Andris Nelsons led the BSO through an unforgettable traversal of excerpts from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, an opera based on two German legends: Tannhäuser, a mythical medieval German singer and poet, and the Wartburg song contest. Sacred love (in this opera personified by Elisabeth, niece of Landgrave Herman) struggles against the profane (represented by Venus), and redemption comes through love.
In 13th-century Eisenach (Germany), the rulers of the Thuringian Valley, the area around the Wartburg, were great supporters of the arts. They held regular song contests between the Minnesingers at the Wartburg. According to the legend, Holda, the goddess of spring (who was identified with Venus, the pagan goddess of love) together with her sirens and nymphs lured the Wartburg minnesingers into the Venusberg that towered over the area. Her beauty also captivated the Minnesinger-knight Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a.k.a. Tannhäuser, after he had left the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia a year ago after a disagreement with his fellow knights in the second Act of the opera.
The substantial overture commenced with the theme of the ‘Pilgrim’s Chorus’ from Act III, Scene 1, and also included elements of the ‘Venusberg’ music from Act I, Scene 1. Wagner originally gave the opera the title “Venusberg” because of its sexual connotation before Wagner’s publisher asked for the now established title “Tannhäuser”. Nelsons chose a remarkably slow tempo for the solemn march, which allowed the musicians to revel in the dark, intimate sounds over a variety of dynamics, while accurately conveying underlying rhythms in the faster parts and building up tension in the frenzied Bacchanal after the Venusberg music.
Rich, coherent string and woodwind sound gave solid and attentive support for the solo singers. Special mentions to concert master Elita Kang for her stunning violin solos and to the gleaming horns, crucial in every Wagner performance! John Ferrillo’s plangent oboe and William Hudgins’s vocal clarinet always told.
Tannhäuser Act III begins with the Pope’s refusal to absolve Tannhäuser; Elisabeth’s prayers and self-willed death win his salvation before Tannhäuser’s own death in a miracle resolution voiced by the chorus.
In the prelude, woodwinds and strings beautifully reprised the Pilgrim’s music from the overture. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus under James Burton appeared first as the chorus of pilgrims, but their gorgeous tone production also sumptuously supported the outstanding soloists.
Soprano Amber Wagner (not a descendant of the composer) passionately prayed as Elisabeth, offering her own life for Tannhäuser’s salvation with a rich and profound voice and an actor’s commitment. Accompanying wind instruments signified a church organ and the purity of her love. Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram began in his renowned pure and profoundly honeyed Lieder-singer artistry, as he dwelt on Elisabeth’s sorrow during Tannhäuser’s absence among the pilgrims. Jessica Zhou’s harp gave poignant support, as his “O du, mein holder Abendstern” (Song to the Evening Star) anticipated Elisabeth’s death and her soul’s ascension to heaven…as did we! What a moment!
When encountering Wolfram, Klaus Florian Vogt’s Tannhäuser started matter-of-factly, telling of his pilgrimage story to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope; his timbre became increasingly desperate when failing to gain absolution. He made his distress searing with penetrating colorations, marking him as one of the outstanding Wagner tenors of our times. [And he also plays the horn HERE.]
As Wolfram then pleaded with Tannhäuser for repentance, Gerhaher’s range seamlessly expanded to a heroic dimension as Wolfram learned of Tannhäuser’s destiny. Tannhäuser, cursed and increasingly desolate (after an off-stage interlude from the woodwinds, playing from the lobby with open side doors), once again sought bliss with Venus. Mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya appeared as a seductive Venus with a bright, and brilliant range, but she disappears when Wolfram invokes the dead Elisabeth’s name. This changed Tannhäuser’s mind, and he died too. The estimable TFC closed with a deeply satisfying and redemptive Young Pilgrim’s Chorus.
Go if you can tonight. It was an amazing show.