Moving from a bacchanalian orgy to a singing competition turned slut shaming session to sexless death and Christian repentance, Tannhäuser advances slowly toward its destination. It solidifies German national myth while linking a pagan past—itself heavily influenced by the Roman empire—to a Christian present by substituting Venus for the Virgin Mary, embodied by the virginal Elisabeth whose purity transforms Wagner’s titular sinner into a saint.
Wagner’s fallen man escapes Venus’s grotto to return to the real world, devoting himself to Christianity and a newly chaste love interest, assisted by the guidance of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who forms the third leg of this uniquely un-erotic love triangle. Elisabeth and Tannhauser each expire for no particular reason, overcome by sadness or regret. Wagner’s score, which moves unburdened by the weight of its composer’s eventual mature identity, is at once idiomatically Wagnerian and recognizably early-romantic. It has end-stopped arias, love duets, choruses, a ballet, all components that we recognize in other works, but the ingredients for his later works are all there, German-nationalist myth-making included.
Otto Schenk’s production, tastefully splendid and capable, if never especially groundbreaking, feels like a relic of an older, different Met opera, which has its own mythic past that came into sharp conflict with fears over the ending of something—the end of human life brought on by impending climate cataclysm, as activists from Extinction Rebellion staged in a loud protest that cracked the opera in half with cries of “No opera on a dead planet!”
This review will be similarly divided. I’d like to give their performances a fair shake, while also acknowledging that these artists were working under bizarre and stressful circumstances. All of the musicians and cast behaved with utmost professionalism and admirable focus, and as a critic, I’m loath to take too much away from their work. At the same time, live theater is always liable to such disruptions: that’s what keeps it alive.
So, I’ll dive in with warnings that rocky terrain awaits. We begin in Venus’s grove, as Andreas Schager’s Tannhäuser sleeps in the arms of the goddess (Ekaterina Gubanova) while a balletic orgy whirls around their forms. For this knight, the afterglow has worn off, and he wants out; Venus’s embraces have begun to feel more emasculating than sexy. At the podium was Sir Donald Runnicles, Scottish conductor and Wagner specialist, who lent a welcome lightness and transparency to Wagner’s score throughout, but who grew increasingly propulsive as Tannhäuser leaves the grotto. Ekaterina Gubanova, whom I greatly enjoyed last year as Adalgisa in Norma, was an elegant Venus, her voice at first warmly seductive and then increasingly harsh as she delivers her curse to her errant knight. While some of the brilliance was lost in her middle voice, Gubanova was appropriately divine.
In contrast to Gubanova’s elegance, tenor Andreas Schager—his floppy hair becoming its own character—sang Tannhäuser with a visible enthusiasm that occasionally bordered on demonic possession. He flung himself about the stage as if yanked around on a chain by Wagner’s ghost, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes breaking into a grin as he produced reams of brassy, brash sound. He sang with great straightforwardness, but at times it felt more like Tannhäuser singing Schager, instead of the other way round. This yielded mixed results. At times, he sang with pleasing immediacy and energy, but as the night wore on, he began to rely more on a labored shout, evidence of the physical strain of the role. It wasn’t boring but it also wasn’t always interesting for the right reasons.
As his friend and de facto spiritual advisor, Christian Gerhaher’s (making a memorable Met debut) Wolfram von Eschenbach seemed to come from a radically different dramatic universe than Schager. Gerhaher sings Wagner with a soft touch and a fussy, mannered style; this is Wagner qua Dicterliebe. His Wolfram had all the fastidiousness of a Shakespearian actor, with every gesture and vocal flourish meticulously planned and executed. This approach often delights, as it did in his exquisite “Blick ich umher,” where Gerhaher sang with earnest wonder that even multiple interruptions couldn’t tamp down. It just as frequently annoys, as it most certainly did in “O du mein holder Abendstern.” This aria saw the singer retreating into a fluffy, precious sound that served mainly to call increasing attention to rolled r’s and rendered many of his softer moments all but inaudible.
Between these opposingly histrionic men, there was Elza van den Heever’s Elisabeth, who suited both her singing and acting to the opera and delivered a very fine performance that found something human in this untouchably angelic character point. Her “Dich, teure Halle” at the beginning of Act II marked a turning point; the orchestra, which had been playing well enough under Runnicle’s baton, took on new vivacity, while van den Heever delivered bolt after bolt of plush, luminous, and balanced sound. As the chorus arrived in the hall and the singers of Wartburg assembled to deliver their musical symposium on the nature of love, the production settled into a new energy. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Landgraf Herman took on increasing warmth, both vocally and physically as he interacted with his beloved niece. Wolfram, selected to go first, launched into his Act II stunner, “Blick ich unher.”
Then the evening took a strange turn.
With only a few measures remaining in “Blick ich umher,” a man in the family circle boxes began to shout, “Wake up, Wolfram! This is a climate crisis!” As he subsequently shouted, “No opera on a dead planet,” he unfurled a narrow black banner, on which was painted the same words.
Gerhaher and the orchestra slowly ground to a halt, while some irate patrons booed and gave out cries of “Shut him up!” “Go home!” and “Fuck off!” From the parterre box above me, one woman yelled for the protesters to leave the arts out of it, noting that “They were still playing music as the Titanic was sinking!” which seemed to make, rather than break, the protesters’ point.
Shortly after the Met security team removed the first protester, another took up the cause in the boxes on the left, shouting unintelligibly over the noise of the crowd, some of whom were fleeing the orchestra section. This time, a banner reading “Extinction Rebellion” unfurled but was quickly ripped down by another patron in a lower box. As the crowd alternately clapped, hissed, heckled and fled, Met security and police entered the theater. After a pause and an announcement, the opera restarted, with cheers for Gerhaher ringing out, but only a few notes of “Blick ich umher” had rung out when a third protester, in the rear orchestra left, stood up and reinstated the cry, unfurling another, smaller banner. We paused again, as audience members began to stand up and gaze around, chatting nervously, taking videos and pictures—waiting to see whether the show would go on.
After this third interruption, Peter Gelb appeared in front of the golden curtain, offering his apologies and saying that the Met would not let this stop the show and that “anyone else is welcome to protest and be arrested.” Runnicles returned to the podium, giving us a look of knowing exasperation, and Gerhaher sang the final phrase of his aria, pulling an E from the air and returning to his character with admirable professionalism. But disruption hardly felt over; police and Met staff stalked the aisles intermittently.
The pandemonium, which, if nothing else, certainly succeeded in making an already-ponderous opera even longer, ultimately injected an energy into the company that carried them through the remainder of the second act, perhaps because everyone in the theater was now on high alert: “Wake up, Wolfram” indeed. A brief harp-off between Tannhäuser bass Le Bu’s Biterolf (sung with balanced depth and a cocky physicality) provoked a surprised chuckle before the company turns against Tannhäuser for his sins in the Venusberg.
By the second intermission, the crowd had thinned considerably—in part due to frustration and in part due to the lateness of the hour. The third act proceeded without issue, however, with van den Heever again delivering a sterling “Allmacht’ge Jungfrau” before her rather death off-stage. Her departure left Gerhaher to his star-gazing and Wolfram and Tannhäuser to their final confrontation, which due to the clashing acting styles, made the opera’s ending feel even stranger than usual.
We filed out, police still milling about in the corners, to talk through the evening. One patron expressed her support—Extinction Rebellion’s tagline is right, after all, as there cannot be opera without a habitable planet upon which to stage it. Others were less impressed, expressing feelings ranging from outrage to ironic detachment. “It’s the end of civilization,” another patron quipped to me. Well, perhaps in more ways than one.
Tannhäuser is showing at the Met through December 23.