Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
30th March 2020
Wagner’s enthralling paean to penitence and redemption, Tannhäuser, closed Wagner Week as part of New York’s Met Opera nightly opera streams. And, as the only time I’ve seen opera on video of an opera I’ve seen live, it brought back memories still cherished. Filmed on 31st Oct, 2015, 12 days after I saw it at the Met, it’s another long-living and lavish production from 1977 by director Otto Schenk - perfectly illustrative but something of an old museum piece - and another example of superb camera direction responding to an expert understanding of the score.
There’s the title character, Tannhäuser, a medieval knight and minnesinger, who left the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia after a disagreement with his fellow knights, then lured into the pleasures of love in Venus’ domain, Venusberg. Longing for freedom after his desires are satiated, Tannhäuser finally departs and comes by his minnesinger friends who convince him to rejoin them. But no sooner is he welcomed back, and rekindling romantic overtures with the Landgrave of Thuringia’s niece, Elizabeth, he’s banished after singing blasphemously about the nature of love. After being forced to join the pilgrims on a journey to Rome to seek atonement, rather than being absolved, Tannhäuser is cursed. In a transcendental like intervention, Elizabeth gives her life as his saviour.
Schenk sure knows how to both fill the Met’s massive stage with people reflecting a spectrum of life and manage the details that go with it convincingly. The more intimate scenes are sometimes less well handled but every angle comes together splendidly in the final third act.
An abundance of vocal expression and power comes with Johan Botha’s nonconformist Tannhäuser, although it’s not until the second act that every foundation feels solid. Act 3’s “Rome Narrative” is certainly his summit, rivetingly sung with mountains of disappointment and despair. As Tannhäuser’s angelic saviour, Elisabeth, Eva-Maria Westbroek is a jewel, her lustrous and pearly soprano cradling affectingly measured emotion and her Act 3 prayer to the Virgin Mary a highlight of poignant tenderness.
Smooth, flexible and instinctive in style, baritone Peter Mattei gives every bit of himself as Tannhäuser’s faithful friend Wofram, his “Song to the Evening Star” - the opera’s most recognisable tune - a superbly heartfelt prayer he bejewels what is an entirely glorious Act 3. Bass Günther Groissböck always impresses, his sonorous vocals resonating like towering forest timbers and colouring Landgraf Hermann with authority and distinctiveness. And as Venus, Mezzo Michelle DeYoung sings with intrigue and richness despite her seductive powers fizzing a little and, what there was, seemingly going to waste on Botha’s own lumpy lusty attempts.
Encircling them, those excellent Met Opera Chorus folk energised and elevated the storyline with a halo of golden sound as nobles, knights, ladies and pilgrims. And down below, the music-making supported the singers nicely with James Levine driving the drama with confidence and thought.
There ended 6 days with long hours of opera’s artistic pleasures soaking the soul but, for now, I need a little time off.