Cher Public

The Minnesanger of Seville

tannhauserSeville bills itself as the “City of 150 operas,” and celebrated this fact at the Exposition of 1992 by erecting a magnificent new opera house, the Teatro de la Maestranza, right beside the Plaza de Toros. The seasons of the two theaters do not overlap. Next month, there will be a rare staging of an opera buffa by local boy Manuel Garcia, renowned for being the first to bring opera to New York, with his teenage daughter La Malibran. 

The 1800-seat house has state-of-the-art acoustics, a wide (and open) pit and presumably decent stage machinery, though nothing about Achim Thorwald´s current production of Tannhäuser, co-presented with the Teatr Wielki of Poznan, would have been difficult to produce in the opera houses of two hundred years ago: Pretty stage pictures, paper snow falling, erotic ballet in flesh-colored tights, zaftig singers with big voices. What’s the problem?

Tannhäuser, the second of Wagner’s three “romantic operas,” tickled Eduard Hanslick and established the composer’s bona fides as the coming German kid. He got a job as kapellmeister to the King of Saxony, whose ancestors, Landgraf Hermann of Thuringia and Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, the opera salutes. Wagner blew all this success (except notoriety) by participating in the Revolution of 1848 in Dresden and was then a hunted man for fifteen years, which included the disastrous Paris debut of the revised Tannhäuser.

The title role may be the toughest Wagner ever created. By the time he got to Tristan and Siegfried, he knew how to give his tenors more time to warm up, to breathe between cataclysms. But our boy Henry T is required to leap out of bed (here, a set of rather weary red oversize sofa cushions) and burst into three verses of his impossible hymn to Venus (imagine a bed partner who made such post-coital demands), each verse a half step higher than the last.

Plus the Paris duet. Inhuman request, even for a goddess. Then there’s the Song Contest in Act II and the endless Rom Narrativ. I’ve heard tenors act their way through that bit with some success (McCracken, Cassilly) but actually sing it? Prudent men like Vickers, Domingo and Heppner did not risk the role at all.

I had never heard the part actually sung until Peter Seiffert sang it at the Met in 2004, when he was barely fifty, and I was astonished. He was outdone, perhaps, by the late Johan Botha, who sang it gorgeously a year and a half ago. I told someone then, “You’ll never hear it sung so beautifully again,” and alas I was right.

But Seiffert is still around. He is now 62 years old, and sings a lot of Wagner in Spain—he was Siegmund in the Valencia Ring. In the Maestranza Friday night, he sounded 40, and a very healthy 40 at that. His tenor is clarion bright, precisely on pitch, subtly varied with the neurotic hero’s outspoken inner drama, and with nary a wobble till the very last moments of this long, long part.

And then, instead of taking his well-deserved bows, he wanted to shake the hands of every singer in the chorus. Although stouter and grayer than he was—which is not inappropriate to the role, a man with an untidy past—he remains an excellent, ardent actor and the best Tannhäuser afloat.

I did not care for the Elisabeth, Ricarda Merbeth. She has the full, clear, metallic timbre of a Wagnerian, all right, and the physique to support it, but, though a young woman, she wobbles under pressure and consistently sings below the pitch. Except for a few phrases of Act II and the opening howls of the concertato, she gave no pleasure. She is also a clumsy and unsubtle actress. She should take lessons in just about everything from Mr. Seiffert, who sounds good for another decade or so.

Far more endearing was Alexandra Petersamer, a Wagnerian Venus with the busty physique du role but a solid style of projecting her sound and passionate acting chops. This is, by the way, the only Tannhäuser I’ve seen in which Venus remained on stage after the miracle to share in it: The goddess saved! Surely a first.

Martin Gantner is no Peter Mattei, but who is? His Wolfram was first rate, beautifully phrased and elegantly deported, every pitch true, every syllable clear. Damian del Castillo sang a dry but intense Biterolf, Attila Jun a stalwart if not outstanding Landgraf. Estefanía Perdomo sang a charming Shepherd without once lifting her flute to her lips—her function in this staging appeared to be more angelic (or cherubic) than pastoral, or maybe she was being pastoral in the angelic sense.

For an ambitious provincial house (the Maestranza stages about one major opera a month, and the Bohemes and Flutes are leavened by Anna Bolena, König Candaules and Schweigsame Frau), this was singing of a most impressive level.

The Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla is rather light on the strings for someone used to the Met´s vast complement, but there were many subtle themes beneath themes that emerged in this strong performance under Pedro Halffter. He held the massed forces together for a beautifully shaped concertato, but the conclusions of the three acts lacked the propulsion, the excitement, the rush that New Yorkers are used to.

The Thorwald staging places the show in Wagner´s era (ho-hum, that cliché), with black leather “hunter costumes” for the men. Tannhäuser himself is barefoot and dressed in a brown suede duster to distinguish himself from the respectable Thuringians. Act II is set in a high Biedermeier music room, the inhabitants in black satin with high collars.

The only harp is a rather abstract one, something between a Dali and a Joan Miro, and nobody touches it. The marvelous cerulean backdrop sky could have used an Evening Star if Mr. Gantner was going to sing to it so beautifully, but nothing showed up. This was a simple, special-effect poor production. But pretty stage pictures count for much in the present day and age.

About fifteen minutes south of Seville, on the train to Cadiz, one passes a modern suburb with street names visible from the train. With an idle eye I read them, and did not at first notice they were all familiar names: Calle Miguel Fleta, Avenida Ipolito Lazaro, Pilar Lorengar, Placido Domingo, Teresa Berganza, Jose Carreras.

By now I was sitting up. I did not see Caballe, De los Angeles or Kraus, but I daresay they are the main avenues in the center of town. It is charming to know so grand a national tradition is honored here.