Opera Today, 9.4.2023
Wagner: Tannhäuser, Salzburger Osterfestspiele , ab 1. April 2023|
Tannhäuser at Salzburg
Tannhäuser made the young Richard Wagner’s reputation. Charles Baudelaire,
Franz Liszt, Oscar Wilde, Queen Victoria and other luminaries became
obsessed with Wagner’s portrayal (and subtle critique) of the struggle
between sacred and profane love. Today, however, when everyone wants to have
it all, this topic says little to modern listeners – and so, Tannhäuser has
become one of the least performed of Wagner operas. Yet the score remains
ravishingly beautiful and the title role one of opera’s supreme vocal
This week the Salzburg Easter Festival has assembled the
most distinguished cast of Tannhäuser in a generation – headed by superstar
tenor Jonas Kaufmann. He is singing the title role for the first time –
something he calls one of his final unfulfilled career ambitions. Baritone
Christian Gerhaher, sopranos Marlis Peterson and Emma Bell, and bass George
Zeppenfeld join him on stage, with Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus
Orchestra in the pit.
Kaufmann’s operatic career could be viewed as a
single-handed effort to reverse the widespread presumption that great spinto
and dramatic singers are disappearing. From what I heard Wednesday night,
this conventional wisdom is right…and wrong.
Right because none of
these singers – even, in some respects, Kaufmann himself – can really match
the sheer vocal opulence (at full throttle) commanded by the greatest
Wagnerian voices of the mid-20th century. Nor does this cast offset vocal
power with intensely expressionistic theatricality, as has become the modern
operatic norm in Germany. In neither respect do they overwhelm the listener.
Yet the conventional view is nonetheless wrong, because the singers in
this production, along with the conductor and orchestra, have replaced the
grand vocalism of the past with old-school virtues that date back even
earlier. In the early 20th century and even back to Wagner’s day, theaters
were smaller, individual musicians more idiosyncratic, textual clarity more
prominent, and understated modes of expression more highly prized.
Replicating that today generates performances tied together by such subtle
transparency, balance, and restraint as to achieve its own historical
It is odd that Kaufmann waited so long to sing Tannhäuser,
for this role seems to suit him better than any other I know. He has
surmounted his share of vocal issues over the years, and is sometimes
accused of fitting into certain parts by adopting quirky vocal mannerisms:
an artificial baritonal resonance here, crooning high notes there, and so
on. Yet Kaufmann’s performance here, in a role that destroys most tenors in
90 minutes, requires no compromise.
Tannhäuser seems to sit
comfortably in the center of Kaufmann’s voice – freeing him to deploy nearly
faultless technical command over intonation, support, and tonal coloring.
The result matches, and at times exceeds, the virtues of his greatest
predecessors in this role: the vocal elegance of Plácido Domingo, the crisp
diction of Wolfgang Windgassen, and even the softly penetrating high voix
mixte of the young Lauritz Melchior.
One hears this in Kaufmann’s
memorable accounts of Tannhäuser’s major set pieces – from the pleas to
Venus that launch the opera to the Rome Monologue that ends it. But his
musical imagination and meticulous preparation really shine through
everywhere else: this may well be the most complete Tannhäuser I have ever
Just one example is the 15-minute grand ensemble that
concludes Act 2, when Tannhäuser is sent off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Many,
myself included, tend to dismiss this Meyerbeerian episode as evidence that
Wagner had not yet developed the compositional maturity to overcome existing
Romantic opera conventions. (German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus went further,
dismissing the entire act as an “effective tableau…filled with theatrical
parades.”) Many tenors sit tight, mouth the words, and save their energy for
Not Kaufmann. He embraces this ensemble, with its high tenor
line, as a unique musical opportunity. (Perhaps he knows also that Wagner
himself believed that Tannhäuser’s “whole nature” is captured in this moment
of recognition that he had committed a “dreadful crime.”) I cannot imagine
these passages sung more beautifully, with pianissimo head tones that
miraculous penetrate the swirling orchestra, chorus and soloists – a
sublimely beautiful musical effect that also underscores the characters deep
vulnerability and suffering.
Throughout, Gerhaher almost matches
Kaufmann in interpretive rigor and imagination, approaching the role as a
master Lieder-singer – which, of course, Wolfram’s day job. His clear
diction, vocal focus and intonation are uncanny – even if at the slow tempos
imposed upon him he sometimes drops the end of phrases. His courage and
ability to sing pianissimo exceeds even that of Kaufmann. He transforms
potential vocal limitations, such as a small voice and metallic glint at
forte, to his advantage, drawing the audience in to a compelling portrayal
of Wolfram’s elegant exterior and the sensitive soul beneath.
sopranos approach Elisabeth as a pure and youthful naïve – and perhaps such
a performance would better match her colleagues. Yet Wagner did not see the
character this way and neither does Peterson. From her bravura entrance aria
(“Dich, teure Halle”), she projects a flesh-and-blood woman quivering with
life – a quality expressed without overwhelming vocal power. One easily
imagines that she is attracted to Tannhäuser not just by his virtue, but
(perhaps unconsciously) by his sex-appeal. To save him, she boldly faces
down the band of sanctimonious singers intent on murder.
Bell replaces the previously announced mezzo Elīna Garanča as Venus. Bell’s
Venus is solid, with a big healthy sound – sometimes impressive at the top.
Yet she possesses neither the understated finesse of her colleagues nor the
sensuous timbre of her character. One misses Garanča, who is not only the
more accomplished singer, but might more closely approximated the restrained
elegance of the performance.
Bass Georg Zeppenfeld’s clear
enunciation and occasional low notes lend Landgraf Hermann fitting gravity –
though not so much that he really stands out as primus inter pares at his
own court, populated as it is by solid voices.
In keeping with the
stylistic concept, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic
Chorus of Brünn and the Salzburger Bachchor, all conducted by Andris
Nelsons, eschew the full-blooded, glossy account of this score one generally
hears these days. Rather, they play and sing at a human scale, retaining,
ever so slightly, the distinctively dusky timbre orchestras from that region
have traditionally had. With constant adjustments of balance, Andris Nelsons
molds these elements to achieve an extraordinary level of transparency,
subtly and delicacy, revealing the interior lines and mesmerizing and
seducing, rather than overwhelming, the listener.
To be sure,
Nelsons’ constant micromanagement of color, balance and focus can undermine
the score’s Wagnerian sweep – sometimes in ways that seem avoidable. One
hears this primarily in idiosyncratic tempo choices: excessively slow tempos
sometimes strain the singers while, almost everywhere, a ritardando is
inserted at the end of vocal lines. Sometimes beautiful in themselves, these
tempo fluctuations undermine forward momentum over longer time-spans,
thereby obscuring the broader architecture. More transcendent, therefore,
are the spots (for example, the “Entry of the Guests” and the final
Pilgrim’s Chorus opera) where Nelsons sets a rock-solid pulse that releases
the music to flow forward.
Little need be said about Romeo
Castellucci’s production, which premiered in Munich in 2017 and can be found
on line. He hails from the “opera production as contemporary art show” view
of opera direction, which mixes and matches abstract artistic and symbolic
elements to create aesthetically pleasing tableaus.
work. For example, I love how the pure world of Act II (white gauze
separating people from another physically) is disturbed by a slimy black
demon (like an overgrown Miyazaki soot sprite) grapples with Tannhäuser,
smearing him with black grease.
That being said, much is either banal
– yes, Tannhäuser is stuck between two demanding worlds – or
self-indulgently fussy. Doubling almost everything with dancers, for
example, even they are recruited from the able Bohdi Project and SEAD dance
groups in Salzburg, just distracts from the music. What do 27 half-naked
women shooting arrows at the wall have to do with the reverent strains of
the opening Pilgrim’s Chorus? How does a pile of one dozen writhing dancers
– I thought of the death throes of a giant millipede – illuminate Tannhäuser
and Elizabeth’s second-act inability to connect? And, in the final scene,
don’t dozens of changing statements about time projected on the back of the
stage (from “A second has passed” to “A billion billion billion billion
billion years have passed”) simply obscure Tannhäuser’s desperate
existential desire for eternal salvation?
So, overall, these
performances are about the music. They succed in setting an extraordinarily
high standard and, perhaps also, reveal a clear stylistic road by which
focused, transparent and subtly colored musicianship might revive
contemporary Wagnerian performance practice. Recordings will surely
circulate, if not from official sources than from some around me
surreptitiously fiddling with Smart Phones. One way or another, this special
moment in operatic history will be remembered and prized for decades and
perhaps even centuries to come.