Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Tannhauser": Marathon Man

Johan Botha & Eva-Maria Westbroek in the Metropolitan Opera's "Tannhauser"
(photo: Marty Sohl)

It's been a decade or so since the Metropolitan Opera has revived their production of Wagner's mighty “Tannhäuser”. It's a favorite of Met Music Director James Levine, so it should be no surprise that he chose himself as its Conductor. The production by Otto Schenk is an aging one (almost forty years old in fact) but the freshness of the singers' voices was what made the day. Since it's been a while since the Met has presented the opera, perhaps a brief synopsis might be helpful.

Minnesinger Tannhäuser (tenor Johan Botha), after a year in the underground realm of Venus, Goddess of Love, (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung), yearns to return to the human world, angering Venus. He enlists the aid of the Virgin Mary and is transported to a valley near Wartburg Castle (in medieval Germany). After some pilgrims on their way to Rome pass by, a hunting party of knights known to him and led by the Landgraf Herman (bass Günther Groissböck) arrives. One of them, Wolfram (baritone Peter Mattei), begs him to return with them, as Tannhäuser's singing once won him the love of Elisabeth (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek), the Landgraf's niece. When Tannhäuser hears her name, he decides to join them. Back in the Hall of Song in Wartburg Elisabeth tells Tannhäuser how she has missed him and the Landgraf declares that love will be the subject of a song contest, with the winner able to request anything from Elisabeth. While Wolfram sings of idealized love, Tannhäuser sings of more earthly pleasures, ending with a prize song to Venus, horrifying the guests, which leads to the knights drawing swords against him. Elisabeth stands between them and begs mercy. Landgraf decrees that Tannhäuser may go free but only if he joins the pilgrims headed for Rome to do penance. At that, Tannhäuser falls at her feet, then rushes out. Months later, Wolfram finds Elisabeth praying at a shrine as a band of pilgrims passes her on their way back from Rome. Since Tannhäuser isn't among them, she prays that the Virgin Mary receive her into heaven. A lone pilgrim arrives; it is Tannhäuser. Having been told by the Pope that he could no more be forgiven than the papal staff sprout green growth again, he summons Venus, though Wolfram brings him to his senses by mentioning the name of Elisabeth. At that very moment, her funeral procession is wending its way past him and Venus cries out and disappears. Begging Elisabeth to pray for him in heaven, he collapses and dies. As dawn arises, another group of pilgrims passes, spreading the news of a miracle: the Pope's staff, which they are carrying, has blossomed.

The singing was exquisite, including DeYoung and Westbroek, but it was the male singers who truly shone. Botha was magnificent, as was Mattei, and even the mezzo shepherd solo by Ying Fang was memorable. Levine's love for the piece was evident in his wonderfully nuanced conducting. The Chorus under Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo once again stole the show. The Set Design was by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, with the Costume Design by Patricia Zipprodt, the dark Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler and the Choreography by Norbert Vesak.
It was a marathon outing for both performers and musicians, not to mention the audience, a solid five hours, but worth every minute of it.

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