For those who can't (or won't) see the forest of an opera for the trees
of performance minutiae, here's the word about the San Francisco Opera's
new production of Wagner's "Tannhauser" that opened tonight:
Donald Runnicles' Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus give
a magnificent account of the music, which is among Wagner's most sweeping
and bewitching. Runnicles and General Manager David Gockley have assembled
an outstanding cast for this, the first new production of Gockley's
20-month-old intendancy, and the cast delivered the goods, in an ensemble
performance of international stars, the like of which has not been heard
in these parts for some time.
However demanding and difficult the opera may be vocally and instrumentally,
this tale of the 13th century minstrel torn between Venus' earthly,
"sinful" and Elisabeth's idealized, redemptive love is a near-impossible
bear when it comes to staging, especially in the 1861 Paris version and
its extended ballet scene.
On that point, Graham Vick's overbusy, occasionally just plain silly
direction will be discussed (and derided) heatedly. Attention-diverting
production excesses, especially the primitive overuse of awkward missionary
positions, seem close to some of those under Gockley's predecessor,
There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four hours that opens
with a ballet that's a mix of Pina Bausch, Greco-Roman wrestling, and a
Groucho Marx routine, and ends with little boys emerging from the stage
floor as if in a prairie dog hunting game.
But music, the essential component of the evening, triumphs over it all,
making the stage monkey business almost immaterial. Runnicles' customarily
outstanding direction of Wagner holds true here, with rock-solid tempi,
balances, sterling support for the voices, and wonderful control of (the
many) climactic passages where he avoids "burping" the orchestra,
presenting powerful, convincing, steady high points instead.
The Opera Chorus, handicapped by Vick's requirement to wave arms, roll
on the floor, and act ecstatic or possessed at the most inappropriate
moments, gave a memorably solid, beautiful performance, holding back
(for good or ill) from blowing the walls down when it had the chance.
Peter Seiffert - a large man and no actor - was vocally sensational
in the title role, fulfilling the dual and conflicting requirements of
heroic and lyric tenor. His Rome Narrative was powerful, if rather dry.
Warmth and beauty, on the other hand, characterized Petra Maria Schnitzer's
Elisabeth; vocally and dramatically, she gave a true star performance,
especially in the difficult third act, creating an affecting "female
Parsifal," waiting for him in vain.
Mezzo Petra Lang was the bold Venus, singing well, but not quite at her
best. The young English baritone James Rutherford made a memorable San
Francisco debut as Wolfram, with a meaningful, moving Song to the Evening
Star. All the principals, except for Eric Halfvarson's mighty Landgrave
(and fine horsemanship atop the white quarter horse Alloy), had their
local debut in this production.
Vocally, one of the most striking performances of the evening came
from a young singer in a three-minute role. Having been made to sit
on stage motionless for almost an hour, Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang sang
the Shepherd's aria with affecting brilliance, exhibiting both musical
intelligence and peerless communication of emotions. When she sang of
the sun's warmth ("da strahlte warm die Sonnen"), you could feel the
bright light, the nourishing heat. An extraordinary talent.
Ron Howell's choreography for Venusberg - women in long, clinging
white shifts, men naked to the waste - was angular, clinically (and
unsuccessfully) sexual, and altogether distracting from some of the most
sensual music ever written. The Opera's program notes decried productions
with "unfortunate (and justly parodied) exaggerations... cheap eroticism
and a kind of corybantic, danced Kama Sutra" of the scene - describing
perfectly what took place in the War Memorial.
Stage directors have forever tried to "improve" on Elisabeth's quiet,
offstage death as she is sacrificing her life for Tannhauser's salvation.
Vick's direction on that point will cause much controversy, but in fact
it makes sense, while remaining true to the meaning of the text. In a
kind of assisted suicide, Wolfram reluctantly, gently, lovingly snaps
Elisabeth's neck when she begs for death, and he goes on to sing to the
Evening Star: "Wie Todesahnung, Damm'rung deckt die Lande..." ("As a
presentiment of death, twilight covers the land").
Paul Brown's stage design uses a hangar-like unit set, with large windows,
all scenes enhanced by opulent costumes. Brown and Vick are provoking
the audience to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater by using up gallons
of propane that flares as a large circle on the ground, as branches of
a tree, for long periods.
But just how crowded was the theater? A startling fact from opening
night, something clearly indicating what a tough row Gockley must hoe
to attract audiences back to the War Memorial: in this once-Wagner mad
town, on the opening night of a major new Wagner production, the second
balcony - with its affordable seats and best acoustic in the house - was
half empty. Wagner fans, opera lovers: you don't know what you're
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