Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Barenboim's Tannhauser from the Berlin Staatsoper

Richard Wagner, Tannhauser

Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
Marina Prudenskaya (Venus)
Ann Petersen (Elisabeth),
Peter Mattei (Wolfram von Eschenbach)
René Pape (Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen)
Peter Sonn (Walther von der Vogelweide)
Tobias Schabel (Biterolf)
Jürgen Sacher (Heinrich der Schreiber)
Jan Martiník (Reinmar von Zweter)
Sónia Grané (Ein Hirtenknabe)

Stage direction and choreography by Sasha Waltz

Staatskapelle Berlin & Staatsopenchor
Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Belair Classics BAC422

Recorded live at the Staatsoper in Berlin in April 2014 this recording of Tannhauser has a lot going for it. Daniel Barenboim is probably the most authoritative living Wagner conductor and he is working with a fine orchestra and a cast with no obvious weak links. The staging is low-key, unobtrusive, and by and large effective. The enthusiastic applause at the end is well-deserved. This is certainly one of the best Tannhauser’s available on DVD/Blu-Ray – certainly significantly more satisfying than Alex Kober’s recording from the 2014 Bayreuth festival, which I reviewed here.

Barenboim basically offers us the Dresden version of 1845 with a ballet in Act 1, as per the 1861 Paris version (coyly described in the program notes as “reference to the Bachanals (Act 1 Scene 1) in the Paris version”). As is well-known, the ballet Wagner added fell somewhat short of the expectations of the Jockey Club, but any Jockey Club members who wandered into this Berlin performance would feel, I think, that they had got their money’s worth. The dancing is extensive with significant amounts of bared flesh on display in the first and third acts. If I have one reservation about the production it is that there are really too many visual distractions. Writhing semi-naked dancers are, I suppose, appropriate for the Venusberg scenes, but I found the dancing pilgrims returning from Rome rather jarring. This is a relatively minor quibble, however, since the choreography is well-judged and the enhanced by the visual impact of the understated designs which, apart from the giant bamboo curtain in the Minstrel’s Hall, primarily exploit shadows and suggestions of empty space.

The singing in this Tannhauser is uniformly strong. Peter Seiffert is a very convincing Tannhauser. He has the power and volume of a heldentenor but, unlike most of the other current heldentenors, he can act and sing with real expressiveness. He is also capable of sharing the stage, which is one reason why the principal duets and ensembles work as well as they do. The other reason is the quality of the other principals. Probably the most impressive is Peter Mattei’s Wolfram von Eschenbach. Mattei’s Wolfram is far from the pedantic and whiny troubadour that we often find. Despite his odd costume (he looks like Sherlock Holmes in cavalry boots) Wolfram comes across as a character with real depth, providing dramatic and musical continuity throughout Act III, in counterpoint first with Elisabeth and then with Tannhauser. Rene Pape (as Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen) is probably the most celebrated member of the cast. His singing is immaculate, although the role is much less demanding than König Mark, which he has sung with great distinction.

I do think that Venus is more effective when sung (as it is here) by a mezzo soprano. Marina Prudenskaya sings with venom in Act I and she is convincing at both ends of the tessitura. Although a little more body would have been ideal, Prudenskaya is a compelling Venus. Ann Petersen’s Elisabeth is a worthy rival to Venus’s charms – and clearly not immune to the pleasures of the flesh. This role, like Wolfram’s, is often interpreted in an excessively prissy way. Not so here. Petersen borders on the heroic at various points in Act III.

The Staatskapelle and Staatsopenchor do fine work for Daniel Barenboim, who has a characteristically strong sense of drama and architecture. All in all this is a very fine recording. I only have two complaints. First, the liner notes  are extremely thin with no information on the singers or production. Second, and particularly galling, the credits are projected on the screen during the overture. Still, the audiovisual quality is excellent and this recording is highly recommended.

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