Wagner: Tannhäuser

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: Tannhäuser
PERFORMER: Robert Gambill, Camilla Nylund, Waltraud Meier, Roman Trekel, Stephen Milling; German SO, Berlin/Philippe Jordan; dir. Nikolaus Lehnhoff (Baden-Baden, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: 101 351 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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Of all Wagner’s major operas, Tannhäuser is probably most in need of imaginative rethinking to prevent its themes of sin and redemption seeming dated – just what Götz Friedrich provided at Bayreuth on the finest DVD performance (on DG), with Colin Davis conducting.

This latest, also using the revised Paris version, boasts a pretty good cast for today – notably Waltraud Meier’s still seductive Venus, despite uneasy lower notes, and Camilla Nylund’s touching Elizabeth, attractive and clear-voiced, marred only by some excessive vibrato.

Roman Trekel, as in EMI’s Zurich DVD, is a strong though rather lean-toned Wolfram, and huge Danish bass Stephen Milling is a commanding if not ideally resonant Landgrave. In the gruelling title role Robert Gambill, a decent Tristan and Siegmund, depicts Tannhäuser’s inner conflicts strongly but frequently overstretches his dark tones; he tackles the Act III narration with some credit, and a dramatic force that is sadly lacking from Philippe Jordan’s airy conducting.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging doesn’t make up for it. Whether depicting hillside, Hall of Song or Venusberg, the glossy spiral-staired unit set remains obstinately unatmospheric. Venus, dressed in crinoline and red fright wig, presides over gauzy-suited sexless dummies or mummies, coyly miming a bull sacrifice. No wonder Tannhäuser wanted out!

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Elizabeth and later Venus sport natty evening gowns, the knights swap armour for gold lamé and sing through microphones, the guests wear robes with peculiar antler headgear. But all the production team’s verbiage in the interesting backstage documentary can’t make this seem more than window-dressing on an all too straightforward production. Michael Scott Rohan