Wagner's Tannhäuser is simply less accessible than Houston Grand Opera's season opener, Verdi's popular and tuneful Rigoletto. Even at its most sublime, Wagner's music lacks the airy, portable quality of arias such as "La Donna e Mobile," one Verdi melody you're likely to whistle minutes after leaving the opera house. And for all of Wagner's megalomania about reinventing Italian opera, his music drama about a knight-minstrel's rejection of a life of sensual pleasure seems as conventional as the operatic modes he struggled to transform. Still, HGO's first production of Tannhäuser in 14 seasons is worth seeing, if only for its exceptional vocal performances.
Unlike Wagner's more abstract works, Tannhäuser doesn't get bogged down by lengthy monologues that tell the story rather than portray it. This potent tale revolves around Tannhäuser (Danish tenor Stig Andersen), a knight and minstrel who grows tired of pursuing sensual pleasure with the love goddess Venus (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung). Rejected, Venus and her realm suddenly disappear, and the minstrel finds himself back in the universe of Landgraf Hermann (Danish bass Stephen Milling), the master whose knightly service he recently left. It's not so bad to be back; after all, Hermann's niece Elisabeth (Danish soprano Tina Kiberg) once fancied Tannhäuser. Reunited with his fellow knight- minstrels, Tannhäuser joins in a song contest. After his old friend Wolfram (Danish baritone Guido Paevatalu) croons about chaste love, Tannhäuser, inspired by his experiences with Venus, offers a rousing number that extols the merits of carnality.
Offended, the other minstrels prepare to pounce on him with swords, but Elisabeth stops them, demanding that God be his judge. Then Hermann banishes Tannhäuser to Rome to seek absolution for his sins. Eventually Elisabeth despairs at not seeing him again and prays for a new life in heaven where she can secure his absolution. Her heavenly intercession ultimately redeems him.
Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue
Through November 9. $18-$225. In English with German surtitles. For more information, call 713-227-ARTS.
What detracts from nearly every ensemble and choral number in this mostly well-wrought show are several air blowers placed at the front of the stage for atmospheric effect. They serve their purpose in early scenes inside Venus's pleasure palace, but in the second act the air movement runs amok, causing singers' capes and gowns to billow and flap ridiculously. During the famous "Pilgrims' Chorus," the singers may sound exquisite, but their transparent gowns fly up and down, exposing bodily curves and bulges.
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The singers impress in spite of these distractions. Andersen brings seasoning to the role of Tannhäuser, projecting both arrogance and remorse through his heroic tenor. Although Kiberg's soprano sounds restrained at first, her portrait of Elisabeth has the right dose of earthly innocence. In contrast, DeYoung's voluptuous mezzo-soprano belts torrents of tuneful emotion.
Singing Wolfram, Paevatalu's baritone sounds even and penetrating. Milling displays a well-rounded bass voice in the role of stately Hermann. Patrick Marques, Oren Gradus, Joshua Winograde and James C. Holloway offer fine performances as minstrels. French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand is a mellifluous shepherd boy and court page.
Director Richard Bado and the Houston Grand Opera Chorus lend a crucial component to the show, delivering gorgeous strains of Wagnerian magic, especially during the "Pilgrims' Chorus." Also splendid are the instrumental overtures preceding Acts I and III, faithfully rendered by guest conductor John Fiore and the Houston Symphony, in its final stint with the company before HGO's own orchestra takes over full-time. From the pit, harpist Paula Page elegantly simulates sounds of minstrel harps. Renowned German film director Werner Herzog stages the show with simple, graceful sets and costumes that evoke striking contrasts between the scarlet pleasure palace and the ivory-clad knights.
Although Wagner opera takes some getting used to, this production of Tannhäuser offers enough drama and performance quality to satisfy even a die-hard Verdi fan.