The very first work performed in German at the Metropolitan was Richard Wagner’s Tannhaüser, the opera the “Live in HD” global audience will hear and see this coming Saturday, October 31. Tannhaüser premiered during the Met’s second season, 1884-1885, and has been a staple of the repertoire ever since.
That is not to say that Wagner was absent during the Met’s inaugural season. Lohengrin was on the calendar, albeit in Italian, in 1883-1884. That was the year the Met’s founding impresario, Henry Abbey, brought his Grand Italian Opera to 39th Street and Broadway, the Met’s home until the move to Lincoln Center. In that first season, all opera, whatever the intended language, was sung in Italian. That tradition would have held had Abbey not driven his company deep into the red, causing the Metropolitan board to seek another general manager and a more fiscally viable performance practice.
As the board was deliberating, along came Leopold Damrosch, a well-established symphony conductor, who proposed a season entirely in German, its repertoire principally consigned to works composed on German texts, with casts recruited in Germany at fees far lower than Abbey’s stars had commanded. The orchestra would be drawn from the German players of his New York Symphony Society, by all accounts superior to the Italian instrumentalists Abbey had hired. Damrosch would do all the conducting. In making his case, he contended that the German speakers of New York, the population he was confident of luring to the half-empty upper tiers, was interested neither in Italian opera nor in German opera sung in Italian. Ultimately, and despite resistance from influential boxholders who preferred the embellishments of bel canto to the declamations of music drama, the bottom line won out. Like the Met’s many devoted connoisseurs, the critics were delighted. One Gemanophile reviewer pointed to the German-language Lohengrin as proof of his axiom: that the “sincere and realistic” interpretation of German artists was in all ways superior to the Italian manner of privileging “a few tuneful numbers.”
Skipping ahead to Lauritz Melchior’s 1926 Met debut, as Tannhaüser, we note with surprise that the Danish tenor was not particularly well received. But after five or so seasons of sporadic appearances, he became recognized as the world’s dominant heldentenor. In this recording, he makes easy work of the role of Tannhaüser, one of the most strenuous in the Wagner canon. In Act I, having betrayed the order of courtly love, the minstrel languishes in the arms of Venus herself. His hymn in praise of the goddess demands great stamina, but also a touch of grace not often accessible to heroic singers.
A Wagnerian Golden Age at the Met centered on Kirsten Flagstad’s pre-war New York engagement, from 1935 to 1941. The Norwegian soprano, along with Melchior and their remarkable cohort, assured a level of performance perhaps unsurpassed in the company’s history. During this period, Flagstad shared Tannhauser’s Elisabeth with Lotte Lehmann. These superlative artists, and sometimes professional rivals, had distinct approaches, timbres, and techniques. At the opening of Act II, Lehmann’s impetuous greeting to the Hall of Song overflows with rapturous anticipation. Her beloved Tannhaüser has renounced the pleasures of Venus and is about to return to her.
In Act III, near death, Elisabeth prays for Tannhaüser who has gone to Rome to seek redemption for his sins. Flagstad’s timbre--massive, pure, unerringly in tune--conveys her character’s saintliness with utter directness.
Just moments later, Wolfram, the minstrel who champions chaste love, sings the opera’s most familiar melody, the “Hymn to the Evening Star.” Hermann Prey, who appeared only infrequently at the Met over a thirty-year span, made his 1960 debut there as Wolfram. He invests the aria’s long phrases with the silken legato and lyric timbre that made him an unforgettable lieder recitalist.
A word about this Saturday’s simulcast. Tannhaüser is the oldest active production in the company’s repertoire. Designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Otto Schenk, its style delighted critics and audiences in 1977 and continues to be a successful example of literalist staging