A Wagner opera delivers three things: a seamless score, glorious melodies and great length. Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s production of the composer’s “Tannhauser,” which opened Feb. 9 at the Civic Opera House, certainly had all of the above.
But this opera is also a conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. The role of Tannhauser is sung by Johan Botha, Lyric’s reigning Wagnerian tenor. The character has been living in the Venusberg, which is is exactly what you think it is, but if you need a hint, the backlighting is red.
Tannhauser, however, has wearied of sensual pleasures and longs to return to his home village and his true love Elisabeth. To no avail does his lover Venus (mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster) slither seductively around in a form-fitting gown of black sequins.
Back among the mortals, he finds Elisabeth (soprano Amber Wagner) waiting chastely for his return. The town is holding a singing contest, the subject being, “What is the nature of true love?”
Some men, including Wolfram (bass-baritone Gerald Finley) sing of love as a pure fountain they will not defile by drinking from it. But Tannhauser contradicts them, saying that one must drink fully from the fountain of love. When he reveals he has lived in the Venusberg, the townsfolk are shocked and Elisabeth is broken-hearted.
He joins a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, but returns unforgiven and bitter. Elisabeth, however, has died, offering her life to save his soul. So, this being opera, he does indeed find heavenly pardon.
There are moments of brilliance in this long drawn-out story. Schuster as Venus is truly beautiful, a slender actress with a vibrant voice. Botha’s sound is unparalleled, both muscular and musical, while Wagner as Elisabeth is a powerhouse, her glowing soprano soaring to the rafters, as strong in the end as it was when we first meet her. Especially affecting is Finley as Wolfram, who sings one of most beloved of Wagner’s songs, “Hymn to the Evening Star.”
The Lyric Opera chorus has a chance to shine, especially in the well-known “Pilgrim’s Chorus.” And of course there are the Venusberg dancers.
But the sets were disappointing—Venusberg eventually becoming not much more than a bed, the hall for the singing contest indicated by a shattered proscenium arch, and the final scene a barren, snowy landscape. Costumes were drab, colors muted.
But not so Wagner’s music. Counting “Tannhauser,” Lyric’s artistic director Sir Anthony Davis has now conducted nine Wagner operas at the Civic Opera House. There is nothing like the full round tones of the horns that he draws from the Lyric Orchestra, or the gentle ripple of the harp, the stirring strings and slender reeds that make up this composer’s lush and unmistakable sound.
“Tannhauser,” sung in German with English supertitles, runs four hours and forty minutes at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Performances are 6 p.m. Monday, March 2 and Friday, March 6. For information, visit Lyric’s website.