Review by David McKee|
This Tannhäuser represents a curious equivocation on the Green Hill.
Prewar performance practice had favored Wagnerís so-called Paris edition,
while the 'New Bayreuth' era saw a reversion to the original, Dresden
version that holds to this day. For a 1961 production incorporating a
sensational Bacchanale, choreographed by Maurice Béjart, Wieland Wagner
attempted a middle course, playing the expanded Paris version up until
the entry of Venus and Tannhäuser, whereupon the edition reverts to
Dresden for the duration. This flip-flop is usually rationalized with
the argument that the styles of Dresden and Paris donít match, as if
this were something Wagner was too naive to realize.
However, the more chromatic, Tristan-influenced music grafted on for the
Paris and Vienna productions reflects a stroke of genius. The musical
language of the Wartburg is essentially as before, but Wagner has
dazzling heightened the contrasts between those straightlaced harmonies
and the musical blandishments of the Venusberg. He strengthens his
argument, rather than undercutting it.
Here we have a performance typical of the anti-rhetorical, slimmed-down
aesthetic of the New Bayreuth, as well as of its often baffling casting
practices. The lineup of principals mixes the near ideal (Venus, Wolfram,
Biterolf) with those whose interpretive intelligence may or may not
compensate for nubby, penetrating voices of little allure.
Josef Greindlís Landgrave exemplifies this, in a portrayal limned with
considerable imagination and sensitivity of phrasing (No stentorian
proclaimer, he.) but delivered only by dint of great struggle with his
corrosive and unwieldy basso.
Likewise, Wolfgang Windgassen scores near the top of his class for
attaining the role of Tannhäuser via discernment rather than brute
force. However, youíll want to find one of his earlier outings in the
part: Sounding tired and short-breathed, Windgassen is clearly exerting
all his veteran wiles to get through the show and his tone takes on a
worn, whiny cast. By the Rome Narrative, with the end in sight, he can
throw caution to the winds and rouse himself to a forceful account of
By the standards of three decades later, Anja Silja doesnít sound half-bad
as Elisabeth; certainly her tone is steader and better-collected than that
of Hildegard Behrens or even Eva Marton, and Silja has positive ideas about
the role. In the end, though, her sound is insufficiently ingratiating and
a size small, too boot. This sounds more like the understudy filling in
until the real Elisabeth shows up.
[A Digression: For the record, Silja was preceded in the production by
Victoria de los Angeles and succeeded by Leonie Rysanek. Similarly, she
took over for Rysanek as Senta, and from Rysanek and Elisabeth Grümmer
when Lohengrin was recorded by Philips. All three roles were also in the
quiver of Régine Crespin, who was Wielandís 1958/60 Kundry and Wolfgangís
1961 Sieglinde. Whatever the reason: whether Silja was a utility or
desperation choice or the beneficiary of her relationship with Wieland,
Eberhard Wächterís Wolfram ranks with the greats of the prewar period
(Hüsch, Schlusnus, Janssen), a rapt portrayal of such sensitivity of
phrasing, intimacy of affect, poetic sincerity and emotional availability
that one regrets all the more a tendency for Wächterís voice to lose
focus under pressure. Fischer-Dieskau may offer more sheer polish, but
only Victor Braun (on the Solti recording) rivals Wächter for making
Wolfram's seemingly impossible selflessness and purity vividly real. His
contributions to the Song Contest do much to keep Act II going.
Save for a bothersome over-reliance on the glottal stroke, itís hard to
imagine Grace Bumbryís Venus being substantially better. Given her
lustrous, coppery voice and its impressive displacement, she and we are
shortchanged by Wielandís eschewal of the more brilliant and extensive
Another Dresden-derived liability is Waltherís contest song, as yowled by
Gerhard Stolze (yet another adherent of the straight-toned blare). The nap,
volume and bite of Franz Crassís luxuriant Biterolf might have been better
employed in Landgrave duties, while Else-Margrete Gardelliís edgy Shepherd
is, at best, ordinary. Gerd Nienstedt (Reinmar) is basically inaudible but
Georg Paskudaís Heinrich, alas, is not.
Wolfgang Sawallisch, a regular presence in the Bayreuth pit, was just one
of the many exemplars (culminating in Pierre Boulez) of the
fast/light-textured/lyrical approach favored in postwar Bayreuth Hans
Knappertsbusch and Clemens Krauss being notable exceptions. His rhythms
have plenty of spring and he moves things along, but his avoidance of
rhetorical afflatus becomes too much of a good thing, as in the maddeningly
poker-faced treatment of the Pilgrims Chorus and Elisabethís Act III exit.
The Song Contest progresses without building or culminating (a
characteristic failing) and, with these principals, Act II feels very long
indeed. The orchestra sounds to be in quite well-balanced estate, with
scarcely any overblowing from the brasses (the horns, in fact, are superb),
although Wagnerís more intricate writing exposes the ensembleís limits.
Itís hard to reconcile the tired-sounding and tonally threadbare chorus
in this opera with the fine group on Knappertsbuchís Parsifal from that
same summer. For those seeking a more sybaritic Tannhäuser, Herbert von
Karajanís broad, Paris-plus version from the Vienna State Opera (DG)
offers much, including another magnificent Venus (Christa Ludwig), plus
Wächter, Gottlob Frickís Landgrave, and a surprisingly nuanced Tannhäuser
from Hans Beirer, plus a cameo-laced supporting cast.
Sir Georg Soltiís splashily recorded traversal of the Paris edition (on
London) has Ludwig and Braun, but the Elisabeth/Tannhauser duo is a
compromise and Hans Sotinís Landgrave offers 100% more voice than Greindl
and 100% less imagination. Also, Soltiís propensity for what Wieland
described as orgasms in every second bar, proves wearing. Nearly every
Dresden recording is seriously hobbled but, if one can overlook Klaus
Königís uningratiating protagonist (admittedly, a very big but), Bernard
Haitink gives an engaging account of the score, for EMI, with strength--
Lucia Popp, Waltraud Meier, Bernd Weikl, Kurt Moll--in nearly every
Casting about among off-air recordings, one finds exceptional efforts by
de los Angeles (Elisabeth), Astrid Varnay (Venus), Ludwig Suthaus
(Tannhäuser, the best Iíve heard), Schlusnus (Wolfram), and Alexander
Kipnis (Landgrave). No two of them, alas, are in the same performance.
The ideal Tannhauser is still awaited.