der Vogelweide and Reinmar von Zweter, respectively.
Act 2 scene – Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner – The Metropolitan Opera
Maestro Donald Runnicles brought the orchestra to new heights and depths of interpretation in illuminating the score’s structural richness, especially in the themes of struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between paganism and Christianity. Supportive of the singers, Maestro Runnicles facilitated the seamless flow of vocal phrases on the orchestral landscapes with fine attention to balance, dynamics, and subtle or abrupt shifts of mood. The Romanticism of the music came through with sweeping verve, and distinctive tonalities and modulations of chords were highlighted with grace and sensitivity in the multi-layered universe that is Wagner’s score. The Metropolitan Opera chorus was in top form. The male voices succeeded in creating the uplifting and haunting atmosphere of the Pilgrim’s chorus in unified beauty and flowing dynamics. The entire chorus sounded electrifying in Act 2, and gloriously uplifting at the end.
This was one of those nights at the opera when opera is as grand, exciting, satisfying and enrapturing as only opera can be. And it was only the second performance. It’s elating to imagine what new summits of excellence, beauty, and artistic fulfillment all the performers involved here—soloists, chorus, and orchestra—will attain by the end of this run. Don’t miss it!
Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera runs through December 23. Info and tickets
Photos are by Evan Zimmerman
Top photo: Andreas Schager as Tannhäuser and Ekaterina Gubanova as Venus