Baltimore Opera:  Tannhäuser

Music (1845) by Richard Wagner
Sunday, March 26, 2000


Petra Lang
Jon Frederic West
Penny Shumate
Hans Sisa
Pierre Lefebre
Michael Reder
James Johnson
Dallas Bono
Steven Fredericks
Eva Johansson

Christian Badea
Werner Herzog

Of all of Wagner's operas, I find Tannhäuser to be the most accessible to the uninitiated, yet also one of the most problematic and subject to extremes in interpretation. The opera is either simplified unnecessarily so (A respected opera critic I know who was just learning about Wagner's music, upon seeing Tannhäuser for the first time, remarked, "You mean the whole point of this opera is to show how unforgiving the church is?") or given excessive profundity (Theodore Herzl, Founder of the modern country of Israel, writing in his diaries during the 1890's, stated that it was during a performance of Tannhäuser in Vienna, while pondering one of the opera's themes of the artist looking for a place in society, that he got the idea of establishing a Jewish State in Palestine.). This is the beauty of Wagner's music and poetry. Both interpretations are equally valid. In my view, Wagner (like Shakespeare) was creating an Art that everyone could get something from, regardless of one's level of education, background, musical sophistication, etc. Wagner composed for Everyman (or Woman).

My view is that Tannhäuser has more to do with the theme of the Song Contest on the Wartburg (Act II - "What is the Nature of Love") than with anything else. This is the theme I hear over and over again when I listen to and watch this opera. I am constantly keeping in mind Wagner's admonition not to read anything religious into this opera (although he does take a backhanded slap at the rigidity of organized religion). With the presence of St. Elisabeth and the talk of going to Rome for absolution from sin by the Pope, it is easy to read religion into the story. To me it is not that simple. If one looks at all of Wagner's other operas, one sees a similar thread, that ties many of them together….. "Redemption through Love." For Wagner the Man, Love came from many places, from his own yearnings for the sensual delights of a "Venusberg" to the higher level spiritual Platonic love as represented by that of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner the Artist came to deal with the many facets of Love through his Art. Hence, the question "What is the Meaning of Love?"

In the Baltimore Opera production, Werner Herzog does an interesting take on the theme of Love. This production created a stark visual contrast between love in the Venusberg and that in the cold, sterile, and loveless "World of Men," to which Tannhäuser longs to return, and sadly regrets by the end of the opera.

Venus was the only character dressed in Red. This to me symbolized red, hot, sensual love. Ironically, Petra Lang, singer in the role, though, did not seem too loving, as she had this scowl on her face and a haughty aura about her. She seemed to have an arrogant "you'll be sorry, you ungrateful man!" kind of attitude. There was no warm, loving, coaxing type of relationship between this Venus (Petra Lang) and this Tannhäuser (Jon Frederic West). No chemistry at all and I was left wondering why, with a Venus like that, would Tannhäuser even WANT to stay in the Venusberg. The finest Venus I have seen and heard is that of Dame Gwyneth Jones, who sang the roles of both Venus and Elisabeth in the Colin Davis-conducted Bayreuth production of 1972. That is my favorite Venus and I found it added to my enjoyment of the opera, to have the same singer do both Venus and Elisabeth. (For a hint as to why, take a look at Wolfram's "Abendstern" aria in Act III - who is he really singing to?). Dame Jones was physically all over her lover Tannhäuser, with the sweetest demeanor gently coaxing him to stay in the Venusberg, and almost succeeding in convincing him. Ms. Lang has a beautiful voice, though, and if this had been an audio recording, instead of me watching her perform live, I would have been more impressed with her.

The loveless sterility of the world of men was represented by all of the singers dressed in white. When the men enter the Wartburg in Act II to prepare for the Song Contest, they march in with flowing white robes and silver pointed helmets giving the impression of KKK garb. What point was Herzog making here? It was certainly poignant though. In a world of hatred (symbolized by the KKK, one of the most fanatic of hate groups), love cannot thrive. The men in white might ask, "What is the Meaning of Love?" but when hatred is in their hearts, where IS love? Did they, like Alberich in Das Rheingold, forsake all love for the sake of something material, thus turning themselves into an evil force lacking in spirtuality and the possibilty of redemption?

I found it strange that in this production, Tannhäuser was also dressed in white, even while in the Venusberg. So was Elisabeth. However, Tannhäuser and Elisabeth are the only two characters who are redeemed by the end of the opera. Elisabeth is humble, loving, and self-effacing to the very end, as befitting a Saint, constantly praying for Tannhäuser's soul. Tannhäuser, even though he has been to the Venusberg, and, according to the Pope, "He who has been to the Venusberg, can never be redeemed!", is finally redeemed at the end of the opera through the undying love of Elisabeth.

Eva Johansson, who sang the role of Elisabeth, has a tremendous voice, a soprano who does not need artificial amplification to be heard in the back of the opera house auditorium. Her enunciation, phrasing, timing, glides from piano to forte are much to be admired. She enters at the beginning of Act II, in sort of a frenzied manner, rushing about the stage, but then composes herself and begins to sing "Dich teure Halle" ("Dear Hall I greet thee"), an aria in which she sings wistfully about the hall in which she had first heard Tannhäuser's voice when he had lived "among men." In this aria, her voice was appropriately soft and melodic, bringing up fond memories of that fine old hall. Later in that Act, she appears in the Song Contest as a formiddable force, a peacekeeper. When the contestants are coming to physical blows and are going to beat Tannhäuser into a pulp because he had been to the Venusberg, she intercedes with a long "HHAAAALLLLLLTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!" The decibel level on that cry was outstanding and it was incredible that she had reached nearly the top of the soprano register and had held the note as long as she did. What an attention-getter!

The role of Tannhäuser seems to be a difficult one to sing and act. As with Tristan, the wrong singer in the role will make the hero lifeless and lacking in the necessary affection and sensuality to make his part believable. Of the few Tannhäusers I have seen, Jon Frederic West does it the best. Can you imagine a performance with Jon Frederic West as Tannhäuser and Dame Gwyneth Jones as Venus? I can, and I wish that had been so in this performance. West has a wonderful, full-bodied, tenor voice and is easy to understand, even for me with my limited knowledge of German. I could make out every word he sang. West comes on in Act I as the poor little boy being chastised by Mother Venus for forsaking her. In Act II during the Song Contest, his song, that the true meaning of Love lies in the Venusberg, actually IS the best sung song! No wonder the other Contestants want to beat him to a pulp! In Act 3, West really came to life as the repentant, but rejected Pilgrim spilling his guts to Wolfram about the unforgiving words of the Pope. West grovelled on the floor of the stage, acted the parts of the Pope, the repentant pilgrims, ranted and raged about how he had tried (overly so) to make an impression in order to gain absolution. One could hear the cry in his voice s he sings his story.

A final word must be said about Wolfram, sung by baritone James Johnson, another incredibly talented singer with a huge and controlled voice. Ever since I first heard him sing in Baltimore Opera's "Fliegende Hollander" a few years ago, I have come to appreciate his fine skill as a singer. Although Wolfram appears in Act II, it is Act III in which the singer playing Wolfram can shine. His "Abendstern" ("Evening Star") aria is one of the most beautiful in the repertoire and I wish it could be chosen more often by baritones in recital. It requires a particular type of control and holding of the notes in just the right length of time to produce a prayerful effect. My feeling is that it should be sung slowly, with feeling, almost as if it were a eulogy. The song is so moving and Wagner's music so overpowering, that one should (and often does!) forget that the irony Wolfram (who, earlier in the opera, was so opposed to Tannhäuser's visit to the Venusberg) is really praying to Venus to protect Elisabeth's soul as it soars to Heaven.

Of course, the music was Heaven! To me, any music composed by Richard Wagner is Heaven! Conductor Christian Badea did an excellent job as conductor. His timing was good and he was able to shape the music to reflect the mood and action on the stage. My only criticism of the conducting is that he had not brought out the wild frenzied violin section near the beginning of the Overture. The Overture opens with woodwinds and after a couple of minutes the violins begin their orgiastic playing. Perhaps the absence of a Venusberg ballet (I really missed this!) contributed to the muted violins. I had to struggle to hear them through the woodwinds.

Overall, it was a great performance. Greetings to the Evening Star!

by Jan Rosen

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