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Met Opera Live In HD: Tannhäuser – A Truly Religious Experience

tannhaeuser_settingYou’ve heard us say it. You’ve heard us say it many times. “You name it, we’ll talk about it!” This is no exception as I once again dive into the world of opera, this time regarding the latest in the Met Opera Live In HD series, Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

Here is a brief synopsis as described on the Met Opera’s website:

Tannhäuser takes place in and around Wartburg Castle, in Thuringia in central Germany, and in the mythical grotto of Venus, the goddess of love. Wartburg was the setting of a—possibly legendary—13th-century song contest as well as the home of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary (1207–1231), wife of the Landgrave of Thuringia. It would later become associated with Martin Luther, who translated the New Testament from Greek into German there. The pagan–Christian dichotomy expressed in the twofold setting is central to the opera’s dramatic core.

I freely admit that I’m not well educated regarding the life of Wagner. I know that he’s been regarded as a not very nice man. He’s been regarded as anti-semitic, and I’ve even heard the derogatory term of “pig” used when describing him. With all of that, I wonder if the man ever had any religious upbringing. His last opera, Parsifal has dealt with the idea of redemption and even spiritual healing. After watching the Met’s last performance of Wagner’s final opera there was some discussion among the Two Gay Geeks if the composer wasn’t possibly asking himself some spiritual questions as he started to approach the end of his life. However we now have Tannhäuser which is one of his earlier operas, and yet we deal with some of the same religious issues, particularly the area of sin and redemption. Regardless of Wagner’s personal point of view, what was presented here by the Met was nothing short of glorious.

The cast is quite strong, starting off with Johan Botha, the South African tenor singing the title role. While his voice may not have the lyrical beauty of Luciano Pavarotti or Placido Domingo, he does have the stamina which is required if you’re to sing any work by this demanding composer. The goddess, Venus, is sung by Wagner specialist Michelle DeYoung, and while she really has the first Act to show off what she can do, her influence is felt throughout the majority of the entire opera. (Heinrich) Tannhäuser’s love interest, Elisabeth, is sung by Eva-Maria Westbroek, who only a few years earlier debuted with great acclaim in another Met Wagner opera, Die Walküre, as Sieglinde, clearly demonstrating that Wagner is her expertise. Peter Mattei sings the role of Wolfram, a personal friend of Heinrich, and possibly the second most influential role in the entire opera (followed by Elisabeth), and the last two HUGE surprises were Günther Groissböck as Hermann and Ying Fang as “a young shepherd.” These two singers were new to me, and their voices were nothing but superb. The basso, Groissböck, presented himself with a sense of nobility that is required for the role he sang, and his voice was nothing less than flawless. Fang, as the young shepherd, has an appearance which is just above that of cameo. I have heard her interviewed before, but this was the first time hearing her sing, and her voice was a new level of beauty that I hadn’t heard before. I can only say that I hope to hear more of her again.

I must give special attention to two details about this opera. First is Mattei as Wolfram. I had first heard Mattei in Parsifal as Amfortas and was immediately mesmerized by his voice. He sang a very tortured role in that opera as the character was filled with pain and grief, something which he clearly communicated in that opera, but never to the point of sacrificing the beauty of his singing. Now with Wolfram he’s really allowed to shine as his arias are pure lyrical gems. There were times where his voice brought emotions out of me that I had not expected. While this is only the second time I have heard him sing (not counting repeated viewings of Parsifal on Blu-Ray) I sincerely hope to hear more of him. He has vaulted to the top of my list of “favorite opera singers” who are performing today.

Secondly, I must give special acknowledgement to the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. While they have always been great, they went far and above anything I had ever heard them do. One of the most exquisitely beautiful moments in the opera comes early in Act III when a group of pilgrims have just returned from Rome, and Wagner treats us to something known as “The Pilgrim’s Chorus.” While Wagner has unquestionably written some of opera’s most beautiful music, this chorus number easily rates as one of the best chorus numbers in all of opera, and the men of the Met Opera Chorus performed it, not just with musical perfection, but with spiritual perfection. They were able to convey through singing the true message that these pilgrims were expressing, and when it is given a brief encore, along with an equally beautiful countermelody sung by the women of the chorus, all I can say is that it left both Two Gay Geeks in tears. Let me be clear about this. It just didn’t move us to tears. No, it actually had us both openly crying. It was that beautiful!

One of the wonderful things about art is that it can be transformative. There is nothing like walking into a museum, a concert hall, or even a movie house, and then walking out as a totally different person. This opera did that. I won’t reveal how the opera ends should anyone wish to watch it (there is an encore performance Nov. 4th at 6:30 PM) as there are numerous live productions of this opera on home video, but I will say that it emotionally left me drained, as if everything “old” about me had been emptied, washed clean, and then poured back into me. It was a truly “religious” experience watching, listening, possibly even experiencing this Live in HD performance, and while it won’t be the same as watching it in on a big screen in a theater, when it does come out on home video it will be on the top of my list of operas to own.

5 out of 5 stars

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