Richard Wagner’s TANNHÄUSER at Los Angeles Opera

Los Angeles Opera Presents Wagner’s Tannhaüser

As a theme for great art works, Man’s struggle between the flesh and the spirit has been around forever, but it experienced one of its great flowerings in the 19th century. We see and hear this theme especially in the operas of Richard Wagner, whose obsession with love, both sacred and profane, and his ultimate conflation of the two in works like Tristan and Isolde and even Parsifal, flows like a fertile stream throughout all his work. In Tannhaüser (1845), one of his earlier efforts – first composed in the period between Der fliegende Holländer (1843) and Lohengrin (1848), but edited and expanded in 1861 and 1875 – we would not be mistaken to confuse the eponymous knight with Wagner himself, a man happy to dwell in both the sublime and sensual worlds and unable to make a choice between them.

Wagner sets Act One of Tannhaüser in Venusberg, Aphrodite’s mythical abode. There the minstrel / knight lounges in languorous ecstasy with the Goddess of Earthy Love. Well, just how far should an opera producer go in the representation of this fantasy bordello? For director Ian Judge, the answer is very likely “All the way!” And yet, our protracted voyeuristic stay in this immortal red-light district provides only glimpses of soft-core intercourse performed by buffed and beauteous bodies whose genitalia are discreetly covered. Oh, we see tons of bare buns and breasts bathed in a lurid red glow, but the rest is decorously vulgar — and ultimately embarrassing. It’s a bit of manipulative sensationalism clearly directed at a Hollywood audience craving titillation – and missing its mark on all levels. After all, Hollywood is the center of a hardcore porno business that makes Judge’s simulated orgies seem absurdly out of place. I say, if you cannot go “all the way,” don’t bother at all. This kind of thing is just silly. It doesn’t add a thing to Wagner and it wouldn’t even shock Snow White.

Fortunately, once we are out of Venusberg, the production is agreeably postmodern, with all the cozy clichés that term implies: fedoras, neon lights, endlessly repeated elements (in this case, tall windows with a prominent cross in the center of each) — stark lighting schemes, costumes that suggest raincoats etc. You know. The lot. The set is apparently reconstituted from one already used in Salzburg for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro! (What a gloomy show that most have been.) And there are two side-by-side revolving turntables to create various views, including the interior of the Hall of Song. Gottfried Pilz designed both the costumes and sets (with lighting designer Mark Doubleday), and they really are terribly effective, though hardly very fresh in concept.

Do stage directors and designers ever notice that what they are doing has become conventional? I have gotten to the point I just accept it and enjoy it for what it is – unless it is egregiously disruptive.

Truly, when it comes to Wagner, the conductor may be the single most important element. Not surprisingly, James Conlon leads the proceedings with what one might term total involvement, technically, intellectually and emotionally. In a perceptive program essay, he discusses his reason for choosing a composite of Wagner’s three versions. Apparently it was Wieland Wagner who first explored the idea of starting with the expanded Bacchanal of the Paris version (1861), then reverting to the Dresden version (1848), but (I assume) going back to Paris again in the last act for a revisit with Venus.

As seen on opening night, the LA cast was quite fine, with tenor Peter Seiffert getting off to an uneven start but ultimately offering a compelling performance in the title role; mezzo-soprano Lioba Braun making a convincing Venus despite her less than plush tone; and soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer turning in a really superb performance as Elizabeth. One might say that vocally, virtue trumped sin in this production: Schnitzer’s singing was certainly the most unaffectedly voluptuous heard all evening.

A fine Wolfram, Martin Gantner made a fascinating stage presence and sang authoritatively. Basso Franz-Joef Selig was excellent as Landgrave Hermann, and the production was further elevated by tenor Rodrick Dixon as Walther von der Volgelweide, tenor Robert MacNeil as Heinrich der Schreiber, baritone James Sterns as Biterolf, and baritone Christopher Feigum as Reinmer von Zweter. The choral contribution under William Vendice’s direction was top flight.

The opera’s song contest was especially well directed in this production –despite the absurd stand-in of piano replacing a harp! In terms of dramatic tension, one was reminded of the “poetry slams” so popular around the country these days – and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before somebody begins to stage the scene that way!

Review by David Gregson

Richard Wagner’s TANNHÄUSER

Los Angeles Opera


Peter Seiffert: TANNHÄUSER

Petra-Maria Schnitzer: ELISABETH

Lioba Braun: VENUS


Franz-Josef Selig: HERMANN

Jason Stearns: BITEROLF

Christopher Feigum: REINMAR VON ZWETER



CONDUCTOR – James Conlon

DIRECTOR – Ian Judge

DESIGNER – Gottfried Pilz



3 hours 42 minutes


Saturday February 24, 2007 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday February 28, 2007 7:00 p.m.

Saturday March 3, 2007 7:00 p.m.

Thursday March 8, 2007 7:00 p.m.

Sunday March 11, 2007 2:00 p.m.

Thursday March 15, 2007 7:00 p.m.

Sunday March 18, 2007 2:00 p.m.

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