Last night, the Metropolitan Opera gave an excellent performance of Tannhäuser, Wagner’s opera from 1845. The Met uses a production of Otto Schenk, which premiered in 1977. Herr Schenk, born in 1930, is still with us in the flesh, too. A wonderful director, faithful to the operas he puts on the stage.
The performance last night was interrupted early in Act II by a protest: a climate-change protest. The audience was furious. Eventually, the show was able to go on, ending just before midnight. The audience cheered heartily.
How was the overture? It began with a smudge—a suboptimal way to begin. As it continued, the overture was somewhat ponderous and imprecise. A shimmering, underlying excitement was absent. Beauty of sound was lacking.
By the time the castanets clicked, however, the overture was sort of cookin’.
In the title role was something rare: a genuine Wagner tenor. He was Andreas Schager, an Austrian. He sings with beauty and power. He does not bark at you. He filled the Metropolitan Opera House without overexerting himself.
Over the course of the evening, his intonation sometimes faltered. But this was a small price to pay: to pay for the presence of such a tenor.
Partnering him as Venus was Ekaterina Gubanova, the Russian mezzo-soprano. She is a fine singer, as she has proved time after time. She conveyed the sensuality of Venus. She had trouble at the top, however: a wobble, which one trusts she can iron out.
The role of the Young Shepherd was taken by Maureen McKay, an American soprano. Best about her singing was its piano: Ms. McKay knows how to sing softly without losing vocal body.
Presiding in the pit was Sir Donald Runnicles, the veteran Scotsman (and lefthander). He knows what he is doing. It is safe to predict that Act I will be better—more coherent, more confidently expressed—in subsequent performances.
The prelude to Act II is one of the most exuberant things in music. It went fairly well last night. But Elisabeth’s aria—“Dich, teure Halle”—went very well. Our Elisabeth was Elza van den Heever, the South African soprano. She sang this aria with due rhapsody and lyricism. Her breathing was exemplary, all night long. She sang, and acted, with presence of mind. She was regal. She was touching.
There have been more famous Elisabeths, on the Met stage and others. Few have been better.
Our landgrave, our Hermann, was Georg Zeppenfeld, the German bass. He is a basso cantante, a lyric bass. I have been listening to him and writing about him since the early 2000s. He is still himself—tidy, smart, and glowing. Last night, his voice was even, from quite low to quite high. In my experience, he seldom puts a foot wrong.
Tannhäuser is one of Wagner’s most song-like operas. And there was a lot of song-like singing on the stage last night. (There was a lot of native German, too, which was a plus.) There was song-like singing in the orchestra, too: from the clarinet, and other woodwinds, and other players.
Let me note here, as well, that the harpist—who has a lot to do in Tannhäuser—was first-rate.
Making his Met debut as Wolfram was Christian Gerhaher, the famed German baritone. The famed song-singer. He was thoughtful, inward, “non-operatic”—but always dramatically attuned.
It was while Gerhaher was singing that a man in the audience started yelling. He unfurled a banner, too, from the top of the house, stage left. If you can picture it, he was directly above that edge of the stage. This was a climate-change protest, as I have said.
I will reconstruct things as best I can.
When the man was finally subdued, another protester, on the opposite side of the house, started yelling, and unfurled her own banner.
The show stopped. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, made an announcement, asking for our patience. The show resumed—when another protester started yelling. How many were there, positioned in the house?
Again, the show stopped. Again, Mr. Gelb made an announcement. He handled the situation very smoothly, very calmly. “We will not be defeated,” he said. The show resumed once more—and proceeded uninterrupted. It seemed to me that the singers were a bit tense for a while, as would have been understandable.
Tannhäuser’s overture, and the prelude to Act II, are famous. They are concert pieces. The prelude to Act III is not—yet it is (of course) superbly composed, and it was superbly shaped by Maestro Runnicles. All of Act III was musically right.
The Pilgrims’ Chorus surged movingly. In her prayer, Ms. van den Heever was simple, pure, and heartrending. In his evening-star song, Mr. Gerhaher was much the same. Mr. Schager, describing the ordeal of his character in Rome, was gripping.
Kudos, too, to the Met’s horn players: assured.
So, at about 7:05, the evening began with a smudge. Starting at about 9, it was interrupted by hooliganism (however heartfelt). And it ended just before midnight in musical and dramatic glory. A memorable night at the opera.