BWW Review: Let's Hear It for the Boys, in TANNHAUSER at the Met
Almost 40 years ago, on the short notice, the great tenor Jon Vickers (who died this summer at 90) caused a scandal when he pulled out of the premiere of the Met's still-current production of Wagner's "Tannhauser" because he considered the opera anti-Christian. (Referring to Vickers, Birgit Nilsson told me that if she had to pull out of a role because she couldn't sing it, she would have told the truth.) Well, nothing that exciting happened when tenor Johan Botha took the stage in the title role of the opera last week--merely wonderful singing.
The title character in TANNHAUSER, is a fellow who wants it all--everything from the carnal pleasures of the realm of Venus to the idealized love of Elisabeth. After spending a year seeing to his lusty side with Venus, he longs to return home to his valley near Wartburg (Germany) and Elisabeth, where he is expected to leave lust behind, but can't. When the Landgraf, Elisabeth's uncle, stages a singing competition for her hand, he sings a hymn to worldly pleasures; later it turns into a song to Venus. Everyone is furious at his hedonism and he only skirts disaster by being packed off to Rome to repent. Despite his penitence, the Pope will not grant it, saying that the minstrel could not be pardoned for his sins any more than the papal staff could sprout leaves again. (Guess what happens in the redemption scene, after Elisabeth dies awaiting his return?)
With seemingly endless resources in this beautiful but taxing music, Botha put in a stellar, flexible and wide-ranging performance, without a hint of tiredness in the more than 4 ½ hours. A bull of a man, he may not be the greatest actor or suavest presence on stage, but he was a game and willing colleague--particularly opposite the gorgeous performance of baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram, or against his female counterparts, mezzo Michelle de Young as a glamorous Venus and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as the chaste (but willing) Elisabeth, with whom he had real rapport.
But this was a night when the men were in the spotlight. Mattei, well-known at the Met for his recent stellar performances as Amfortas in PARSIFAL, and as Mozart's Don Giovanni, Count and Rossini's Figaro, did a masterly job as Wolfram, spinning his music into breathtaking lines. In particular, his "Song to the Evening Star" aria was a model of refinement. As the Landgraf, Elisabeth's uncle (who wants to give her way for a song), bass Gunter Groissbock was a sonorous and stern father-figure. The other knights in the singing competition--Ryan McKinny, Ricardo Lugo and, especially, Noah Baetge--were first rate, as was the stupendous Met chorus. Last but not least, there was the shepherd "boy," sung by soprano Ying Fang with a purity and sweetness of tone.
The other women had a tougher time. Once she warmed up, mezzo de Young sounded fine in the opening Venusberg scene and looked the epitome of profane love. But she had to sit in the sidelines for most of the opera, only to appear again near the end without the time she needed to warm up again. Soprano Westbroek has a huge voice, but it sounded worn and wobbly; she tried getting through on volume alone.
After nearly four decades, the Met's classic production designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen with original lighting by Gil Wechsler, is a bit worse for wear, particularly in the Venusberg scene, which was barely visible. Still, the valley near Wartburg and the hall of the castle continue do their job nicely and the costumes originally designed by Patricia Zipprodt gave the proceedings an appropriate sense of time and place. Stage director Stephen Pickover's direction after the original by Otto Schenk kept things moving along well.
By this time, the Met orchestra knows what conductor James Levine will do before he even knows it himself. Levine led them in a sure-footed, regal account of the score and the audience poured out love for the Maestro over and over again.