[Met Performance] CID:164390
New production
Tannhäuser {366} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/26/1953.

(Dresden version

Metropolitan Opera House
December 26, 1953
New production


Tannhäuser..............Ramon Vinay
Elisabeth...............Margaret Harshaw
Wolfram.................George London
Venus...................Astrid Varnay
Hermann.................Jerome Hines
Walther.................Brian Sullivan
Heinrich................Paul Franke
Biterolf................Clifford Harvuot
Reinmar.................Norman Scott
Shepherd................Roberta Peters

Conductor...............George Szell

Director................Herbert Graf
Designer................Rolf Gérard
Choreographer...........Zachary Solov

Tannhäuser received nine performances this season.

[The Dresden version was performed until 12/17/1960.]

Review of Ronald Eyer in the January 1, 1954 issue of Musical America

Consistent with the record of other new productions at the Metropolitan Opera House this season, the remounted "Tannhäuser" on Dec. 26 was distinguished far more by the musicians involved than by any of the new factors, singly or collectively, of the revised staging.

The performers, headed by George Szell, the conductor, formed as brilliant a band of Wagnerians as probably could be assembled at the Metropolitan today. For once, all hands seemed to have taken the composer seriously in his exhortation that the play is the thing-that the dramatic realization of the characters should come above and before everything else if a true sense of his meaning is to be achieved-and the strictly vocal demands could be left more or less to take care of themselves, or rather to be fulfilled naturally and automatically as the result of a complete immersion of the singers in the dramatic quality of their roles.

From this point of view, Margaret Harshaw, as Elisabeth; Ramon Vinay, as Tannhäuser; and Jerome Hines, as the Landgraf, were the most gratifying interpreters of the evening. Miss Harshaw had penetrated deeply into the poignancy and the subtle changes of mood and vocal color of the virgin saint. I would appreciate an explanation from the stage director, Herbert Graf, of her peculiar and rather self-conscious hand and arm gestures in the pantomime following Elisabeth's prayer. But for this one jarring note, Miss Harshaw's performance placed her unmistakably among the finest Elisabeths it has been our privilege to hear at the Metropolitan in the last quarter-century. Her "Dich, teure Halle," the resplendent but difficult song with which she must make her first entrance "cold" at the beginning of the second act was strong and bright as a clarion call. The third act Prayer, on the other hand, was sweet, chaste, contemplative and charged with pathos.

Mr. Vinay, despite the vocal debilitation imposed by a heavy cold, revealed a stylistic mastery of the title role as well as a mastery of German diction that compounded a profile unsurpassed by any other on the stage. I am not sure that anybody exactly understands what or who Wagner's Tannhäuser is supposed to be, despite the composer's detailed explanations of his peculiar duality of character, but Mr. Vinay has managed to make him a character of intelligence and of a certain distinction and individuality.

George London presented an elegant figure as Wolfram and contributed an unwonted ceremonial grace to a frequently shadowy and servile secondary role that usually only comes to the fore in the "Abendstern" aria. Astrid Varnay's Venus was beautifully sung, and Roberta Peters' Shepherd was completely captivating visually as well as vocally. Mr. Hines's Landgraf was a convincingly noble and impressive figure and added one more garland to the growing collection the young bass has garnered in rapid succession this season. Able and musically satisfying in the parts of the other minstrels were Brian Sullivan, Clifford Harvuot, Paul Franke, and Norman Scott.

The hero of the evening, so far as the audience was concerned, was George Szell in his first return engagement at the Metropolitan since his appointment to the conductorship of the Cleveland Orchestra. It is said that Mr. Szell has not conducted Tannhäuser before. If this is so, he has remarkably achieved at a single stroke one of the most perceptive analyses and one of the most dynamic performances ever unfolded hereabouts. He had, of course, the resources of a full symphony orchestra that is nowadays of virtuoso caliber (poor Wagner had once pleaded for
a minimum of four violas in his "Tannhäuser" orchestra!), and it responded to his every demand in nuance and ensemble. The overture and the lovely prelude to the third act were great instrumental performances. But Mr. Szell did not let matters rest there. He conducted everything and everybody with infinite care and precision, and he did not make the mistake of forcing this opera into the later Wagnerian mold wherein the singers merely take their place among the orchestral voices and fare as well as they can against the symphonic texture. For all its forward-seeking individuality, "Tannhäuser" still is an Italianate opera depending for its effects upon songs and ensembles sung with orchestral accompaniment. This requires a nice adjustment of a traditional kind between stage and pit and places a special responsibility upon the conductor to see that the big orchestra does not obliterate rather than substantiate the essentially vocal character of the performance. This Mr. Szell accomplished to the taste of everyone, including the standees, and he received a resounding ovation.

This new production of "Tannhäuser" sought to represent the opera in its original, or Dresden, version instead of the usual so-called Paris version that is universal today. There are no great differences in the two versions except for the considerably extended ballet episode in the [first act] Venusberg scene, with which Wagner vainly endeavored to placate the angry arrogance of the Paris Jockey Club, and the consequently different conclusion of the overture leading into it. The Dresden version of the Venusberg is shorter and the overture finishes off as we are accustomed to hear it in the concert hall. The deletion of the Paris ballet music restores a certain homogeneity of style in the opera as a whole, since, by the time of the Paris fiasco, Wagner already was writing in the "Tristan" manner and there are rich, but historically anachronistic, marks of it in this sequence. For the sake of authenticity, and since the new music was written only as a sop to French custom anyhow, it probably is better to play "Tannhäuser" in its original form, although it must be admitted that the scene loses much of its voluptuousness and color in the foreshortened form.

The costumes by Rolf Gerard were sumptuous and of sufficient richness of color, without being flamboyant, to suggest the beauty of a medieval pageant. His scenery was not so successful, however. I liked his Venusberg set, with its rosy suggestion of a great spiral orifice in the midst of which is Venus couchant on something resembling a great oyster shell. The symbolism is both effective and proper. The first scene in the valley, however, was flat and artistically insipid, like something out of a department-store window. The great hall in Act II, through the use of a double row of arch-windows, lost some of its accustomed sense of spaciousness and grandeur, although when the company was assembled in it, it presented a spectacular stage picture. The second valley scene, pictured in autumn, was much more effective than the first, but many old-timers rued the absence of any Evening Star for Wolfram to address his aria to.

Review of Harold Rogers in The Christian Science Monitor (Boston)

For his new staging of "Tannhäuser" Rudolf Bing assembled a group of talents that blended in a production of superlative order. This second new production of the season by the Metropolitan Opera Association was given its first performance the night after Christmas.

The lengthy score was revitalized under the spirited direction of George Szell, who had not been at the Metropolitan since he became conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946. By using the original Dresden version--that is, without the additional Venusberg music that Wagner composed later for the Paris premiere-he preserved the stylistic unity of the piece. The cast consisted largely of stars of the first magnitude. In the roles of Tannhäuser and Elisabeth were Ramon Vinay and Margaret Harshaw. Physically indisposed, Mr. Vinay was not in best voice, though in appearance and bearing he was impressive as the minstrel knight torn between the lures of Venus and his love of the noble Elisabeth.

Miss Harshaw evoked the majesty of her role, both visually and vocally. She moved with statuesque grace. Eloquent emotion, beauty of phrase, and clarity of utterance were noteworthy in her singing. Her joy was boundless as she sang "Dich, teure Halle." and her prayer in the last act was imbued with poignance and resignation.

Opulent Soprano

Astrid Varnay displayed her opulent soprano to excellent advantage in a voluptuous characterization of Venus. Again George London demonstrated that his ability as a singing actor is almost without peer. As Wolfram, he sang with effortless power, his baritone stirring, yet smooth and susceptible of many shades in nuance. His "Evening Star" was both contemplative and emotionally moving.

Jerome Hines gave another of his dignified portrayals, this time as the Landgraf Hermann. Here we heard a basso of marvelous eloquence, especially in his welcome to the minstrels in the Wartburg. Fine singing in lesser roles was provided by Brian Sullivan, Clifford Harvuot, Paul Franke, and Norman Scott. Roberta Peters contributed a winning bit as the shepherd.

Rolf Gérard's new settings called for a Venusberg that looked like the murky interior of a huge shell in red and black. The whole scene was covered with an undersea haze.

His design for the valley near the Wartburg was marked by simplicity, the Wartburg seen in the distance high upon a promontory. The sky with its striated clouds took on different aspects as night set in during the last act. The interior of the Wartburg was Mr. Gérard's most effective background. Medieval grandeur was suggested by rows of Romanesque arches rising to the ceiling left stage, and by stepped tiers on the throne side at the right.

Graf Pagentry

Herbert Graf's staging reached its zenith during the entrance to the Wartburg when the nobles, trumpeters, and minstrels marched in and took their places. It was a stunning piece of pageantry. Mr. Gérard's costumes were tastefully designed and employed a variety of color without becoming kaleidoscopic.

The vast forces, including an expert chorus trained by Kurt Adler, were marshaled into precise expression by Mr. Szell. Zachary Solov's choreography for the bacchanal had the quality of abandon without losing precision and pattern.

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