Richard, Barbara, David and I saw this at the Met on 10/27. It was the start of our Met season, which is always exciting. I bet I’ve been there about thirty times over the years, and it never gets old hat. It’s such a special place, it always gives me a rush going up the staircase.
I’m a big Wagner fan, he might be my favorite opera composer. I was thrilled to see that the Met was doing *Tannhäuser* because it was the one Wagner opera I had to cross off my list - - he wrote what are termed as ten “mature operas”, starting with *The Flying Dutchman* (the powers that be leave out *Rienzi* and other minor operas from his youth). I had seen all of them but *Tannhäuser*, so now I’ve seen them all. Go ahead and say it: Smell you, Nancy Drew.
First off, this show has the longest overture ever! Twenty minutes before anyone sings a note. Sure, we got some dancing after ten minutes or so - - we’re in the realm of Venus, Goddess of Love, so there was a lot of swooping and mounting. But I wasn’t bored, because Wagner is such a genius, not just with the musical material but with the orchestration. His orchestration is unique, it has a narcotic effect, and always supports the music and the drama. And it doesn’t get better than James Levine conducting the Met orchestra. He’s been one of the top Wagner conductors for over thirty years, and leads the music with savvy and deep love. Barbara pointed out his peculiar conducting, which I made a point of watching in the second and third acts: the right hand has the baton and is beating time, but the left arm flails about wildly. I’m sure the orchestra knows what all that wing-flapping is about, but it shore looked funny to me.
The general arc of the show is the same as a few other Wagner operas, *Tristan*, *Parsifal*, *Meistersinger*: the first act sets things up, the second act bursts with drama and excitement, and the third act is snoozeville. Don’t get me wrong, lots of great music, but a definite slump. I adore Wagner, but I’m nearly always ready for the show to be over.
The Venus and Tannhäuser were asleep in a heap on the floor at the start of the show, thank God no one asked them to dance. Michelle DeYoung was Venus, I’ve heard her a handful of times, always in Wagner, and she’s a real pro. Her singing is ripe and secure, and she looked gorgeous in her Goddess of Love get-up.
Johan Botha was Tannhäuser, and he’s a mixed bag. On the plus side, his singing is effortless and strong and full of thrust and ping. And he is tireless. The last act features a long, punishing aria for Tannhäuser, where he tells the story of his trip to Rome seeking absolution. I’ve heard that many Tannhäusers crash and burn - - this is a long sing at the end of a long evening, and they just plain run out of gas. Not the case with Botha, he just coasted through it and sounded great. On the down side, there’s not a whole lot of refinement or musicality in his singing, and he’s what my old boyfriend Alan would call “a singing spud.” Great singing, but absolutely no stage presence, charisma, or dramatic verve. If a potato could sing… But I will say that he was a bit more involved than in previous performances. Maybe he's working with a drama coach or something.
Eva-Maria Westbroeck was Elisabeth, the nice girl who sacrifices herself to redeem Tannhäuser (how noble, how anti-woman). I’ve heard her in every show she’s done at the Met, and I love her - - her singing is strong and intelligent and she’s a joy to watch onstage, she’s what they call “a stage animal.” But her voice is getting a little worn. This is a little worrisome, she’s only 45 and should have many more prime years ahead of her. Pace yourself, girlfriend!
Barbara had a funny observation about the duet between Tannhäuser and Elisabeth in the second act. They alternated lines, and then when they sang together they stood next to each other, held hands, and faced forward. Barbara thought, “For REAL? That’s what they do for the staging? Come ON!” It was an old school moment. Other old school moments: they used the gold curtain, which doesn’t happen so much anymore - - these modern directors want to have their own darn curtain. And I don’t remember the last time I went to an opera and they had bows in front of the curtain between acts. I almost never see that anymore, it’s totally retro and adorable.
The prize for best performance of the evening goes to baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram. Everything you could want in a singer: gorgeous, smooth, creamy, DREAMY voice. And tall and handsome, and a wonderful actor. I’m going to make a special effort to see him more often, he’s the real deal.
This is one of the oldest productions still in use at the Met, it’s from 1977. The only Met production I can think of that’s older, and still in regular use, is their *Rosenkavalier* from 1969. The word on the street is that both productions are headed to the ashcan. I hope they’re replaced with something equally marvelous, but if the Met’s new Ring production is any indication, my hopes are in vain. It was really showing its provenance in the entrance of the nobles in the second act - - their costumes were the colors popular for appliances in 1977: goldenrod, burnt orange, avocado, and a poopy shade of brown that never should have left the 70s.