From the very beginning the Metropolitan Opera has been considered something of a ''German'' house. Italian opera has always had a home there, and often in resplendent style, but the German wing always seems to have brought out the best in the company.
This year, the installments of Wagner's ''Ring'' slipped sadly below standard , but the revival of Strauss's ''Die Frau Ohne Schatten'' proved glorious. And now, the exceptional production of Wagner's ''Tannhauser'' has been revived in a grand sort of way.
To begin with, it is a production that respects Wagner's very specific intentions, and that, in this oddity-for-oddity's-sake age, is a radical notion. Venus's erotic world looks the way Wagner's description would have it look. The transition from Venusberg to Wartburg in the first act is supernatural and effective.
And so it goes, from beginning to end. Each character is the one Wagner conceived of. This is no one's fantasy or nightmare, it does not take place in 1975 or on Mars. It shows off the versatility of the Met's stage, the subtlety of its lighting technology (though it seems lighting designer Gil Wechsler has darked most of the scenes and sapped them of their true colors).
Above all, the orchestra sounds utterly at home in this sprawling, majestic score. Truly James Levine's hard work at shaping it into an important opera orchestra has paid off. ''Tannhauser'' has always brought the best out of Mr. Levine, as this revival proves yet again. He also reacts pronouncedly to the specific sort of singers he has on stage. The first act found the Tannhauser (Richard Cassilly) and Venus (Mignon Dunn) in somewhat raucous form, and the conducting proved commensurately loud, vigorous, and unmellifluous.
But once the second act began and Leonie Rysanek stepped onto the scene, the performance took on a new depth and passion, and Levine's performance pulled into superb focus.
Miss Rysanek is a wonder of the operatic world. Her energy is unflagging, her vocal generosity unstinting. She can reveal every aspect of her heroine's sufferings and exaltations - the mark of a consummate actress. Her Elisabeth is definitive, and she was in particularly resplendent voice at the first performance.
Mr. Cassilly, it must be said, was in somewhat uneven voice. At his best, the sound blazes out with hall-shaking power, and at no moment was he anything less than a committed, intense performer. Miss Dunn is a Venus in the grand tradition , lacking, however, the finesse and roundness of vocal tone to be truly alluring in the sense Wagner's music constantly defines. Bernd Weikl, the Wolfram, is a special artist, a rich-voiced baritone with a patrician elegance. Each of the character's numerous outpourings spoke of the eloquence and restraint of this ardent, yet self-effacing character.
In his Met debut, Simon Estes found the bass role of the Landgrave both too low for his solid if unexceptional baritone, and too large for his at-best neutral stage presence. Kathleen Battle repeated her marvelous Shepherd. The casting of the lesser Knights was less than impressive. The Met chorus sang heartily.