Nagano's majestic Tannhäuser
01/22/2008 - and 25 January
Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser
Stephen Gould (Tannhäuser), Jennifer Wilson (Elisabeth), Yvonne Naef (Venus), Bartlomiej Misiuda (Wolfram von Eschenbach), Franz-Josef Selig (Langrave Hermann von Thuringia), Sani Muliaumaseali'i (Walther von der Wogelweide), Johannes Mannov (Biterolf), Gordon Gietz (Heinrich der Schreiber), Phillip Addis (Reimar von Zweter), Aline Kutan (The Shepherd)
Chœur de l'OSM, Marika Kuzma (Chorus Director), Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Conductor)
François Racine (Stage Director), François Doyon (Lighting Design)
A high point of Kent Nagano’s first season as music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal was Tristan und Isolde in two concert performances. In what could happily be the continuation of a Wagner cycle, his second season features Tannhäuser. This daunting work has never been staged by Montreal’s opera company (and indeed by no Canadian opera company) so these performances help fill an unfortunate gap.
One problem with a concert performance is one of balance between the soloists and orchestra arising from the fact of them sharing the same stage. This is partly solved by having the singers perform in the narrow area at the front of the orchestra which works fine in this case, with entrances and other (limited) movement deftly staged by noted director François Racine. However, this give rise to yet another problem as the singers are now behind the conductor’s back. To solve this, a video camera at the back of the stage transmits his image to a large monitor placed at the rear of the auditorium so the soloists can see him. Nevertheless, at busy moments, notably during the multi-ring circus at the end of Act II, the seemingly unflappable maestro becomes the centre of the action as he marshals the massive ensemble.
There are few singers in any era with the wherewithal to sing the title role, and Stephen Gould is definitely in this select group. There was evident effort in producing higher-lying phrases in Act I when he comes close to producing the dreaded Bayreuth bark; however his big solo scene, the Act III Rome narrative, is superbly performed.
Elisabeth’s entry is big and dramatic before it settles into a more gentle and heartfelt mode. Jennifer Wilson is somewhat edgy at first but then soars brilliantly in the big ensemble. Her Act III prayer is riveting.
Polish baritone Bartlomiej Misiuda was announced as singing despite an indisposition. He doesn’t sound strained or hoarse, but somewhat small-scale and wan. Still, it is a finely modulated performance and his big solo, the song to the evening star, is nicely done.
The role of Landgrave Hermann fits Franz-Josef Selig like a glove. If all roles were performed as masterfully, the opera world would be a paradise indeed. Similarly, Yvonne Naef’s Venus is a case of a singer ideally suited to a role.
The four other knight-minstrels provide strong backup. Samoan tenor Sani Muliaumaseali’i has a vehement manner with the role of Walther von der Wogelweide, although his promising voice displays some dry patches. Aline Kutan, as one would expect, charmingly tosses off the role of the shepherd.
The stage was bathed in light of different colours depending on the scene: red for the Venusberg (of course), blue for the pilgrimage wayside, gold for the hall of song. At crucial moments a cross is projected, and a flower pattern when the miracle of the blossoming staff is revealed.
The 125-member chorus is able to give us beautiful soft singing with wonderful distance effects when appropriate, as well as powerful, yet nicely- controlled, tuttis. The orchestra sounds fine (as one would expect), and the conductor gave special recognition to harpist Jennifer Swartz.
The one word I would use to describe Maestro Nagano’s approach is apollonian. The nature of the hall might be a contributor here: Salle Wildrid Pelletier opened in 1963 and is one of many “multi-purpose” venues built in its era and they are uniformly criticized for being less than ideal for most of the purposes they are supposed to suit. It seats almost 3000 and its width results in a rather dispersed sound. A smaller, purpose-built concert hall (many have been planned over the years for Montreal) would probably have made for a more intense and involving sonic experience, especially in sequences like the Act I bacchanale. Still, the space works rather well for this large work.
All in all, this is an ambitious project carried out very successfully.