Tannhäuser: Wagner's "problem" opera The Sinopoli Recording

The Sinopoli Recording

WAGNER: Tannhäuser
Plácido Domingo, Tannhäuser; Cheryl Studer, Elisabeth; Agnes Baltsa, Venus; Andreas Schmidt, Wolfram; Matti Salminen, Landgraf; William Pell, Walther; Kurt Rydl, Biterolf; Clemens Bieber, Heinrich; Oskar Hillebrandt, Reinmar; Barbara Bonney, Shepherd; Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli
Deutsche Grammophon 427 625-2 (3 CDs only). 1989. Klaus Hiemann, eng.; Günther Breest, Wolfgang Stengel, Claudia Hamann, prods. DDD. TT: 3:16:14

Which brings me to the second recording of the Paris Version, and the impetus for this article: Giuseppe Sinopoli's new release on Deutsche Grammophon 427 625-2. It's to Sinopoli's credit that, more than under any other conductor since Sawallisch and Solti, Tannhäuser sounds all of a piece, with none of the tail-wags-dog syndrome that plagues so many productions, particularly of the Paris Version. It's no small accomplishment.

Whether or not Sinopoli's is a necessary recording is a fuzzier issue. After hearing his towering, almost brutally wrenching Madama Butterfly—Puccini as Wagner—I expected a lot more. This is the other extreme: Wagner as Puccini. The Bacchanale is tasteful where it should be torrid, mellow where it should be mad. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised—after all, when you throw together an Italian conductor, an English orchestra and chorus, a Spanish Tannhäuser, an American Elisabeth, a Greek Venus, a Finnish Landgraf, and a German opera, you've got to expect a little averaging-out.

However, this slowest Tannhäuser on record is quite possibly also the warmest, if not the hottest. And if Solti brings out the Tristan and Götterdämmerung inherent in the score, Sinopoli draws forth the floating, mystical flavors of Parsifal and Lohengrin—considering the work's literary origins, a more historically accurate choice, and not at all a bad thing for an opera that can too easily seem like so much crashing, banging, and empty vocal posturing. Sinopoli's Act II is the best since Sawallisch's—full of innigkeit, glowing and loving in the first half, dramatic in the second, with glorious offstage horns ripping out and wonderfully balanced ensemble work from the many soloists and chorus alike. And in Act III's long, slow wind choirs between Elisabeth's departure and Wolfram's "Wie Todesahnung," Sinopoli stops time itself.

But conductor gets little help from tenor. Plácido Domingo is in fine voice—and what a voice!—and all of Wagner's dynamic markings are obeyed, but he sounds strangely uninvolved, his heart absent, his way with the phrases sounding not so much open-heartedly Latin (as in his excellent Lohengrin for Solti) as rotely lackadaisical. His Rome Narration just sort of happens, then it's over—a far cry from René Kollo's gnashed gutturals for Solti. On the whole, an impersonal reading of Wagner's most willful, most self-involved anti-hero. Domingo's on-again off-again German pronunciation doesn't help much either. But he sure sounds pretty.

Andreas Schmidt's Wolfram von Eschenbach is almost as good as I've heard, right up there with Wächter (Fischer-Dieskau, remember, is in a class by himself). But Schmidt approaches Fischer-Dieskau's undeniable humanity in supple voice with nary a hard or glary edge. His "Als du in kühnem Sange" is lovely. The ever-steady Matti Salminen is a sturdy, if slightly hooty, Landgraf. The shepherd and young pilgrims are sopranos and altos, which makes musical if not dramatic sense—I prefer boys' voices, as Wagner indicated in the score. And Norbert Balatsch does the same impeccable chorus-wrangling he did for Solti 19 years before (though I think Haitink's choruses are still my favorites for clarity, balance, and commitment).

Agnes Baltsa, though hardly elbowing Christa Ludwig out of anyone's memories, is a vulnerable Venus, seeming—sincerely, for a change, in this role—to barely contain her divine composure. In her final Act III appeal to Tannhäuser, she and Sinopoli are in such lilting, melting concord that you'd swear you were hearing the Tristan Act II duet.

But I've saved the best for last: Cheryl Studer's ravishing, luscious—yes, even more so than Venus—Elisabeth. I dropped my notes when I heard her entrance at "Dich, teure Halle" (though that aria is taken a little too rubato). Studer all but fulfills the promise she showed as the Empress in the 1988 EMI Frau ohne Schatten under Sawallisch. What a rich, sensuous voice, with highs to match—she takes the high B at the aria's end without the slightest thinning of sound. Her only weakness is a seeming lack of control in quiet midrange passages. I'd recommend her performance here for sheer vocal beauty alone, but there's dramatic sense too. Studer could probably succeed where Nilsson failed back in 1969 under Gerdes—singing Elisabeth and Venus—in an unsuccessful but interesting out-of-print DG recording. She's compassionate and sensual enough for both.

Of the surprisingly excellent recordings from DG recently, this is not one. Strings are harsh, and there's virtually no soundstage depth except when the chorus is singing. Compare it with the CDs or LPs of Solti's Rheingold of 1958 (another multi-miked—though excellent—extravaganza), or Haitink's DDD Rheingold of 1989, or even the 1962 Philips recording of this opera, and there is no comparison.

Is this a necessary recording? Not quite. But nice try, Signor Sinopoli—very nice try indeed.

Besides the Gerdes, which I've heard, there are three more out-of-print recordings I haven't: a 1930 Bayreuth performance under Elmendorff (EMI), a 1949 recording under Schröder (DG), and one from 1955 under Heger (Nixa). (And, as this issue goes to print, a recent notice in the New York Times announced a series of 10 historical broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, including a 1941 Erich Leinsdorf-led Tannhäuser with Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Emmanuel List, and Herbert Janssen. Robert Levine tells me this is a wonderful performance, but at $150 for three LPs, it's for fanatics only.)

Of the six Tannhäusers currently in print (each is on three CDs, by the way), my recommendation chips fall thusly: Dresden Version: Haitink by a length. Bayreuth Version: Sawallisch by a mile. Paris Version: Solti by a head. If you want a single "best" recommendation—a tough choice in this very varied lot—I'd have to recommend Sawallisch's 1962 Bayreuth account for a near-perfect balance of high drama, high-gloss musicality, marvelous singing, and fantastic sound.

And if, after hearing it, you decide that Tannhäuser is not for you, then I guess JA was right after all.—Richard Lehnert

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