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Wagner: Tannhauser / Domingo, Studer, Sinopoli

Release Date: 09/27/1989 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 427625   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Agnes BaltsaAndreas SchmidtPlacido DomingoMatti Salminen,   ... 
Conductor:  Giuseppe Sinopoli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden ChorusPhilharmonia Orchestra
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

After Jessye Norman's Carmen for Philips, it's Placido Domingo's Tannhhuser—the big names in parts that they wouldn't attempt on stage. Domingo's third attack on a Wagnerian role (the others being Walther and Lohengrin) is a success in almost every respect. He evokes the erotic passion of the Venusberg scene and brings to it just the right touch of nervous energy. This is boldly contrasted with the desperation and bitterness of the Rome Narration after the hero's fruitless visit to the Pope seeking forgiveness: Domingo's description of how Tannhãuser avoided every earthly delight on his pilgrimage is delivered with total conviction. In between he berates the slightly prissy attitude of his fellow knights on the Wartburg with the Read more dangerous conceit of someone who knows a secret delight that they will never enjoy in their measured complacency.

His tenor must be the steadiest and most resplendent ever to have tackled the part. He has his disadvantages. Even now, Domingo's German is far from idiomatic with several vowel sounds distorted, which sometimes detracts from the strength of his declamation. Then, occasionally, his voice seems in a different acoustic from the orchestra and his vocal partners—listen to the encounter with Venus—but this hardly diminishes an appreciable achievement, another jewel in a many-sided recording crown.

I like the intensity Domingo and Baltsa, as Venus, bring to their scene together, suggesting a foreunner of the Kundry/Parisfal encounter (maybe they'll now record those roles). Baltsa also has some difficulties with her German, and her voice doesn't always sound as seductive as it ought, but she has the range and attack, particularly in the upper register, for an awkwardly lying part. Here comparisons have to be made with Christa Ludwig in one of her most successful assumptions heard on the Solti version (Decca). Ludwig is not only more familiar with her role but also has the more voluptuous voice. She is aided by her creative use of the text—something that, for all her vocal acumen, isn't available to Baitsa. And Ludwig is superbly seconded by Solti.

That brings me to Sinopoli. It is obviously his concern throughout to bring out every last ounce of the drama in the piece, both in terms of orchestral detail, which receives very special attention from the Overture, given a big, full-blooded reading, onwards, but as in his direction of the work over the past few years at Bayreuth, Sinopoli is aware in this opera of the longer line, often sustained by the upper strings. The Philharmonia's violins respond with their most eloquent playing. The kind of frisson Sinopoli offers is evident in the anticipatory excitement at the start of Act 2 and the iron control he maintains in the big ensemble later in the same act. Nor does he overlook the elevated side of the score. All Elisabeth's music is delivered with the right sense of serenity tinged with sorrow. But he can sometimes relapse into his self-indulgent vein: the middle section of Elisabeth's solo in her duet with Tannhäuser is unendurably slow; so is her colloquy with the Landgrave. At the end one isn't surprised to find that he takes quite a few minutes longer over each act than Solti, himself not exactly a speed merchant in this piece.

Cheryl Studer's secure, beautiful voice has no difficulty coping with Sinopoli's deliberate tempos. She has taken this part to universal acclaim at Bayreuth, and repeats it here with total conviction, both vocal and interpretative, phrasing with consistent intelligence. Andreas Schmidt is a mellifluous, concerned Wolfram, his voice a trifle light for the part. He often recalls FischerDieskau, but his approach is rather more intent on firm line. Saiminen is a rugged, characterful Land grave, not quite as smooth but more interesting than Sotin (Solti). Barbara Bonney is an ideally fresh Shepherd Boy.

The Covent Garden Chorus have obviously benefited by being trained specifically for this work by Bayreuth's Norbert Balatsch. As knights, ladies and pilgrims they sing with consistent beauty of sound, and have been sensibly balanced with the orchestra. They need not fear comparison with Decca's Vienna choir, also Balatsch trained.

As Sinopoli has chosen to conduct the Paris version, the Solti set is its main rival. It has always been one of Solti's most recommendable opera recordings, and in its CD format it remains a formidable achievement. Its cast has no weaknesses and many strengths. Solti is no less vital than Sinopoli in conveying the rich sonority, the elemental passions, and the sublime clarity experienced in the best parts of this uneven work. The Vienna Philharmonic play superbly for Solti, but as I have implied the Philharmonia on this form are just about as impressive. Decca attempt much more 'production' than DG. If that appeals to you and you are satisfied with Kollo's thoughtful, deeply felt but sometimes uningratiating Tannhäuser then you may prefer the older version. You will also enjoy (apt word) Ludwig's unrivalled Venus and the sympathetic Elisabeth of Dernesch. But I think Domingo and Studer just incline me towards the new version, as does the wide range of the finely engineered recording, which makes the excellent Decca seem just a shade dated.

-- Gramophone [9/1989]
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Works on This Recording

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Agnes Baltsa (Mezzo Soprano), Andreas Schmidt (Baritone), Placido Domingo (Tenor),
Matti Salminen (Bass), Kurt Rydl (Bass), Oskar Hillebrandt (Baritone),
Clemens Bieber (Tenor), Cheryl Studer (Soprano), Barbara Bonney (Soprano),
Margaret Stobart (Soprano), Ingrid Baier (Mezzo Soprano), Jeanette Wilson (Soprano),
Karen Shelby (Mezzo Soprano), William Pell (Tenor)
Conductor:  Giuseppe Sinopoli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus,  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845/1861; Germany 
Date of Recording: 04/1988 
Venue:  Watford Town Hall, London, England 
Length: 196 Minutes 14 Secs. 
Language: German 

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