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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert (tenor)
Elisabeth – Ann Petersen (soprano)
Venus – Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo)
Wolfram – Peter Mattei (baritone)
Hermann – René Pape (bass)
Walther – Peter Sonn (tenor)
Biterolf – Tobias Schabel (bass)
Shepherd – Sónia Grané (soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin, April 2014
Picture Format: 16:9; PCM Stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.0; Region Code: 0
BELAIR CLASSIQUES BAC422 Blu-ray [192:00]

In 2001 Daniel Barenboim recorded Tannhäuser on CD for Teldec, with the same orchestra and chorus as here, as well as with the same singers in the role of Tannhäuser and Landgrave Hermann. It makes sense, then, to start with some musical comparisons for this film, and they’re broadly very strong. Unlike many, I really enjoyed the 2001 recording – in fact, it’s the one with which I got to know the opera – and, barring a few cosmetic changes here and there, Barenboim’s view of the work hasn’t changed much. He paces it like a master, without any longueurs or dreary patches and the unfolding drama is as thrilling as you’ll hear it in the hands of any conductor, living or dead. His years of experience really tell, and it’s significant that all these years later, he is still the Staatsoper’s biggest selling point. He is helped throughout by some of the finest Tannhäuser orchestral playing you’ll hear anywhere. The Staatskapelle Berlin are now world-leaders in Wagner, as anyone who heard them in the Proms Ring will testify, and they sound fantastic in HD 5.1 surround sound. The strings glow warmly, the winds are incisive and colourful, and the whole thing is underpinned by marvellously classy brass playing. As a feat of largesse, all eight hunting horns walk across the stage at the end of the first act, presumably just because they can, and the effect is thrilling. For this conductor/orchestra pairing alone, this issue is worth checking out, and I was frequently reminded of the much quoted quip that the Staatskapelle might not be the best orchestra in the world, but they’re the best orchestra in Berlin.

The singers are also fantastic. Peter Seiffert might have lost a little of the youthful juice that coursed through his voice in 2001, but he hasn’t lost much, and his Tannhäuser remains a triumph of stamina and energy. There is still a golden, energetic hue to his voice, and you never once fear that he will tire, which is about as good as you can hope for in this thankless role. He is matched by Ann Petersen, whose Elisabeth has a touch of steel at the beginning for Dich, teure Halle, but who softens beautifully as the opera progresses. She is deeply moving in the Act 3 prayer, having provided the backbone of the big Act 2 ensemble. As in Marek Janowski’s audio recording, Marina Prudenskaya makes a warm, sultry Venus, sensual and alluring, and a total vocal contrast to Petersen’s Elisabeth. Peter Mattei is also a top-notch Wolfram. He has a deeper, more authoritative way with the role than does Christian Gerhaher for Janowski, or Thomas Hampson for Barenboim’s 2001 recording, but he is every bit as moving and totally sympathetic; a wonderful singer. Peter Sonn sings his minor part with a bright, well contrasted tenor, and Rene Pape’s unarguably authoritative Hermann is, if anything, even finer than he was in 2001, with a richness to the voice that combines humanity with grandeur.

So far, so good. What about the visuals? Well, Sasha Waltz’s production is mainly characterised by the almost ubiquitous presence of a troupe of dancers, so important to her vision that they are all individually named in the opening credits. However, she doesn’t seem to know why they’re there, and I was mostly puzzled, too, as they aren’t used at all skilfully. They flit through the Entrance of the Guests as if they were at a Second Empire ball, and jerk around suggestively during the Song Contest in a manner that is most annoying. This happens again and again, and I became more and more impatient as they did so. Ironically, the one place where they are least attention grabbing is where they most needed to be, and that’s in the Venusberg, which contains a lot of writhing and tumbling, and it quickly became dull.

Waltz’s production is at its best when it is least cluttered, such as Tannhäuser’s duet with Elisabeth (which has a thrilling vocal climax) or, best of all, Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer, which simply consists of her pouring out her heart at the front of the stage while Wolfram watches silently, powerlessly from behind. That’s fantastic drama, when the dancers have, thankfully, cleared off. There isn’t a lot of scenery, and the stage is pretty empty for most of Acts 1 and 3, which is no bad thing. The Hall of Song is suggested by some huge curtains of hanging bamboo cane, which create their own slightly distracting set of shadows. On the whole, though, the staging neither moved nor energised me, except in the interactions between the characters, but that seems like a bit of a waste of designs.

When next I return to this BD, it’ll be with the TV turned off so I can enjoy the sound in an uncluttered way, but what a sound it is, and it’s for that that most Wagnerians should obtain it. However, it still can’t touch Colin Davis’s Bayreuth Tannhäuser which, I continue to maintain, is still the finest Wagner experience that DVD has to offer.

Simon Thompson



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