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Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, November 2009

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Tannhäuser, filmed at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in 2008, opens with a stupendous though perhaps unintended visual pun. Expecting Venus, we are confronted with Elizabeth—Elizabeth with a “z,” that is. Done up as the Tudor monarch, she occupies a pedestal at center stage, resplendent in an iconic farthingale, her robe a thickly textured eggshell-colored raw silk, her Titian hair fanning out like a seashell. Around her revolves a double helix that rises into the flies, an allusion to the DNA molecule, linking desire to the wellsprings of life itself. The double helix is embedded in turn within a spiral staircase that flares wider as it ascends: a symbol, one soon suspects, of spiritual aspiration. Increasingly shaken by Tannhäuser’s complaints, Venus casts off her royal apparel to reveal a glistening, black-sequined cocktail dress, lets down her hair, and lolls on the floor like a despairing odalisque. Arriving right on cue in Act II, Elisabeth with an “s,” the Landgrave’s niece, is all in white, the picture of anxious, somewhat matronly bridal decorum. No doubt about it: this Tannhäuser focuses as intensely on the psychodrama of its women as it does on the hero’s torn soul.

Abstract and formalist as it is, Raimund Bauer’s unit set undergoes transformations of striking expressive power. The wardrobe, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, mostly offers a bold, deluxe gloss on medieval court attire, though the contestants in the “war of the minstrels” (all but Tannhäuser) show up in gold tails that would be the envy of Liberace. (The dais formerly occupied by Venus and Elisabeth is outfitted with a microphone stand for the occasion.) Action, in the main, is pared down in the extreme, yet vivid by virtue of intensity and concentration. Tannhäuser, of course, is a law unto himself: restless, impulsive, rumpled and unkempt.

In the notoriously strenuous title role, Robert Gambill delivers a thrilling performance…the account of the music is scrupulous down to the grace notes in the hymn to Venus, the articulation of the text incisive rather than rhetorical. With the face of a fallen angel, Gambill gives the character’s many ironies glints of bitter charm. Singing the Paris version of her music with an authority matched only by her personal glamour, Waltraud Meier conjures up a Venus of incomparable fascination…Camilla Nylund gives Elisabeth the heart and soul of the true jugendlich dramatische, lending her climactic intervention in Act II a heroic fire. Elisabeth’s prayer in Act III, so often meek and mild, erupts here as desperate existential protest. Stephen Milling gives the Landgrave’s deep and conflicting emotions the stamp of truth…Got up like an androgynous satyr in a Renaissance masque, Katherina Müller gives a dulcet account of the Shepherd’s morning song. It remains to mention the dancers, who perform the bacchanal cocooned top to toe in Lycra, writhing like larvae struggling to be born, twitching like errant robots, copulating after a fashion and so on…Glimpsed during the preludes, the conductor Philippe Jordan casts quite a spell. Severe and gentle by turns, his face seems inspirited not by ego but by submission to some higher law. His gestures are expansive, precise, yet unostentatious. Rather than simply sweep the listener along, Jordan leaves space for contemplation, for mystery, far beyond conventional romantic melodrama. As much as Lehnhoff, it is Jordan who pilots this Tannhäuser into waters as deep as those of Tristan and Parsifal.

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, July 2009

There’s no stage director of Wagner operas active today with deeper insights, greater contextual mastery, and more dramatic vision than Nikolaus Lehnhoff. His takes on Tristan, Lohengrin, and—especially—Parsifal were compelling, apart from strictly musical strengths and weaknesses. With this Tannhäuser, a co-production of the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus (where it was filmed) and The Amsterdam Opera, Lehnhoff adds to his list of Wagnerian triumphs.

In the accompanying 58-minute documentary film by Rainer E. Moritz, “Tannhäuser the Revolutionary,” Lehnhoff offers, “Tannhäuser is a man searching for the meaning of life, a Faustian character, an Everyman. He is trying to find some meaning between incompatible worlds…Tannhäuser always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The production employs the Paris version of 1861, but to increase greatly the sense of dangerous conflict generated by the protagonist’s “revolutionary” contrariness, Lehnhoff returns the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide’s contribution to the song contest. The director clearly views Tannhäuser as a “preliminary study” for Parsifal, except that, unlike the outsider hero of Wagner’s last opera, Tannhäuser fails to find the answers he seeks. The title character “finally runs into nothingness and bleeds to death internally.”

Robert Gambill is a workhorse of a Wagnerian singer these days and, even if he won’t be remembered 50 years from now as a great Heldentenor, is a capable and dependable musician in this repertoire. Of all the Wagner roles I’ve seen Gambill take on, Tannhäuser may be the one he’s best suited to. There’s an unremitting intensity that clues us into the character’s existential unhappiness. The Rome Narrative here takes on a hallucinatory vividness akin to Tristan’s pain-induced ravings. Gambill is wonderfully loose in the song contest; Tannhäuser is just being himself, to the consternation of all in attendance. Predictably, Waltraud Meier is an imperious, in-control Venus—very seductive vocally but still generating sympathy for her plight as Tannhäuser’s spurned lover. At the same time, Camilla Nylund’s Elizabeth is infused with a youthful energy and passion: she’s less chaste-sounding than usual, and her third act prayer is full-throated.

For Wolfram, some will prefer a plusher vocal apparatus than Roman Trekel brings to the table, but he presents his song contest bit with the sensitivity of a Lieder singer. The same goes for “O du mein holder Abendstern.” Stephen Milling is emerging as an important Wagnerian bass, rendering a commanding and solidly ethical Landgraf. I’m very eager to hear his Marke and Gurnemanz.

Philippe Jordan has the full measure of this music and exerts masterful control over the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, whose winds are especially winning. He relishes in particular the stretches of incidental music. (In the Moritz film, Jordan opines, “The Entrance of the Guests” is “the most spectacular march ever written.” Fans of Aida, Damnation of Faust, or even Sousa might dispute the point.) Only occasionally does the conductor miss the boat, as with a slight choppiness to the third act Pilgrims’ Chorus. We learn in the documentary that Jordan didn’t just arrive shortly before opening night in the manner of many celebrated modern conductors but, rather, worked closely with the singers for an extended time and had substantial interpretive discussions with Lehnhoff.

The set is striking, featuring a central spiral element. There’s not a harp in sight at any time, though the minstrels do share a 1950s-style microphone for the singing contest, adding to an American Idol kind of feel to act II’s climactic scene. Eschewing either the usual pornographic or abstracted approach for the act-I ballet, the choreographers instead give us something pretty bizarre involving the sacrifice of a bull (“a symbol of evil or darkness in Tannhäuser,” the notes explain) performed by 16 dancers described as “worms and larvae.” They look more to me like those bendable rubber Gumby toys. Cinematography is excellent, and the 5.1 multichannel sound is very exciting, especially in the middle act with extra brasses positioned behind our listening chair. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. There are several other worthy video Tannhäusers to consider, especially Cassily/Levine/Met and Versalle/Sinopoli/Bayreuth, but Wagner collectors shouldn’t hesitate to pick this one up as well.

Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, July 2009

Richard Wagner’s 1845 opera—essentially an allegory of the struggle between sacred and profane love portrayed in the longing of the titular knight for both the virtuous Elisabeth and the voluptuous Venus—is solidly performed in this 2008 production from the Baden-Baden Festival (using the 1861 Paris revision, with one insertion from the earlier Dresden version: Walter von der Vogelweide’s contribution to the singing contest in Act 2). In terms of the music, the performance by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is vivid and powerful, while Philippe Jordan’s conducting is strong. Tannhäuser is Robert Gambill’s signature role—signaling his debut a decade ago—but now the effort shows, and with veteran Waltraud Meier in the role of Venus displaying similar strain, only Camilla Nylund, playing Elizabeth, demonstrates the sheer vocal freedom demanded by Wagner’s writing. The staging, centered around a huge spiral staircase, is elegant but sometimes peculiar: the opening bacchanal, featuring dancers who appear to be dressed as larvae doing battle with a black bull, looks especially silly (in the bonus “behind-the-scenes” documentary, the symbolism is explained—somewhat unconvincingly). Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, and PCM stereo, this is recommended, overall.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

Wagner’s Tannhäuser was filmed at the Baden-Baden Opera in 2008, in a production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff featuring Philippe Jordan leading the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, with Robert Gambill (Tannhäuser), Camilla Nylund (Elisabeth), Waltraud Meier (Venus) and Roman Trekel (Wolfram) in the important roles (101351, two discs). Except for Gambill, who is tremulous from start to finish, the singing is excellent, as are Jordan’s pacing and balances. Lehnhoff updates the opera tastelessly, including a microphone for the singing contest, through which Trekel croons his entry. Excellent sound in all three formats and good video.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, May 2009

The 2008 Baden-Baden version on Arthaus Musik…offers the full post-Tristan Paris version, with the extended Venusberg music…Performances of the full Paris version are more likely to use different sopranos for the roles of Venus and Elisabeth, and it is one of the strengths of Baden-Baden 2008 to have two such different but excellent singers in these roles. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund is new to me, and (like the Danish bass-baritone Stephen Milling, who comes close to upstaging most of his male colleagues as the Landgraf) is clearly a singer-actor of huge potential in this repertoire.

The solo singing is the outstanding feature of this new recording. Robert Gambill…has immense stamina and the presence to command the stage, especially during the big ensembles. Roman Trekel[‘s] voice [is] recorded with a degree of edginess that reduces its actual lyrical beauty…the Arthaus sound balance favours the voices at the expense of salient orchestral detail, but this drawback is much less bothersome than certain details of the production…Nikolaus Lehnhoff seems determined to drain the work of its Christian iconography—keeping the chorus with the Pope’s flowering staff out of sight at the end is particularly perverse—and to nudge the audience with such deliberately incongruous props as a (non-functioning) microphone for the contestants in the Hall of Song. The production gets off to a bad start with a robotic, anti-erotic Bacchanale, and it is here that conductor Philippe Jordan’s unsteady tempi, replete with pseudo-expressive over-emphases, first become apparent. Though it recurs, this problem is less pervasive than it might be, and Jordan is an alert supporter of his singers.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, May 2009

…a modern-dress production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser isn’t always disastrous, as director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s solid staging from Baden-Baden in 2008 shows—the standout is Waltraud Meier’s sizzling performance as the bewitching Venus (lone extra: 55-minute documentary with cast and crew interviews).

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, April 2009

Perusing the list of cast members, conductor and stage director, the reader can see that this is a major production—and visually and aurally it comes across that way. In the second scene Robert Gambill as Tannhäuser and Waltraud Meier as Venus are thrilling. Meier’s Zieh hin, Wahnbetörter is delivered with passion and total conviction. Her voice is beautiful and powerful in the upper ranges, though she occasionally has a vaguely down-in-the-well thickness on certain low notes. But that last shortcoming is miniscule, and I almost feel guilty for mentioning it, because her performance overall is so compelling.

Gambill is consistently excellent throughout—his energy and commitment never flag. Camilla Nylund as Elizabeth is splendid as well, from her first appearance at the beginning of Act II (Dich, teure Halle, grüß’ ich wieder). Her high notes are especially thrilling, but she also sings well throughout her range. Other singers in the cast are nearly as good—Roman Trekel as Wolfram, Stephen Milling as the Landgraf, Tom Fox as Biterolf and Katherina Müller as Ein junger Hirt, to name some.

Young Philippe Jordan conducts with a fine sense for drama, with well chosen tempos and fine phrasing. The chorus, so essential in this opera, sings brilliantly throughout and the orchestra plays with spirit and accuracy.

But, you ask, what about the sets and costuming? Nikolaus Lehnhoff will, I suppose, always generate a level of controversy with his often mysterious-looking, rather barren sets and “modern” treatments. Here, there is a circular stairway in the center of the stage throughout all three acts. I guess, considering the subject matter of this opera—the meaning of life, good, evil, etc.—one could interpret it as a pathway to choice, to fate. Whatever. I think the production works—it’s colorful (try the opening of the Fourth Scene in Act II, The Entrance of the Guests), and it’s thought-provoking. True, some of the costuming in the opera looks a little ridiculous (the gold outfits of the six singers in Act II) and the use of a microphone when the Landgraf addresses the guests in Act II is a bit out of place (intentionally anachronistic?). Still, on the whole, this is a fine Tannhäuser: it would be hard to beat for its singing and orchestral playing, and if you find the production to your liking, it might well rank among the very best Tannhäusers ever issued. Recommended.

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