Johan Botha Leads an Impeccably Sung Tannhäuser

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tannhä Wagner, Tuser: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 14.2.2015 (JLZ)

Tannhauser Photo (c) Robert Kusel
Tannhauser Photo (c) Robert Kusel

Tannhäuser: Johan Botha
Elisabeth: Amber Wagner
Venus: Michaela Schuster
Wolfram: Gerald Finley
Landgraf: John Relyea
Walther: Jesse Donner
Shepherd: Angela Mannino

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Tim Albery
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Jon Morrell
Lighting Designer: David Finn
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: Jasmin Vardimon


Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Dresden, 1845; revised for Paris, 1861) is a stunning part of the current Chicago Lyric Opera season. The singing throughout is impeccable, led by the rich voice of Johan Botha in the title role, which he delivered with ease and aplomb. In the first act he gave a flawless reading of “Dir, töne Lob,” and later, his parlando delivery was seamless. The ardor he exhibited in the first act returned in the second as Tannhäuser responds to the contest’s challenge to explain the true nature of love, and the reprise of the first-act aria was even more intense. Botha’s interpretation had the polish of a studio recording, while retaining the excitement of a festival performance.

Amber Wagner was similarly impressive as Elisabeth, a role that suits her voice. In the familiar aria that opens the second act, “Dich, teure Halle,” she brought out the opening exuberance, while never missing the subtleties of the more retrospective passages that recall happier times.These nuances were not lost on the audience, which responded warmly. Wagner’s impassioned scena at the beginning of the final act had the appropriate pathos.

As Wolfram, Gerald Finley gave a stellar performance, with exceptional diction, phrasing, and dynamic control; his assurance balanced Botha’s tragic dejection. Finley’s delivery was vivid, impassioned, and heartfelt, with the famous “Song to the Evening Star” (“O du, mein holder Abendstern”) exquisitely blended into the scene.

John Relyea offered a sonorous Landgraf, with fine diction and enunciation. Jesse Donner gave a distinctive reading of Walther, with his full tenor showing promise for other Wagner roles. Michaela Schuster was also impressive as Venus, and while the house announced that she had a cold, the performance was not lacking in physical seduction. As the shepherd, Angela Mannino was strong, especially in the passages where the accompaniment thins out, creating a texture unique in the score. In fact, Sir Andrew Davis was laudable for shaping the orchestra, and bringing out details and colors that sometimes blur in recordings. In addition to the strings, the woodwinds were particularly clear, and the brass suitably burnished. It was a pleasure to see the audience sit up to take notice of the well-rehearsed offstage brass for the entrance of the guests in the second act. Michael Black’s chorus was also notable, and while the text was sometimes indistinct, the well-blended and carefully voiced textures enhanced the entire evening.

For this season’s performances, Lyric used Covent Garden’s recent production, a staging that suits the Civic Opera House, though the modernist perspective is somewhat stark, and as a result the audience must use its imagination to fill in the settings described in Wagner’s text. Also, the costumes were somewhat disturbing: modern U.S. military fatigues for the knights and ladies. Granted the full title Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg makes use of the word “Krieg” (“war”), but the meaning focuses on the pivotal singers’ contest or competition. This production emphasizes military details, with automatic weapons and bandoleers sometimes competing for attention, especially in the second act. Also the depiction of Wartburg through wreckage and debris seems inconsistent with the fully functional modern dance-club style Venusberg and its proscenium arch. The choreography was more athletic than sensual, alternating between body rolls on the table or dancers running around the stage in a circle. The bacchanale could have been alluring if it were infused with more spontaneity.

But these quibbles are minor overall. The focus is the music, which is extraordinary in execution, especially with the soloists, chorus, and orchestra here. In short: an outstanding Tannhäuser, and Lyric deserves credit for bringing it to Chicago.

James L. Zychowicz

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