If you’ve a hankering for the orgiastic feast of a sumptuously designed, dramatically staged, organically acted, and gloriously sung evening of Wagner to warm the frozen tundra of your Chicago soul this winter, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Tannhäuser offers a heaping platter of one of those elements.
Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric’s orchestra have never been more unified in understanding and purpose, generating surprising colors and textures that translate as newly discovered. Chorus master Michael Black’s troops, along with the extra reinforcements necessary for a Wagnerian foray, are in fine vocal fettle, most of them having learned the imperative trick of singing and moving while catching the conductor out of the corner of the eye rather than employing the direct stare. Essaying the title role, Johan Botha proves once again his ascendency as the preeminent Wagnerian tenor throat of our time, and Amber Wagner’s fresh-voiced Elisabeth is sufficiently substantial to soar over the complexities of Wagner’s orchestrations, while also supplying bel canto line and phrasing, and a distinctive color; there is a sensual smoke in the lower and middle register, and the top voice blossoms effortlessly. And now those who believe a production of a Wagner opera is music-music-music may take these offerings for their main course, and be satisfied.
Director Tim Albery’s post-apocalyptic production does nothing to illuminate the story. In concert, set designer Michael Levine gives us hours of a revolving table, a bed and some rubble. Jon Morrell’s generic costumes embarrass and, in the case of those designed for the ballet, hamper. Jasmin Vardimon’s choreography is no bacchanal; if rolling and tumbling and shirt-ripping and hair whipping in perfect symmetry is suggestive of wild abandon, I have a grave misunderstanding of the phrase.
If not for the warmly voiced and naturally acted Wolfram of baritone Gerald Finley to model the ennobling possibilities of Wagner as “lyric theater” in the totality of the definition, I would have gone away hungry. (Aaron Hunt)
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, (312)827-5600, lyricopera.org, $20-$369. Through March 6.