Wagner's power well wrought in `Tannhauser'

Review: The Baltimore Opera Company's production presents the morality play with both intensity and subtlety.

March 18, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Though the majesty of the music may be what initially attracts people to Wagner, it's the intellectual and emotional depth of his operas that turns fans into addicts. Wagner's operas operate on the level of myth, and the best productions illuminate his stories' lessons and archetypes without taking away from the essential humanity of the characters,

In other words, they work like the Baltimore Opera Company's production of "Tannhauser."

This particular staging, which opened a six-performance run at the Lyric Opera House on Thursday, is directed by filmmaker Werner Herzog and presents the opera's tale of faith and redemption in subtle yet visceral terms.

"Tannhauser" is, at its most basic level, a morality play and as such makes a perfect choice for the Lenten season. Its titular hero is a minstrel so blessed with the gift of song that he seduces even the goddess of love herself.

As the opera opens, we find him in Venusberg, the subterranean grotto that is Venus' lair. Yet even though he has known pleasures beyond the human ken, Tannhauser is unhappy; he longs for the challenges of normal human existence. So he begs his mistress to release him, which -- grudgingly -- she does.

Traditionally, this opening scene is presented as a sort of bacchanal, full of satyrs, nymphs, cupids and the like. Herzog's staging, however, imagines Venusberg as an enormous boudoir, draped in red silk, that Venus and Tannhauser have all to themselves. It's a subtler approach, but one that speaks to the intimacy of the duo's relationship.

It helps that Petra Lang, as Venus, played the role of seductress to the hilt, pouting, cajoling and flirting like a practiced courtesan. But the real drama comes from the opposition of attitudes, as Jon Fredric West's Tannhauser, dressed in the purest white, insists that there must be more to life than mere pleasure. That conviction was echoed in West's singing, which was both strong enough to convey Tannhauser's pride and sweet enough to make his seduction of Venus entirely credible.

Back among the mortals, he is reunited both with his fellow minstrels, and with his first love, the princess Elisabeth. Eva Johansson, as Elisabeth, is visually the polar opposite of Venus; where the goddess was dressed in a wicked, low-cut red gown, Elisabeth's attire is pure white and as prim as a nun's habit.

Like Venus, she, too, loves Tannhauser, but her love is deeper, grounded in the spirit rather than the flesh.

There was also a marked contrast vocally. Where Lang's sound was rich and sweet, with just a hint of fire, Johansson's tone was powerful and slightly austere. It made it easy to feel the power of her will and the righteous strength of her faith, but there was also a slight brittleness around the edges.

Reunited with his mates, Tannhauser joins a song contest in the minstrels' hall. His fellows sing of love, but their chaste abstractions amuse and infuriate Tannhauser. Dismissing their efforts, he insists that he alone knows love's secrets -- after all, has he not just come from Venusberg?

But his lustful boasting is blasphemy, and the minstrels and knights want to punish him for his sins. Elisabeth intercedes, and Tannhauser, touched by her faith, vows to go to Rome with the pilgrims and ask penitence.

This is usually one of the most musically satisfying moments in the opera, and indeed, the minstrels shone brightly. Not only were they angelic in appearance, with their flowing white robes and gold harps, but the sound was also heavenly. Pierre Lefebvre, as Walther, praised chastity with a pleasingly pure tenor, while Michael Reder brought an engaging pugnacity to the role of Biterolf.

But the use of fans onstage to make the costumes flutter and billow appeared to affect the acoustics, as both Johansson and Hans Sisa as Landgrave had marked pitch problems during the scene.

As the third act opens, Elisabeth awaits the return of the pilgrims with Wolfram, one of the minstrels. The group arrives and sings stirringly of God's love -- and the men's chorus here gave a performance that sent chills down the spine -- but Tannhauser is not among them.

Distraught, Elisabeth leaves, and Wolfram is left to meet the dejected Tannhauser and learn his fate.

This is where the Baltimore Opera's production was at its peak. Not only was the singing great -- James Johnson as Wolfram gave a sterling rendition of "O du mein holder Abendstern" -- but the acting was also equally good, with West bringing amazing passion to his performance.

And the final tableau, in which our hero is redeemed, was powerful and iconic enough to make even an agnostic feel the wonder of faith.

Although most of the voices were excellent, the orchestra was less so, with some sloppiness in the strings and an appallingly anemic horn section. Also, conductor Christian Badea favored tempos so brisk one wondered if he imagined that the pilgrims were going to power walk all the way to Rome. But even these sins were absolved by the overall power of the acting and staging, making this "Tannhauser" a must-see for local Wagnerites.

Additional performances will be held tonight and Sunday, as well as March 22, 24 and 26.

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