Metropolitan Opera 2023-24 Review: Tannhäuser

Andreas Schager & Christian Gerhaher Shine Amidst Chaos From Climate Change Protestors

By David Salazar
(Credit; Evan Zimmerman)

“No Opera on a Dead Planet.”

In the middle of Act two of the opening night of “Tannhäuser” as Wolfram delivered his “Blick ich umher in diesem edlen Kreise,” specifically as he sang that “love is a spring to be drunk from,” an audience member started shouting from the rafters of the Met Opera auditorium. The first words out of the protestor’s mouth were “Wolfram, wake up!”

At first, I thought that the audience member was yelling at baritone Christian Gerhaher for his very risky choice of singing the entire passage with a hushed, pianissimo tone; I don’t think he sang above piano the entire time. But then the audience member continued on about gas in the atmosphere before drawing down a black banner with the words “No Opera on a Dead Planet,” while shouting those very words.

Chaos ensued for the next 10 or so minutes with another banner coming down on the opposite end of the theater. Security did its thing and eventually, Met Opera general manager Peter Gelb came on stage to assure the audience that we would continue in a minute.

But when the lights came on…

Someone in the orchestra section started shouting before Gerhaher could get a sound in.

The lights came back on and for the next 20 minutes we stood there in the audience wondering if the performance could end. Gelb came on again and told the audience that the lights would remain halfway on throughout the performance to allow security and police ample visibility to grab anyone who decided to continue disrupting the performance.

From there on in, there were no further disruptions, and the opera ended 40 minutes later than intended.

This is nothing new as climate change protestors have interrupted numerous performances across Europe. Even for the Met, protests aren’t new. Numerous people presciently protested outside Lincoln Center over a decade ago, calling on the Met to fire Putin-supporter Valery Gergiev prior to an opening night performance of “Eugene Onegin.” And when “The Death of Klinghoffer” premiered, audience members were not allowed to enter the hall with any of their belongings. Throughout that performance, people shouted at the stage and walked out. But nothing interrupted the night from proceeding.

As for Thursday’s protests, undeniably the concerns are not something to ignore or overlook and if the goal was to remain at the forefront of the collective consciousness… well, I started an opera review by bringing up this incident and dedicating over 1,000+ words to it, so mission accomplished.

The protestors, under the organization Extinction Rebellion (XR), stated in an official press release that they were not protesting opera itself.

“We are here because we have to disrupt this public event as our last resort to draw public attention to the climate emergency we are facing today,” said Linda Solomon, an Extinction Rebellion activist.

“We love opera. We are interrupting the things we love. We are acting in ways that may seem irrational, but this is because no one is having a sane response to the urgency, danger, and magnitude of the climate crisis. There have been 28 COPs and emissions have only gone up! We stand to lose everything”, added John Mark Rozendaal, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, cellist and viola da gamba player.

In the press release, the organization notes that “XR believes that this crisis is due to the failure of large institutions to recognize the severity of the situation; responsibility does not rest with individuals, but with organizations and systems.”

The Met Opera is undeniably one of the biggest artistic organizations on the planet and has been a major force over the last year in supporting Ukraine against Russia; no other arts institution hung the Ukrainian flag in front its theater for most of the 2022-23 season. So bringing a political protest into the Met doesn’t seem out of bounds or strange in this context. But the choice to interrupt a Met performance like that comes with a lot of questions. Change doesn’t come swiftly at the Met (as evidenced by the aforementioned firing of Valery Gergiev 10 years after people wanted it), and especially not under this board, which has decided to stick with the leadership status quo since 2006 (and will stick with it until at least 2026-27) in the face of an endlessly mounting decrease in ticket sales pre- and post-pandemic. In the bigger picture of getting the millionaires and billionaires of the world or at the Met Opera (The Board, perhaps) to use their power / wealth to exert meaningful change in support of the planet and ending our reliance on fossil fuels or other environmental hazards, is the Met or anyone on its board going to do that? The irony in all this is that this protest took place, as someone on X (formerly known as Twitter) pointed out, during the presentation of a nearly 50-year-old production.

And while I fully support the cause that XR is fighting for (we all should), I do wonder about the impact this situation had on the singers, especially after the second interruption. The message was loud and clear after the first incident. But when you start it up again and shut down the performance a second time, then you’ve entered a different realm of uncertainty and fear, especially when the police show up. The performers are already under a ton of pressure as it is because opera fans are intense and audience members and writers (like me) will point out any minor mistake they make in a beloved opera and then hold it against the artists for decades. These performers were then jolted out of their flow state while doing their jobs and had to contest with the added pressure of wondering if they were truly safe. Because once you do it a second time, then there’s a possibility for a third. And a fourth. Now the lights are on in the hall and maybe the performers can see some audience members in front of them. And that adds a second layer of pressure because now they have to focus even harder to avoid a distraction they’re not used to.

The protestors might blame management for choosing to continue the performance in these circumstances, but the situation has already been created and now no one is comfortable or can truly settle in. We should all feel unsafe about climate change and the future of our planet. We should all look at ourselves and ask what we need to do to ensure that future generations have a planet to enjoy. That there is opera on a living planet. But propagating a state of perpetual paranoia during a performance is not going to turn the deniers into believers.

Musical & Dramatic Integration

In any case, a performance also took place. And it was an excellent rendition of one of Wagner’s earlier canonical operas.

Otto Schenk’s 1977 production isn’t “sophisticated” by modern theatrical standards (that doesn’t mean it isn’t sophisticated at all). It’s picturesque, portraying the world of “Tannhäuser” in a rather traditional approach with the second act’s great hall approaching a 13th century architecture, coupled with historically similar wardrobe. The first and third acts take place in the same location, a barren path with a place of worship on stage right and a hill in the center of it all. Direction for the production is rather minimal and in some instances lacking. There’s a moment in Act one when Tannhäuser tells his fellow minstrels that he must go. So he shifts from stage right toward stage left and then stops to give the guys time to catch up and stop him. It would have been more appropriate to anticipate the movement and have the characters already there to stop him to give the scene more believability. But alas, change…

But these kinds of awkward staging choices were few and far between because as I sat there watching the end of Act two with its glorious concertato ensemble, the performers barely moving, I was sucked in by the experience. The music. The dramatic tension that had been built up to this musical moment and the fact that it was all being released here in stillness. It was magical. As was a moment in Act three where Elizabeth, in a white gown, makes her exit via the hill in the center, fading into nothingness like a ghost. It’s a bit of foreshadowing, but subtle and effective. These kinds of touches don’t scream “I’m directing an opera” as a lot of modern touches might, but it is affecting and sadly seems to be an increasingly dying art in the opera world. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s some of the most impactful and emotional moments you can experience at the opera.

Leading all this was the incredible Sir Donald Runnicles. I want to revert back to the mention of Gerhaher’s extremely soft singing, a choice that, based on the overall tapestry of the performance, seemed to be a joint one made with the conductor because the maestro took a lot of subtle musical risk throughout the night. I’ll start right at the beginning with that famed overture. Everyone knows that opening chorale that introduces the Pilgrims’ chorus. It’s arguably the most iconic moment in the entire opera. It builds until it explodes into the entire orchestra with ecstatic praise. Except that Runnicles was rather reserved in the opening. The music was gentle and relaxed. Even cautious and timid. We didn’t get the immediate satisfaction from that initial orchestral outburst and I felt like I might be in for a safe night musically speaking.

But Runnicles is where he is because he’s one of the best at what he does and by the end of the night when that chorus returns in its full glory, the orchestra exploded with sound and pathos. It was everything I had wanted from that first appearance of that glorious tone, but by making me wait for it, he made the experience all the more cathartic.

What was also insightful about Runnicles’ performance was how clear the textures were throughout. There was a polish and sheen to the orchestra’s playing throughout, but you could pick out individual instruments from within the Wagnerian tapestry. It made the experience of this music all the more engaging and fulfilling and is sure to warrant repeat listening.

In his gesturing each time he returned to the podium following the incidents, Runnicles was particularly grateful to the audience, as if feeding off their energy and it was truly miraculous how much control he retained through the second half of the performance. If anything, everyone seemed to step up their game. That kind of poise and confidence emanates from the conductor first and he truly met the moment.

Two Sides of the Musical Coin

Andreas Schager proved a brilliant interpreter of the title role. When we first meet Tannhäuser he is engaged in the pleasures of Venusberg but longing to return to the human realm. During their lengthy confrontation, he heaps praise on her with a song before begging her to return. In these instances, we got an introduction to a lot of what Schager’s interpretation would bring – a booming voice full of bright and pointed high notes full of intensity, directness, confidence, and vibrancy. There always seemed to be a big smile on his face for most of these opening acts and coupled with his charismatic stage presence, Schager dominated the stage every single time he was there. There aren’t many modern-day tenors, Wagnerian or not, who have the vocal power and poise that Schager does. Fewer still that can sustain that intensity for four hours (five with interruption) and sound just as fresh, if not more so, at the end of the night as they did at the beginning. The interruptions came right before Tannhäuser runs to the center of the stage and starts his own ode to love and given the extenuating circumstances, no one would have been surprised had Schager struggled to rebuild momentum in this most demanding moment. But if anything, he came throughout even more charisma and potency, his voice more pointed and brilliant.

Particularly striking was one moment in Act one – his enunciation of “Elizabeth.” After trying to force his way from his fellow minstrels, Wolfram brings up “Elizabeth” in a glorious pianissimo utterance. Immediately, Schager’s Tannhäuser took up the line, first soft like his colleague, but then blossoming in a beautiful crescendo that immediately shifted the entire perspective of the scene. Wagner’s genius has a lot to do with that, but the execution here was subtle but utterly marvelous.

Things took a darker turn during the end of the second act when Tannhäuser realizes the pain he’s caused. Throughout the concertato, Schager’s voice rode high over the massive vocal tapestry, almost a cry for help in the midst of the conflict. And at the end, when he declares “To Rome,” there was a darker grit in his voluminous sound, turning his character from a care-free romantic rebel to a man with resolve.

Then comes Act three where Tannhäuser expounds his tragedy upon meeting the Pope and being told he has no hope for redemption. There was increasing desperation throughout his narrative, the bright colors that had been so apparent throughout the first half of the opera now turned to darker tones and more jagged and accented phrasing. This was the embodiment of a broken man searching for release. Schager’s vocal artistry allowed us to feel this transition the entire night, allowing for the opera’s final scene to come through with greater power.

Going back to what I said about Runnicles, it was clear that there was an overriding musical and dramatic intention with this interpretation. But it wasn’t in isolation. Whereas Schager was ebullient in much of his performance, Gerhaher was more reserved and withdrawn, his facial expressions often revealing confusion, torment,  and insecurity. Where Schager’s Tannhäuser exploded with sound repeatedly, Gerhaher’s Wolfram sang with gentle ease to the extreme. Let’s go back to “Blick ich umher in diesem edlen Kreise,” a pensive, recitative-like passage. What was effective about the interpretation was not only that Gerhaher sang it softly, but that as the passage continued, his voice became softer, more withdrawn, more tender, more intimate. It says a ton about the musical moment but also the character of Wolfram. And then he came to the opera’s other famed passage, “O du, mein holder Abendstern,” and he went for the very same approach, this time pushing those limits further, casting a wholly different spell in the process. In many ways, these musical choices expressed the same boldness and bravery in both character and performer as what Schager was doing with his Tannhäuser, but in the opposite direction. While one was filling the hall with sound and his presence, the other was challenging the audience to lean in further into his spell, creating a unique musical tension in which you wondered how much softer he could go in such a cavernous space as the Met auditorium. How soft could he sing and still be heard?

To do that and not lose your cool while people are screaming over you is truly something and Gerhaher was that and more.

But he didn’t just sing softly the entire night. Wolfram is the opera’s middle ground in many ways. A man so sensitive to the emotional possibilities around him that he can forgive and help. He is Tannhäuser’s conscience. And when he needed to exert himself, like in the second half of Act two or, especially, in final act, his voice could take on a hardened edge. Schager and van Schoohoven proved opposite sides of the musical / dramatical coin, lifting the performance tremendously.

The Core of the Opera

In between them is the character of Elizabeth, a woman they both love and end up mourning. Taking on the role was Elza van den Heever, who recently took on the role of Senta at the Met in “Die Fliegende Holländer.” Van den Heever had a great night on the whole, though she didn’t settle in immediately. “Dich, teure Halle” is yet another iconic moment from this opera (it has a lot of them, which makes you wonder why it hasn’t been at the Met for quite a few years) and is the first thing the soprano sings. Van den Heever managed well throughout the passage though it seemed at times like she was a bit overpowered by the orchestra. In her ensuing “duet” with Tannhäuser, Elizabeth launches the passage with the glorious melody “Der Sänger klugen Weisen.” Van den Heever’s darker texture didn’t quite meld well with the gentle orchestra sounds and the tempo didn’t seem to be a comfortable fit for her, the lines feeling a bit disjointed. But she slowly started to settle in during the end of this passage and by the time she was singing alongside Schager, her voice matched his intensity and volume.

Elizabeth doesn’t do much for the next section of the opera and with the extended pause, it felt like a long time before Van den Heever injected herself back into the drama. And she did it with arguably her greatest moment of the night.

With Tannhäuser feeling the pressure from everyone around him, Elizabeth takes centerstage and demands that everyone “Haltet ein!” With a regal sound, Van den Heever’s “Zurück von ihm! Nicht ihr seid seine Richter!” was commanding and chilling. We’d only seen Elizabeth as an innocent girl with a crush, but here was a woman fighting for the life of the man she loved. Even her body language exuded this sense of strength. Most powerful of all was how van den Heever’s voice transformed throughout the passage from resolute, pointed, and forceful, to gentle, tender, and soft by the ending of it. Given how Schager and Gerhaher had approached their characters, it was almost as if in this very passage Van den Heever was invoking them at once, a sublime musical and dramatical synthesis.

In the final act, her voice was a delicate thread throughout the prayer “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” displaying tremendous vocal control throughout. Time stood still throughout this surreal musical interpretation as you could feel both the serenity of the prayer, but also Elizabeth slowly fading from life. Equally moving was a moment earlier in the scene where she rushed through the crowd of pilgrims trying to find Tannhäuser amongst them, her desperation heartbreaking.

Van den Heever’s assertiveness during Act two was also striking because of how it recalled Ekaterina Gubanova’s Venus. Where Elizabeth is the ideal, innocent maiden, Venus is meant to be the embodiment of sin for the people of the medieval town (Wagner, of course, is questioning all of it). As such, Venus is resolute and potent from the start, matching Tannhäuser’s virility. And Gubanova delivered this with directness of sound and text, everything clear and clean in equal measure. You could feel desperation creep into her singing as she lost her battle with Tannhäuser, her sound growing round and more voluminous by the second, climaxing in earth-shattering high G5 on “dir zu Theil.”

Maureen McKay exuded a gentle soprano as the Young Shepherd, a tremendous contrast as the first soloist to emerge following the titanic clash between Venus and Tannhäuser, while Le Bu, Kyle van Schoonhoven, Tony Stevenson, and Harold Wilson comprised a formidable ensemble as the minstrels. Le Bu stood out as Biterolf, menacing Tannhäuser with a hard-edged voice during their Act two confrontation.

As the Landgraf Hermann, Georg Zeppendfeld’s bass was both soothing in its warmth, but also earthy in its darkness, allowing the character ample flexibility in both gentle moments with Elizabeth and more imperious ones during the end of Act two.

The Met Opera Chorus, as always, was at the top of its game both as the pilgrims in Act one and three, but also during the glorious entrance of the minstrels in Act two. Ditto for the dancers who immediately immersed the audience in the Venusberg orgy.

Ultimately, this night will be defined by what happened in the audience more than what happened on stage. And the interruptions caused by the protests, despite the methods, should not be ignored. This is an important moment in the history of the world and we need to see what we can do. But we should also celebrate what happened on stage because ultimately, this was a top-tier performance from the Met with a cast of tremendous artists coalesced into a musical whole by a brilliant conductor and supported by an aging, but still robust production. The true definition of Gesamtkunkswerk as Wagner imagined it.


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