Wagner: Tannhäuser

Gwyneth Jones, Hans Sotin, Bayreuth Festspiele/Sir Colin Davis (Deutsche Grammophon 073 4446)

2 September 2008 3 stars

TannhauserAs much as it lies well within the canon, productions of Tannhäuser are rarer than the high quality of the work deserves. Therefore, a new addition to the opera's discography is very welcome indeed, even when it's an old Bayreuth performance from thirty years ago.

In fact, this was the first film ever to be made at the holy grail of Wagnerism, and to be honest, it really shows. For one thing, the picture quality is poor by Deutsche Grammophon's usual standards – quite grainy and with some bad blotches. As far as I can tell, no attempt has been made to clean the picture up, which is a shame; the sound, however, has been transformed into 5.1 surround thanks to the AMSI system, and it really helps make the experience more immediate.

The other really old-fashioned aspect is the production itself. Admittedly, the immediacy of Götz Friedrich's Personenregie has stood the test of time quite well, always adopting a passionate and veristic approach in the body language. But Jürgen Rose's set and costume designs look every bit of their thirty-six years (the production was new in 1972). According to Mike Ashman's excellent booklet notes, the production was controversial in its day: when the chorus was suddenly placed onstage for the final scene instead of offstage as originally planned, they were given stock red costumes that were perceived to be a token of the director's Communist sympathies but were in fact loaded with no such subtext. The conductor of the production when it was new, Erich Leinsdorf, walked out before the end of the run, and the July 1972 premiere was booked by conservative politicians.

Yet it's all pretty tame by today's standards: banners, swathes of material, almost pantomimic costumes, all taking place on a central circular acting area. Initially I was nonplussed by the ultra-camp, ultra-1970s staging of the Bacchanal, where the sight of Tannhäuser looking from left to right through the strings of his harp reduced me to laughter, even if it does represent the character as 'the artist-outsider' looking through his 'prison bars' (again, a point made by Ashman). John Neumeier's choreography for this scene similarly looks its age; the muscularity and wildness would probably be highly effective in a different setting, however.

For me, the production is lifted by the performance of Gwyneth Jones in the dual roles of Elisabeth and Venus. Though for me she lacks the ideal depth of tone for the mezzo Fach of Venus, she makes the character into as stunningly sinister a creation as one could wish. Friedrich has her in an intriguing costume in which she appears semi-naked and with a skeletal mask over her face, intensifying the evil draw of the Venusberg. But it's as Elisabeth that Jones truly convinces, and fearless though 'Dich, teure Halle' is, the real highlight is 'Allmächt'ge Jungfrau' in the third act. Here, the sense of text is impeccable, so that the prayer to the Virgin truly feels heartfelt.

Jones is supported by a cast that's strong on the vocal front, with Bernd Weikl an exceptionally lyrical Wolfram, Hans Sotin authoritative as the Landgraf and Robert Schunk in good voice as Walther. The title role is played by Spas Wenkoff, a Bulgarian tenor whose brief career in the spotlight was at its peak when this film was made. His acting is no more than serviceable, but taking into account the impossible demands of the role, Wenkoff's performance is more than credible.

I've long admired Sir Colin Davis in Wagner, his negative reputation in some circles notwithstanding. Aside from the sheer vitality of his approach to the music, the straightforwardness of his reading appeals to me, unsullied as it is by the demands of a particular tradition. This is the case even in the Overture: when the violins enter with their appoggiatura scales, Davis ensures that the main theme remains prominent rather than letting the technical brilliance of the obbligato line take over. The effect, I find, is refreshing, and Davis' faith in the text pays dividends elsewhere, too. For me, his reading, and the performance of Jones as Elisabeth are the reasons to purchase the DVD; the technical flaws and archaic designs make it less of a recommendation for general viewers, however.

By Dominic McHugh