The Temptations and Majesty of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” from Nelsons and the BSO
Saturday, February 4, 2023
Encore broadcast on Monday, February 13
Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a stellar lineup of soloists in highlights from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Amber Wagner, soprano (Elisabeth)
Marina Prudenskaya, mezzo-soprano (Venus)
Klaus Florian Vogt, tenor (Tannhäuser)
Christian Gerhaher, baritone (Wolfram)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Overture and “Venusberg Music” from Tannhäuser
Tannhäuser, Act III
Hear a preview with Andris Nelsons in the audio player above, and read the transcript below:
This concert is no longer available for on-demand listening.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Andris Nelsons, who's back in Boston to lead a concert of excerpts from Tannhäuser, Wagner's opera. Andris, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
Andris Nelsons Oh, it's a great pleasure. And firstly, Happy New Year to everyone and to you, and let it be healthy and patient and peaceful a new year. And I think also the excerpts which consist of the Overture and the Bacchanale, which is from beginning of Act One, which we do at the beginning for about 25, 27 minutes, then we do the break, and then we do the whole Act Three. And the ending, how love wins and the sacrifice and all the very high and very important human qualities of human nature are present in this opera. And I think we want to cry and we want to be better simply. And I think there is a almost metaphoric, almost meaning of this opera, performing at this time. It has a very, I think, very strong meaning what we see now in our lives or in the world around. And I'm so excited, so excited for this particular week.
Brian McCreath This was an opera that goes way back with you. I mean, the Andris Nelsons story is that you were five years old when you saw a production of Tannhäuser, and it was something that lit the fire in you for music and for conducting even. And I wonder, if you look back, what is it about Tannhäuser that sets it apart from other operas by Wagner that makes it so accessible? What is it that makes it so a five-year-old or someone new to Wagner can sink into this piece and really not have a problem understanding what's going on?
Andris Nelsons You're right. I mean, this opera has a very special meaning to me because my parents took me to the opera house when I was five years old and it was Tannhäuser. And the other thing, which also was a very important part, that my parents, they really prepared me for that. I mean, we are listening [to] LPs with the opera. So I knew the story. My father told me the story, so I was prepared. I knew the opera, except I just had to go to the opera itself and experience it live. And so I went very ready to hear and experience certain things. But still, what I experience it live in the opera, that was something I would never have expected. But that's the same, I think, because when we listen to the recording, it's a wonderful opportunity to listen and enjoy and to compare the recordings. But there is nothing can substitute the live experience and live performance.
And it's either symphonic music or opera. I mean, in this case it was Tannhäuser for me, even though I knew the story, even I knew it's going to end bad, I was still crying and I was still hoping that things would change in this case. Better for, not better, actually, but as a kid of course, the people dying, you know, on stage. The opera was very sad. And also the tears of happiness in a way that there is a forgiveness that we can be forgiven even if we have done bad things in our lives. If we truly turn ourselves to God and ask for forgiveness, we have this opportunity.
And I think that's, this is very close for me as a Christian. It's been very close to me because it's very much connected to Christianity, even though, of course, they are in this opera, I mean, the beginning of the opera, the Overture and the Bacchanale. It's crazy. It's a lust, it's sin. Everything is really sin and sinful. And then you have death as a contrast [in the] Third Act where the pilgrims are going to Rome to ask to be forgiven. And Tannhäuser goes with them because he has been very sinful. He comes back, and he hasn't been forgiven from the Pope. And he has his monologue, which he sings to his friend Wolfram, who is an extremely nice friend, who also sacrificed his love towards Elisabeth for his friend. So then, of course, there's Elisabeth, who prays for Tannhäuser, even after knowing that he's coming from Rome, he's not forgiven, still praying. And then when Tannhäuser dies, then comes the chorus announcing that the Pope's, how do you say this...
Brian McCreath The staff.
Andris Nelsons Staff has been, how do you say...
Brian McCreath It's sprouted flowers, yeah.
Andris Nelsons ... flowers, because he said, "Unless my staff [starts] to flourish, you are not forgiven." And that happens, you know, after death [of Tannhäuser] it happens. Then, of course, the chorus sings. And in a way it's too late because he's dead. But the feeling is the goose bumps. You want to cry because it's sad, but it's so beautiful that you know, yes, even he has God's forgiveness. So it means, in a certain sense, I think Wagner here criticizes the church. I think, as so many composers and, of course, many people, philosophers, and so... And I must say, it's nothing to do with God. It's just sometimes, you know, that, in this case, the Pope has been criticized or that, as a leader of the Christian church, you know, because he has not forgiven him. And when you read the Bible or the, you know, Jesus says, you know, you come to me with a full regret, you can be forgiven. It's just your decision. And also, he gives us a free will. And as Tannhäuser, as one of the Meistersingers, he chooses his life living in sin. But he meets Elisabeth and he decides to try to be forgiven.
Anyway, I think it's very emotional and why we would say is easier to understand this is because, I think, from one side, this context of the Christianity, which is one of the big, big religions, of course. In this case I think I'm saying I'm a Christian, but I respect any religion which is based on love and based on good, and so that's why people can reflect on this and understand it. From the other hand, it has very, very beautiful music and it's Wagner. And this music sounds already [from] the beginning [sings opening theme of Tannhäuser] It's so beautiful. So, yeah, when you hear this, you immediately, I think, connect it to the music. And the story is, you can read it and you can understand the, you know... Because sometimes it's very interesting, I mean, how it is with [Wagner], I sometimes think that, you know, particularly when it gets to The Ring where you hardly can understand what really is happening in The Ring. I mean, I don't want to say I'm not intelligent or I have no idea what happens in the operas of Wagner. But even if you know later what happens, and at some point you just lose it and you realize that the music is expressing somehow those feelings without words. You can actually understand and connect to the story through the music.
And such an amazing cast, you know? Amber Wagner, she's a wonderful, Elisabeth. And absolutely amazing Tannhäuser, Klaus Florian Vogt, I've done many things with him. And he's so fully dedicated to music, absolutely, person with a heart and, you know, such a beautiful singer. And we have another amazing singer, which is Christian Gerhaher, who is very much also a singer of chamber music and of the Lieder, like Schubert or any other. And he is doing Wolfram, and the sensitivity, and the beauty, the depth of understanding that role is so, so great. And of course, also our Venus, Marina Prudenskaya, she's a wonderful, wonderful, metallic, great presence.
And of course, the orchestra [is] shining, and also the wonderful chorus. Very difficult for chorus because of the intonation. They sing a cappella and a cappella, it means without the accompaniment. And they have to make the tune not go flat or sharp because when the orchestra enters, then you can see, "Oh, something's wrong." And then it has even the banda [off stage musicians] in the Third Act. So which means extra orchestra. And it all ends up with with love and with goose bumps, you know. [laughs] That's for sure.
Brian McCreath That is a fantastic preview. There's so much that you've said that touches on so much of this experience. And so I really appreciate it, from the brilliance of the orchestra and these amazing soloists to the depth of meaning within the opera itself. And I think for a lot of audience, yeah, we may have heard the Overture. And now we're going to hear everything is behind that overture. It's such a beautiful, unbelievable overture. But there's this depth and richness of meaning behind that music in the overture, and you're bringing it out in this concert. So, much appreciated. Thank you, Andris. I appreciate your time today. That was wonderful to talk with you about it.
Andris Nelsons It's a great pleasure. And please, everyone is very, very welcome to join us for this magic, magic event.