Wagner: Tannhauser / Seiffert, Eiche, Tilli, Vas, Weigle, Gran Teatre Del Liceu

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WAGNER Tannhäuser Sebastian Weigle (cond); Peter Seiffert ( Tannhäuser ); Petra Maria Schnitzer ( Elisabeth ); Béatrice Uria-Monzon ( Venus ); Markus Eiche ( Wolfram ); Gran Teatre del Liceu O & Ch C MAJOR 709308 (2 DVDs: 201:00 Text and Translation). Live: Barcelona 4/2008

Contemporary stagings of Wagner can split critical and audience reaction massively, and this will probably be no exception. Yet the DVD set is worth acquiring for a variety of reasons, chief among which is Peter Seiffert.

Sebastian Weigle shapes the overture to Tannhäuser magnificently. The reading is replete with expressive, carefully planned shadings. Unfortunately the other side of the coin (and, being a more orgiastic side, it is vital here) works less well. The fiery sections simply do not ignite fully enough. He is better when shaping entire scenes, though. The fourth scene of the first act includes a septet that is impeccably timed and delivered; ditto the final stages of the second act work to a beautiful dramatic climax.

As the overture progresses, we see Tannhäuser onstage painting a naked Venus (we see her from the back mainly, but it is plenty titillating nonetheless). The director, Robert Carsen, sees Elisabeth as the painter’s muse, and Venus as his model. As the overture continues, Venus and Tannhäuser embrace and she teases him erotically with his paintbrush; later the stage becomes overpopulated with almost naked underworld figures (male). Carsen makes a parallel/equivalence between Elisabeth and Venus by having Elisabeth wear the drape that Venus wore earlier in the opera. Tannhäuser’s studio becomes the Venusberg; as the Venusberg music takes over, the stage is effectively cut in two, with the exhausted painter asleep on the floor while the dancing takes place on the other side of the stage. The offstage chorus is exemplary, and perfectly distanced. Carsen emphasizes the redemptive path of the opera as the introduction and later acceptance of a new artistic path.

Beatrice Uria-Monzon is a creamy voiced, mezzo Venus, as alluring vocally as she is physically (a double is used for the overture’s shenanigans). She can tend toward the shrill when pressed, for example in the angry part of her manipulations in act I. The Venus-Tannhäuser scene of the first act really introduces us to Seiffert’s superb capabilities, though. It is immediately obvious he has the role completely. The voice is strong, confident, and ardent (as in his cries to Venus to free him to go to Earth), yet lyrical throughout. In short, he fully inhabits the world of the Heldentenor. His Rome Narrative (act III) shows his voice strong and virile, and his portrayal gripping from first to last.

For act II, the Landgraf is an international art dealer at an exhibition in the Wartburg. The exhibition space (the Wartburg) is achingly modern in its clean colors, reflective surfaces, and sharp angles. The camera cut to the Liceu audience during the prelude is initially surprising, until one realizes that Elisabeth arrives down the central aisle and sings “Dich, teure Halle” facing the Liceu stage from within the stalls. Petra Maria Schnitzer is an imposing presence, and her fine soprano has no problems attaining heights of ecstasy. Unfortunately, Weigle’s coda to the aria is a damp squib. Tannhäuser and Wolfram again enter from the audience space. Schnitzer sings wonderfully during the second scene of the second act, and the praising of the power of love from both Tannhäuser and Elisabeth shows remarkable command of the long line from both singers. Press photographers at one point seem everywhere, not only snapping Elisabeth and the Landgrave but stationed among the audience also. Later in the act, too, Schnitzer excels, delivering a “Der Unglücksel’ge” that travels, in the briefest space, from steely heart to tender supplication.

Far from being set at the Virgin’s shrine, the introduction to act III shows Elisabeth alone, seemingly pleasuring herself on the bed. We are back in the space of act I; the setting makes a mockery of Wolfram’s first words. Yet the loneliness of the space makes Elisabeth’s Prayer (beautifully sung here) all the more poignant.

Eliana Bayón is an excellent Shepherd (again, distancing is excellently managed). Markus Eiche (who I believe was a replacement for Bo Skovhus) is unconvincing as Wolfram vocally, both generally and in his act II song (“Blick ich umher”). His voice lacks power, and given the strength of the rest of the cast, shortcomings are emphasized; he has most to do in the third and final act, and here he does, in fairness, improve, although his outburst to the eternal power of sacred love does not ring wholly true. The passage before “O du, mein holde Abenstern,” “Wie Todesahnung,” is excellently veiled, though (and shot in near-darkness). Much better is Grossbück’s Landgraf, richer and more convincing, his speech of welcome in the second act beautifully and suavely delivered. It is easy to revel in the sheer beauty of his voice, but to do that is to miss the underlying musical intelligence at work here. He is dressed snazzily in a sharp suit; the glasses he wears give him something of the Clark Kent look. His act II duet with Elisabeth, although brief, is one of the production’s highlights.

The Walther, Vicente Ombuena, is merely acceptable with little special about him. Lauri Vasar makes a strong, spunky Biterolf, but his voice lacks sufficient variety. The chorus is excellent throughout, perhaps shining most in act II (scene 4).

The Paris version is used for the first act, Dresden for the second. The camerawork captures the essence of Carsen’s staging well. Mike Ashman contributes a typically astute booklet note, titled The Artist in Society . A thought-provoking and musically satisfying addition to anyone’s Wagner DVD collection.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 709308

  • UPC: 814337010935

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Richard Wagner

  • Conductor: Sebastian Weigle

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Barcelona Teatro Liceu Chorus, Barcelona Teatro Liceu Orchestra

  • Performer: Francisco Vas, Günther Groissböck, Johann Tilli, Lauri Vasar, Markus Eiche, Peter Seiffert, Petra Maria Schnitzer, Vincente Ombuena