Outstanding Tannhäuser Kicks Off Wagner Anniversary

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner: Tannhäuser: Soloists,Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Marc Albrecht, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 13.1.2013. (JR)


Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth: Anja Harteros
Venus: Vesselina Kasarova
Hermann: Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Michael Nagy
Walther von der Vogelweide Fabio Trümpy
Biterolf: Erik Anstine
Heinrich der Schreiber: Peter Straka
Reinmar: Tomasz Slawinski
Young shepherd: Rebeca Olvera


Director: Harry Kupfer
Sets: Hans Schavernoch
Costumes: Yan Tax
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus: Ernst Raffelsberger


Tannhäuser (C) Suzanne Schwiertz


To celebrate Wagner’s birth 200 years ago there will be many Wagner performances around this year and this Zurich revival of Tannhäuser (premiered two seasons ago) sets a very high standard indeed.

Harry Kupfer has produced the opera an amazing five times and he clearly knows it inside-out. He has modernised the action; the Venusberg is a high-class brothel where statesmen, clergy (!) and the military have bacchanalian fun; the Knights become a group of golfers, complete with golf buggy, later grabbing electric guitars to become members of a rock band. The second act (the song contest in the Wartburg becoming the X Factor) takes place in a television studio and the final scene, where Elisabeth waits for Tannhäuser to return from Rome, is especially effective at the end of the platform of a bleak and dreary railway terminus.

It’s all rather over-produced but it all made sense and made for an entertaining evening. The costumes were a colourful riot, although those for the singers in the Wartburg contest looked odd. As Kupfer points out in the programme, modernising this opera works well as there are similarities today, artists outcast in China, political outsiders in the old East Germany and rock bands in Russia. Wagner too had to accept many compromises to realise his ideas and his relationship to Ludwig II had similar problems and so the opera can be viewed as somewhat autobiographical.

Peter Seiffert seems to improve with age, he was in particularly fine, strong voice throughout. He did however look uncomfortable and out-of-place as an ageing Country and Western star in long black leather coat and wielding an electric guitar. Kasarova was perfect both vocally and physically in the part of Venus, her chesty lower register seemed most apt. Most impressive of all however was the beautiful, creamy soprano of Anja Harteros, Cardiff Singer of the World 1999, now in demand all over the world at major opera houses. This year you can catch her in Lohengrin at La Scala, Otello and Trovatore in Munich and Don Carlos in London and Salzburg. Michael Nagy stepped in for Thomas Hampson, who was to have sung Wolfram; Nagy has sung the role in Bayreuth and he has a firm, clean tone. It is unclear who will sing the role in later performances.

The minor roles were all sung well, with the exception of Rootering’s Hermann, whose voice was dry, lacking both in timbre and power. Young Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera sparkled singing her charming shepherd’s lament.

The large chorus (particularly the men) thrilled throughout, plenty of volume and well-drilled by Ernst Raffelsberger. Marc Albrecht (Music Director of the Dutch Opera) was a revelation in the pit and the orchestra responded to his clear and energetic commands. Wagner lovers, if they missed this production first time round, should consider a visit to Zurich.

John Rhodes