Lyric Opera Tannhäuser Review-Professionalism Rules the Day

Amber Wagner as Elisabeth, Johan Botha as Tannhauser, Gerald Finley as Wolfram photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

Tannhäuser, the second of Richard Wagner’s mature operas, is probably the least popular and, with the possible exception of Tristan und Isolde, the least performed. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production, which opened Monday, is their first in 26 years; the previous production was the first in 25 years. Enter Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis, the dedicated Wagnerian, to dust off the score, the only of Wagner’s he has never conducted.

Michaela Schuster as Venus and Johan Botha as Tannhauser photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

Tannhäuser’s story is notable for its foreshadowing of many of the themes Wagner used throughout his works.  The title character (tenor Johan Botha), more flawed than some of Wagner’s other heroes, is torn between the hedonistic Venusburg, presided over by the goddess of love (mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster), and the supposedly spiritually pure, austere terrestrial world, where true love is represented by the chaste Elisabeth (soprano Amber Wagner). On display are themes Wagner would repeat, such as his false Puritanism, which equates celibacy and morality (Parsifal), or the song contest for Elisabeth’s favor which forms the backbone of Act II (Die Meistersinger).

Ballet from Tannhauser photo credit: Robert Kusel

Lyric’s new production, which originated at London's Royal Opera House and is directed by Tim Albery, envisions the pagan Venusburg as being a stage in which spectators are drawn behind the curtain by the seductions of the sirens who lure men to give into their baser urges. During the twenty minutes which comprise the sublime Prelude and Venusburg music, a ballet is played out; choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon, the spirited ballet simulates an orgy. This pleasure dome gives way to a bleakly austere world, where Tannhäuser is deposited in the middle of a warzone, where partisans including Tannhäuser’s “pure” antagonist, Wolfram (baritone Gerald Finley), welcome their former comrade back into the fold.

Act II of Tannhauser photo credit: Robert Kusel

For some reason, Wagner operas have a way of inspiring bleak productions; this approach, which is supposed be a downer, doesn’t really detract from the music, but it can be too much at times. Not that there weren’t highlights. When Tannhäuser first returns to his home, the minimal lighting of the foreground, with a dark background save for a single tree in the middle of the stage gives an astonishing illusion of depth of field, a tribute to Albery’s visual sense, Michael Levine’s sets, and David Finn’s mysterious lighting. Levine’s set for the song contest in Act II, which takes place in the bombed-out ruins of a theater (in direct contrast to the libretto, which commends the splendor of the contest hall,) is creative and striking enough visually to counteract the bleak, wintry landscape.

Act III of Tannhauser with Gerard Finley (Wolfram) and Amber Wagner (Elisabeth) in foreground photo credit: Robert Kusel

The cast was composed of familiar faces from past Lyric Wagner productions, and another display of first-rate singing that shows how spoiled we can be in Chicago. Tannhäuser is one of the most difficult Wagner roles to sing, yet Johan Botha is a revelation in the role. His lyricism, added to the dramatic heft associated with a heldentenor, made this a unique experience that I fear may go unappreciated. At no point did Botha seem taxed by the role, which can cause difficulty from the first notes on, and his lyrical qualities are closer to what Wagner sought for the role, rather than the Lauritz Melchior-like voice of steel with which Wagnerian roles have become associated.

John Relyea as Landgrave photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

As Elisabeth, Amber Wagner, an alum of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center, fared about as well as Botha; she was a powerhouse in the role who could summon up Elisabeth’s delicate qualities as well. The weakest link in the cast was its Venus, the German mezzo Michaela Schuster, who showed off some impressive high notes but could not sustain the dramatic line and was often overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Wolfram, Gerald Finley threatened to run away with the show. His vocal strength was complimented by a dramatic sense that shaded the facets of the character hopelessly in love with Elisabeth, a moral paragon whose goodness is essentially unrewarded. From bass John Relyea, who shone as the Landgraf of Thuringia who presides over the song contest, down to smaller parts such as Angela Mannino’s shepherd (a trouser role) and Jesse Donner as Walther, a participant in the singing contest, everyone made the most of their opportunities.

The score was a hybrid of the original Dresden version and the revised Paris edition, but even with cuts, dull stretches couldn’t be avoided. Towards the end of Act II, just as my attention began to falter, I was sharply awakened by the sublime sounds coming from the pit. Fine as the vocals were, it was Andrew Davis’s orchestra that was unquestionably the star of the show; from the wonderful overture, which began with staccatos falling like rain drops, eventually settling in to a slower pace but never failing to bring across the score’s extraordinary beauty, which features perhaps Wagner’s finest melodic writing. The rousing contribution in Act II's finale was punctuated by Michael Black’s chorus, whose men and women delivered a piercing denunciation of the protagonist.

Whatever Tannhäuser’s faults, Lyric’s current production is about as strong a case as you’re ever going to hear for it, a reminder of Wagner’s ability to provide us with the same delights his title character experiences in his hedonistic paradise. Too bad we have to return to the real world.

Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, will run at the Civic Opera House of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, February 14, 18, 26, March 2 & 6 at 6:00 PM, and February 22 at 1:00 PM.  

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