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Music Triumphs in Tannhäuser

September 25, 2007

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 Tannhäuser that opened on Tuesday night: 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 likes of which has not been heard in these parts for some time.
The Paris Version: Opera to Dance
However demanding and difficult the opera may be vocally and instrumentally, this tale of the 13th-century minstrel torn between Venus' earthly and "sinful" love and Elisabeth's idealized and redemptive love is a near-impossible bear when it comes to staging, particularly the 1861 Paris version with 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, Pamela Rosenberg.

There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four hours that unfortunately 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 tempos, balances, sterling support for the voices, and wonderful control of the many climactic passages where he avoids "burping" the orchestra, and presents 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 as Tannhäuser

All photos by Terrence McCarthy

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, most notably in the difficult third act, when she created an affecting "female Parsifal," waiting for Tannhäuser in vain. Mezzo Petra Lang was the bold Venus, singing well, but not quite at her best.

Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elisabeth and Petra Lang as Venus

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.

James Rutherford as Wolfram von Eschenbach

Vocally, one of the most striking performances of the evening came from a young singer in a three-minute role. After being forced to sit motionless on stage 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. Yang is an extraordinary talent.

Ji Young Yang

Corybantic, Frenzied Orgy
Ron Howell's choreography for Venusberg — women in long, clinging white shifts, men naked to the waist — 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 — and wound up describing perfectly what took place in the War Memorial.

The Final Scene of Tannhäuser

Stage directors have forever tried to "improve" on Elisabeth's quiet, offstage death as she is sacrificing her life for Tannhäuser'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, Dämm'rung deckt die Lande ... " (As a presentiment of death, twilight covers the land).

Paul Brown's stage design uses a hangarlike unit set, with large windows. Opulent costumes enhance all the scenes, as well. But Brown and Vick are provoking the audience to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater by using gallons of propane, which flares for long periods as a large circle on the ground and as branches of a tree.

Just how crowded was the theater? A startling fact from opening night, and 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 missing.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].