I've heard *Tannhaeuser* live once, in Florence, in 1961, and have
listened to recorded performances. It's not a Wagner opera I've listened
to frequently and, except for the Overture, Venusberg Music, the Evening
Star song, the Pilgrims' Chorus and the entry of the guests at the
Wartburg, the music is generally unfamiliar to me.
Yesterday, 2 March 2000, the Wagner Society of Washington DC gave an
interesting presentation of different interpretations of the opera, which
some of us (including me, although not a member of the society) will be
attending in Baltimore later this month. As before, it was at one of the
halls in George Washington University and the presentation was by, Phillip
W. Raines, one of the society's directors.
As a sort of warm-up, videos were played of Toscanini's March 20, 1948,
telecast, and Levine's 1982 Metropolitan Opera telecast, of the overture
and Venusberg music. We were supposed to note the differences in tempi,
specifically, as I understood it, at the slowness of Levine's. I didn't
know about Levine's reputation for playing this music more slowly, but I
had heard of Toscanini's reputation (notoriety?) for seemingly fast tempi.
Well, despite what I had heard about Toscanini in the past, and Levine that
evening, it was Levine, whose tempo seemed to me the faster paced. But who
was I to argue!
Most of the evening was devoted to comparisons of scenes from Levine's
performance and a performance by the Bavarian State Opera, conducted by
Mehta. The more traditional Met performance featured Richard Cassilly
(Tannhaeuser), Tatiana Troyanos (Venus), and Eva Marton (Elisabeth). The
Bavarian, Rene Kollo (Tannhaeuser), Waltraud Meier (Venus), and Nadine
The differences in the productions' concept was so striking as to
overshadow differences in musical interpretation. Or it may be that
the sound reproduction was so bad (amazing that nothing better could be
found in this day and age at a major university!) that I was deliberately
ignoring it to watch the videos. Anyway, Phillip Raines described the
two as representing "polarized" productions of the opera.
The Met production was, what I understand is, a conventional depiction of
the opera's story w/ which I, for one, could not find fault.
The Bavarian production almost made me yearn for the Goetz Friedrich
"Subway" *Ring* which, as I recall it after more than ten years, did not
seem nearly so unfocused in its presentation as this *Tannhaeuser*. The
"worst" part, by the agreement of almost everybody in the hall who gave
an opinion, was the Venusberg "Bacchanal" before the first act. As was
pointed out from the audience in the subsequent discussion period, the
Venusberg was a place of luxury and self indulgence, which in the case of
a man like Tannhaeuser, eventually results in surfeit and boredom, from
which he wants to escape. It was not the hell that the opera depicts and
which nobody would enter voluntarily. We were treated to spectacles like
a woman letting herself be eaten by a crocodile, a group of rock carriers
staggering under their load (who just made me think of the prisoners at
Mauthausen concentration camp who were done to their death by being forced
to carry increasingly heavy rocks up a hill at an increasingly faster
pace), and a statuesque, Junoesque, woman of dominating appearance, whom
I would have taken for Venus, but that she wasn't Waltraud Meier. We
never found out who she was. Truncated pillars leaned out askew and doors
without walls led to nowhere. (Somebody likened it to *Dr. Caligari*)
Outside the Venusberg, the opera takes place against a backdrop consisting
of a wall with the slogan "Germania Nostra". I don't think it was to
foreshadow Hans Sachs' praise at the end of *Meistersinger* of the
traditions of German music. I don't know what it was supposed to
symbolize. In the last scene, the wall has crumbled, leaving only some
of the letters, to which some in the audience attached a significance I
couldn't pick up. In any event I don't know why the "Germania Nostra"
wall should have crumbled in the last scene, depicting Tannhaeuser's
redemption. Was there an allusion to the ruins of World War II? If so,
As a respite from some of these scenes, we got to hear and see Bryn Terfel
sing the Evening Star song with Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
I plan to relisten to my own recording w/ Domingo, Baltsa, and Studer,
w/ Sinopoli conducting the Philharmonia, before attending the Baltimore
production, which I hope will be more similar to the Met production than
to that of the Bavarian State Opera.
Walter Meyer <[log in to unmask]>