Stunning voices in uneven “Tannhäuser”

Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive
When: through March 6
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” pits profane and sacred love against each other in battle for the title character’s soul. Lyric Opera of Chicago now offers the opera in a production new to Chicago, the first time it has mounted this piece in over a quarter-century.

The composer based his title character on a real person of the same name, a 13th century German troubadour and poet. But the opera is not history; it is a Wagnerian excursion into a world where failure to live a noble life leaves the only road to salvation a woman’s sacrifice.

Stage director Tim Albery, in his Lyric debut, puts his own stamp on the opera. He places Tannhäuser’s tale of sin — first his willing visit to the goddess Venus to experience the pleasures of lust and his later renunciation of that in favor of a knightly love for the pure and chaste Elisabeth — in a world wracked by the devastation and immorality of war. Albery juxtaposes Tannhäuser’s victimless sin with the horrors of violent conflict that create all-too-many casualties. In such a milieu, Albery seems to say that Tannhäuser, who does not receive absolution from the Pope, is more sinned against than sinning.

Albery’s view isn’t easily grasped immediately, as his approach is fractured at times, and perhaps confusing with his 20th century setting: European but vaguely placed, with the real world men toting Kalishnikovs and his Venusberg framed by a facsimile of the Royal Opera House’s proscenium arch. (This production had its world premiere in Covent Garden.) Lyric advertises the opera with the tag line, “Only gods can live in endless bliss.” So when Tannhäuser leaves Venus, he finds himself back in his own land, represented by the tattered and rubbled remains of that opera stage, where strife and death surround him. Albery updated the opera not because he had to in order to make his point, but because it is a reigning fashion in opera direction. Nonetheless, the devastating effects of war is not an issue unique to any century, so his choice of period neither defines nor limits his dramatic intention.

That the conceptual element of the production serves as something of an intellectual puzzle isn’t bad in itself. The fact that in all other respects the visuals of this opera are dull and static mean that the director has failed at part of his job. Albery plops his characters into place, a lonely chair or a standing plot clear of the stage detritus, and leaves them for long Wagnerian stretches with nothing to do but look like a piece of the drab, uninspiring scenery created by designer Michael Levine.

On the other hand, the musical vitality of this production is stunning. From the very first moments there is the glorious sound from the pit. Sir Andrew Davis proves himself a “Heldenleiter,” a heroic conductor, as he navigates the score with perfect footing. The luminous work of the Lyric Opera Orchestra is unforgettably brilliant, engaging and complex, always serving Wagner and always serving the drama.

The singing is also top-notch. Tenor Johan Botha in the title role offers a searing account, burning first with lust, later with self-righteousness, still later with regret. His strange journey is sung with confidence, commitment and unflagging power. The director doesn’t help him out much, leaving him to lumber about now and again, but Botha is a artist whose charisma seems to lie entirely within his amazing voice, and you glory in his remarkable instrument.

Soprano Amber Wagner brings a thrilling vibrancy to Elisabeth, the virtuous maiden held in highest esteem by all who know her. Her “Dich, teure Halle” is one of the opera’s many high points, and throughout she sings with heft and sparkle. Like Botha, she is given little to make her stage presence visually meaningful, and without a long scarf to fuss with, she’d have absolutely nothing to do with her hands. Albery does make an admirable choice not to fetishize her body after death when she is taken to that special Wagnerian graveyard populated by self-sacrificing women. Her funeral procession takes place off-stage.

Baritone Gerald Finley as Wolfram is a revelation. Here is a man who even within the confines of the setting establishes himself as not only a splendid singer but an admirable actor. His “Evening Star” aria is a show-stopping moment which breaks your heart. Finley brings lieder-quality intimacy to a great operatic moment and firmly establishes Wolfram as a man of honor and wisdom.

Venus is sung with a rich and throaty vim by mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster who also appears seductive and sexy in her slinkly black evening gown. Bass John Relyea displays power and authority as Hermann, who in this production is the leader of the warring soldiers.

The Lyric Opera Chorus sings magnificently, with the “Pilgrams Chorus” brilliantly executed. When they sing off stage, the sound filters perfectly into the house.

Choreographer Jasmin Vardimon creates a dazzling dance scene which starts during the overture. In this visual highlight of the opera, the denizens of Venusberg create a swirling, mesmerizing scene of sensuality and carnality.

Albery has a less satisfying, but interesting visual conceit when he accompanies the Shepherd boy’s song (sung with directness by Angela Mannino) with a boy lounging under a leafy tree downstage, representing the Shepherd’s dream of spring. At the opera’s end, the boy appears with something leafy in a pot, thereby suggesting the winter of war is to be replaced with spring of peace.

The religious elements Wagner infused into the opera are treated very indirectly — there is a single white rose and a raft of candles in the second act. The idea that those who kill during war are more easily forgiven than Tannhäuser, whose only black mark is to have had lustful encounters leaving no victims, looms large. But when a dead tree is carried away near the conclusion and replaced with the potted plant this seems to be a reference to the Pope’s staff sprouting fresh leaves (a sign that Tannhäuser is forgiven by God), so that Albery mingles his anti-war message with the grace found by Tannhäuser.

The musical excellence of this production alone make it an opera not to be missed. The conceptual and visual elements are more challenging, but nonetheless attempt to make interesting points.