Apparently, Wagner considered Tannhauser to be his worst opera. Well, the great composer, who was notoriously wrong in several of his viewpoints, was certainly wrong about that, at least in my humble opinion. Tannhauser is a wonderful opera, filled to the brim with glorious, breathtaking music. If the composer's results don't always match his ambition, which was apparently to be the last word on the conflict between spirituality and sensuality, that is a matter of personal opinion. Granted, the libretto is a little creaky, with its austere lack of levity it is frequently unintentionally comic. Overall though, mostly because of Wagner's incomparable music, the opera scales the heights of both erotica and redemption, and achieves a solemn profundity rare in any music drama. Viva Tannhauser!
This is a late '80's Bayreuth production, staged and directed by Wolfgang Wagner, conducted by Guiseppe Sinopoli, and featuring a host of fine Wagnerian singers. Sinopoli's conducting is a little slow at times, but never at the expense of the drama, and the big, sweeping moments, particularly the ensembles, are delivered with overwhelming gusto. The entrance of guests to the music contest has never sounded better, or more alive. The Bayreuth orchestra sounds great, crystal clear, note perfect in every aspect, and the audio quality is ideal.
Richard Versalle, in the title role(the first official rock star, the Mick Jagger of minstrels), has the right timbre for the heroic tenor roles, especially of the Wagnerian variety, his only weakness is an occasional lack of volume, allowing himself to be overpowered by his female partners. Physically, he is very convincing, going from nobility to deshevelment to ultimate deliverance. A young Wolfgang Brendel, looking like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago, is a heart-wrenching Wolfram, his O du mein holder Abendstern is a fine study in both sadness and atmosphere, haunting to the last, as it should be. Hans Soltin, as Hermann, and Ruthild Engert-Ely, as Venus, are also quite good, but the definitive player in this production is, without a doubt, the lovely Cheryl Studer, in her vocal prime. From her entrance aria, Dich, teure Halle, to her final prayer, filled with sorrow and hope, she is a powerhouse of an Elizabeth; even though she doesn't appear until the beginning of the second act, she is well worth the wait.
The production is quite prepossessing, minimal in terms of sets yet maximally effective. Special kudos should go to the video director, Brian Large, who, for the most part, eschews closeups and medium shots, instead taking in the whole stage and giving the viewer a sense of being at the theater. The picture quality is stunningly clear.
Okay, Tannhauser is a five star opera, this is a five star production, with five star singers. So why only four stars? At the risk of sounding persnickety, there is a major cut at at the outset of the opera that really bothers me. The Venusberg ballet is eliminated, which is okay, it wasn't in the original score anyway, it was added for the Paris revival, at least I think so. The problem is that half the overture is cut as well. A bowdlerized overture is standard practice when the ballet is included, and that's understandable, otherwise it would be close to half an hour before any of the singers open their mouths, but minus the ballet, what's the point? Tannhauser has one of the greatest and most stirring overtures ever written, it is bold and majestic and captivating with a capital C, and given in its entirety, it gives a spendid encapsulation of the story and its themes and conflicts. Unfinished, it also sounds unfulfilling. Still, given the quality of this DVD on the whole, it's an annoyance rather than a major distraction.
One final comment dealing with the advantage of preordering these suckers prior to their official release dates. I paid twenty-one dollars for this disc a few weeks before its release, I see that the price has now gone up to forty. That's a whopping nineteen dollar difference. So it pays(literally) to keep track of the release dates of DVDs, opera and otherwise, that you are planning to buy. Just a word of advice for the uninitiated.