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Monday, October 12, 2015



Excessive consorting with Venere.

The baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram and the tenor Johan Botha as his romantic rival, the title character, in “Tannhäuser,” are conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera.

It is hard for admirers of Levine not to be worried about how he would fare conducting Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” on Thursday, when Otto Schenk’s production returned to the Met.

Just days earlier, the Met had announced that Levine was withdrawing from an important new production of Berg’s “Lulu,” opening on Nov. 5, to concentrate his energies on “Tannhäuser.”

These two long, demanding scores have been Levine specialties for decades.

Though still grappling with health problems, Levine had agreed to conduct both, even though their runs overlapped.

The demands seemingly proved too much.

But on Thursday, Levine had the requisite stamina and focus to lead a stirring and insightful account of “Tannhäuser.”

From the overture, which begins with the steadfast hymn theme that the pilgrims of this story, set in the Mediaeval Age, will sing on their journey to Roma, Levine draws breadth and richness from the orchestra.

When the overture shifted to the shimmering, restless music associated with the Grotta di Venere--- — the realm of the love goddess — the playing had nimble lightness and gossamer textures.

Once in a while Levine's energy seemed to flag, and details went astray.

This was a performance that emphasised the big-picture elements of the score.

At times, when some plush Wagnerian orchestral burst dissolved into a misty passage, the playing lacked definition.

And there were episodes, especially some exchanges among singers of dramatic recitative, where more incisive execution from the orchestra would have helped.

Still, Levine gets his points across.

That he has a wealth of experience in Wagner’s style came through consistently.

The Met has assembled an exceptional cast, headed by the Johan Botha as Tannhäuser, the knight minstrel -- "a knight at the opera" -- who, when we meet him, has been dwelling in the realm of Venere---, basking in her love.

This punishing role requires enormous agility through a wide range as well as abundant power and stamina.

Botha sang with clarion sound and impressive ease throughout.

This valuable artist is a reminder that singing comes first in opera.

Botha has an awkwardly hefty physique and is no actor.

It didn’t matter.

His voice conveyed youthful yearning and, when Tannhäuser goes through a spiritual crisis, despair and confusion.

The mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung gave her all to the role of Venere----, singing with earthy colourings and, when rejected by Tannhäuser, steely defiance.

Her voice sometimes turned strident, but the sheer intensity of her performance swept you away.

Eva Maria Westbroek’s bright soprano voice may not be ideal for Elisabetta.

This trusting woman has fallen for Tannhäuser, entranced by his poetic songs.

Westbroek’s sound sometimes had a hard edge and wobbly vibrato.

Still, the gleam, penetrating power and expressivity of her singing made her an impetuous and vulnerable Elisabetta.

The bass Günther Groissboeck brought robust sound and dignity to GERMANO, the 'conte di Turingia' and Elisabettas uncle.

And this production includes the great baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram, the knight who also loves Elisabetta.

He is ready to step aside for Tannhäuser, until it becomes clear that his rival has corrupted his soul consorting with Venere---.

Mattei, overwhelming as Amfortas in the Met’s new production of “Parsifal” in 2013, is comparably compelling as the noble Wolfram.

His voice had both unforced power and mellow beauty.

Some can’t imagine hearing a more elegant account of the “Song to the Evening Star.”

The Met chorus, as usual, sings magnificently.

Schenk’s scrupulously traditional production has its charms, especially during the Hall of Song scene, when guests march in amid banners and onstage fanfare.

The ballet sequence in the opening scene at the "Grotta di Venere----" remains pretty silly, with amorous nymphs and satyrs leaping about in lacy dresses and loincloths. This Venere--- hosts only tasteful orgies.

The encouraging news is Levine’s strong work.

The looming question, though, is whether it’s enough for the Met’s music director to lead just seven performances of a Wagner opera during the first months of the season, while passing on a new staging of “Lulu” planned in large part just for him.

“Tannhäuser” runs through Oct. 31 at the Met.

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