Music Triumphs in San Francisco Opera’s “Tannhäuser”

Review by Janos Gereben. San Francisco, September 18.

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 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, Pamela Rosenberg.

There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four hours that unfortunately open
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 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 – 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 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 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 missing.


Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert*
Elisabeth: Petra Maria Schnitzer*
Venus: Petra Lang*
Wolfram von Eschenbach: James Rutherford*
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia: Eric Halfvarson
Walther von der Vogelweide: Stefan Margita*
Biterolf: Gregory Reinhart
Reinmar von Zweter: Ricardo Lugo
Heinrich der Schreiber: Matthew O’Neill
Shepherd: Ji Young Yang

Conductor: Donald Runnicles /
Donato Cabrera (10/3)
Director: Graham Vick*
Designer: Paul Brown*
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman*

Choreographer: Ron Howell*


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