Review: Powerful, Edgy “Tannhäuser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007

Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”, although firmly in the standard repertoire, has tended to be performed a little less often in recent years than the work that preceded it (“The Flying Dutchman”) and the eight operas he wrote afterwards. That appears, at least for the near future, to be changing.

California’s three most important opera companies – those of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego – each have scheduled “Tannhäuser” within a twelve month period. Although there is a duplication in two lead performers between two of the companies, each is mounting a completely different production.

Nor is it only California that is being immersed in Wagner’s melodic tale of a young man’s explorations of and angst regarding the charms of women, but opera companies throughout the United States and the World have signed onto revivals or new productions of the work.

Los Angeles Opera brought together a creative team, led by Conductor James Conlon, its new musical director. The team, launching “Tannhäuser” as the first production of a multi-year Wagner project, has taken a new look at this work. Wagner’s “Paris version” of the opera, with its extended Venusberg Ballet, was chosen. The Set and Costume Designer was Gottfried Pilz and Lighting Designer was Mark Doubleday (his company debut), both of whose contributions in this extraordinary production were invaluable.

The Director was Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Ian Judge, who has now has a half-dozen memorable Los Angeles Opera productions to his credit. These include a conceptualization of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” in 2005 for Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko that I found brilliant.

Before one creates a new production of “Tannhäuser” one must decide what, ultimately, the opera is about. The literal story – with its arc of transgression, confrontation, penance and redemption – is interesting enough, and the opera’s rousing music and lush melody, in the hands of an orchestra and of singers of the first rank – makes for a pleasant evening at the opera, especially if you find the other Wagnerian operas to your taste.

Wagner, in his preceding opera, “Die Fliegende Holländer”, set up a premise for the damnation of its title character that makes little sense to those of us that are part of 21st Century Western civilization. With a violent storm hitting his ship, the Dutchman lost control of himself and started cursing. For this he was damned forever, unless an improbable series of things happened to redeem him. So much for the punishment fitting the crime.

There are many elements of that opera that make it interesting to 21st century audiences, but the story line – the incidents (the cursing) that led to the spell on the Dutchman and the rules that had to be followed to break the spell, is not in itself something that would interest most of us these days.

Were it not that its stirring overture, its treasure chest of melody, and its abundant opportunities for spectacular theatre, “Holländer” would be an only occasionally performed relic of Romantic era operatic history, like Weber’s “Die Freischuetz”. Is “Tannhäuser” another quaint fairy tale like “Hollaender” in which we should immerse ourselves in the music, applaud the use of spectacle to display its exotic settings, but not think too deeply about the plot? I think otherwise.

“Tannhäuser” is an opera (and this will be a surprise to some people) in which one can find deeper meaning. My own take on the opera’s story is as follows:

(1) Tannhäuser, a creative but difficult artist, who has had problems fitting into a very structured society, decides to shuck it all and pursue a lifestyle that offends the established order, (2) having surfeited his senses, he wishes he could return to his old life to be forgiven, just as was the Prodigal Son, (3) although most everyone is suspicious of his reappearance, Elisabeth, the woman who had always seen something redeeming in his character, is ready to welcome him back, (4) he has renewed difficulty relating to the social order, and flaunts his past behaviors he knows will destroy his chances of reconciliation with his former colleagues, (5) the resulting turmoil results in Elisabeth’s emotional breakdown and ultimate death, (6) Tannhäuser, shocked by the impact of his behavior on Elisabeth, squares himself away.

You will note my interpretation of the meaning of the opera is stated in secular language. One can integrate into this explanation meanings for the opera’s religious symbols, or, if preferred, even regard the religious elements literally. However, the basic story remains the same.

The creative team obviously spent time thinking about what they considered the essence of “Tannhäuser”, to see if it indeed could be made relevant to our times. Their resulting product appears to concentrate on the question: what is it that happens in the Venusberg that so disrupts the social structure in the Wartburg? Is there a way for the audience to share the shock that the denizens of the Wartburg experienced?

They knew that most of this 21st century audience would be from the Los Angeles area. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is itself just seven miles from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, where, the night after the “Tannhäuser” premiere, and three nights before its second performance – the one I attended – the Academy Awards would be distributed.

What could happen in the Venusberg that could cause this audience, that certainly regards itself among the hip and sophisticated, to understand vicariously the social horror that the men and women of the Wartburg experienced?

[Below: Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) with Venus (Lioba Braun) and several Venusberg “dancers”; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The creative team came up with an effective formula – fill the Venusberg with beautiful people of both sexes, all nude except for the briefest of thongs, engaged in constant, unrelenting, explicit (or at least convincingly simulated) sex – twosomes of men and women, men and men, etc., threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes splitting off to form new threesomes and twosomes. Most of these performances were taking place on revolving stages, so that the audience would not miss too much.

The opera program lists 18 “dancers”, although “dancing” is a curious euphemism for the particular onstage performances of these 18 persons during the extended ballet of the Paris version. The simulations were so vivid, that one would not be astonished if, after all of the rehearsals and actual performances, that some longer term relationships might be developing among these dancers.

[Below: the Venusberg dancers prepare for their orgy; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera. ]

Los Angeles opera audiences might indeed be hip (or, at least, include many of the hip). But the community is an entertainment capital, where nightmares occur about film ratings so restrictive they eliminate the teenage market, or about the FCC fining big corporations for transgressions occurring on network television.

So there is irony in the fact that things not permitted in films and television shows being created a few miles away, were occurring – not in some tiny, out of the way West Hollywood theatre – but, during, of all things, the performance of a Wagnerian opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The “Tannhäuser” reviews probably knocked some of the reports of post-Oscar parties to the later pages. “Wagner pornucopia” was the inch high headline for the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section. “‘Tannhäuser’: the Adult Version” was the three-fourths of an inch headline for the Arts Entertainment section of the Orange County Register. The bottom line is that, just like the citizens of the Wartburg, it is possible to astonish people, even in the hip and sophisticated opera and theatre-going crowd of Los Angeles.

But opera performed for purposes of shock and sacrilege is what many opera-goers use to define that ultimate pejorative, “Eurotrash”. To save the new L. A. production of “Tannhäuser” from that pigeon hole, can one find in the Ian Judge conceptualization of the stage action elements that redeem his approach, and bring new appreciation and understanding of the opera?

First, I will set down my impressions of the performance. There is no curtain for the opera. Each act begins with a facade in place which stretches across the entire front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. The facade consists of nine dark plue pillars. Connecting each pillar are eight sets of very tall double doors, that often open as windows.

Conductor Conlon leads the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in the famous prologue. At the point where the Prologue changes tempo to the exotic Venusberg music, we begin to see young men and women, partially clothed in evening dress through the windows of the tall doors. Then, as the opera begins, the pillars and doors are seen to be on curved tracks that snake around the sides and back of center stage.

A grand piano sits at stage right, to do duty as Tannhäuser’s lyre in the Venusberg and to return to the Hall in which the singing contest will be held in a later scene. Tannhäuser, German tenor Peter Seiffert, dressed in black pajamas and a red dressing gown crosses the stage to sit at the piano.

The Venus, Lioba Braun, looking rather like a young Sally Field with an Annette Bening hairstyle, is in her bower in center stage in a red dress. Everyone is barefoot. There are vertical neon lights nearby, now glowing red. (The vertical neon pole will change color for different scenes throughout the performance.)

The youth in evening dress begin to shed their clothes, and each finds a nearby person to engage in first kissing and then (simulated) sex acts of demonstrable versatility. Seiffert, the Tannhäuser, is burly and looks 50ish.

According to some of the press, he was made to look up like an aging rock star visiting the Venusberg. (My suspicion is that if the production had a younger looking Tannhäuser, not bound by on-stage inhibitions and with the physique of, say, a Nathan Gunn or Charles Castronovo – neither of whom would ever be expected to sing this role – Director Judge would have staged the scene quite differently.)

Braun’s Venus was a smaller voice than I am used to in this part, and Seiffert, who is unquestionably on the short list of world’s most prominent Tannhäusers, exhibited, at several times during the first two acts, the vibrato spread and beat that often signals vocal difficulties. (He had his voice securely in control in time for an effective third act that should convince a person who has not seen him before that his reputation is warranted.)

Now a blue-violet vertical neon pole is seen. Tannhäuser reveals to Venus that his appetites are surfeited and that he wishes to return to his German homeland. The orgy participants, ready to do something else, help take down the Venusberg set to move it into the next scene with the Wartburg hunting party. Tannhäuser finds himself out in the cold – literally, it is snowing lightly. A large white leafless tree hangs askew from the top of the stage.

We hear the song of the shepherd boy (sung by Karen Vuong) from offstage, but there is a boy dressed as a cherub with small wings on-stage, who among other stage business (throwing snowballs and standing on the grand piano in his ski boots) arranges for the piano to be pulled out of the snow offstage. (I thought to myself, I wonder whether he is going to do a “snow angel” and he did. I also wondered if the boy, who obviously had to be in the wings waiting for the orgy to end so he could be onstage for the next scene, had parental guidance shielding him from too close an observation of the “dancing”.)

The vertical neon pole was glowing white when the pilgrims appear, costumed in white robes, each holding white staffs. Tannhäuser, however, is dressed in black with a black scarf. Still barefoot, he kneels at a cross at mid-stage. The hunters arrive, also dressed in white.

Although some have white hunting caps, some of the principals are wearing white Fedoras. Wolfram (German baritone Martin Gantner) is dressed in a white suit, looking rather like Truman Capote, or even more closely, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote, with spectacles resembling a stylish contemporary offering from Lenscrafters. The Landgrave (German bass Franz-Josef Selig) wore a white Fedora with a black band.

[Below: Elizabeth (Petra Maria Schnitzer) in Act II; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

As Act II begins, we are introduced to Elisabeth. Since she is to be the princess of the singing contest, she has the hairstyle and general appearance of Princess Diana, and wears a white gown similarly styled to the red gown worn by Venus in Act I. The male dancers from the Venusberg reappear as waiters for the Landgrave’s festivities, each carrying trays filled with glasses of champagne, most of which are taken by the choristers, who prance in with great formality in elegant black and white evening dress, for the melodic toasts.

In the first examples of truly memorable singing in this performance, Petra Maria Schnitzer, the Elisabeth, engages in an affecting duet with Selig’s Landgrave. The Paris version of “Tannhäuser”, besides a longer Venusberg scene, has a more extensive song tournament, with more music for Gantner’s Wolfram and for Walther von der Vogelweide (Rodrick Dixon). The other Minnesingers are Jason Stearns (Biterolf), Robert MacNeil (Heinrich der Schreiber) and Christopher Feigum (Reinmar von Zweter).

The act ends with a beautifully sung octet, although Seiffert’s Tannhäuser was again showing some vocal stress. As Seiffert sang his “Nach Rom!” he ran out of the back door to join the pilgrims seeking the Pope’s blessing, as the chandeliers of the Wartburg minstrels’ hall are raised.

[Below: Act III of “Tannhäuser”; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For the final scene, the cross is back at center stage, and there is a green glow, not just on the vertical neon pole, but throughout the stage, as green light shines through the windows. Elisabeth is dressed in a white gown with green overcoat, and looks for Tannhäuser in the ranks of the returning pilgrims. Disheartened and disheveled, she goes to the cross.

After Schnitzer’s extraordinarily effective and expressive prayer, she leaves her overcoat on the ground and disappears through the same portal that Seiffert’s Tannhäuser left for Rome.

Gantner’s Wolfram, dressed in modern topcoat, sweater and cravat, and carrying an umbrella, sings to the evening star the most famous aria from “Tannhäuser”, his realization that Elisabeth has left this life forever. Wolfram picks up the overcoat and puts it at the base of the cross.

Then Seiffert reappears, summoning the vocal control needed for the great monologue in which Tannhäuser describes his depressing interaction with the Pope. With Tannhäuser in despair, Venus reappears with two of her dancer boys who approach the cross to try to coax Tannhäuser back to the Venusberg.

When Wolfram makes Tannhäuser aware that Elisabeth has won him his salvation, Tannhäuser clutches Elisabeth’s discarded cloak. Venus having been repulsed, the two boys go back to caressing each other. The body of Elisabeth is brought onstage, as is the Pope’s staff, signalling Tannhäuser’s redemption. The appearance of a boy angel, with more fully developed wings, is one of our final impressions of this remarkable production.

The Los Angeles production was unrelentingly theatrical, but did it pass muster as an appropriate presentation of “Tannhäuser”? I think it did. Nowhere did it create a different storyline that Wagner did not intend (a criticism I made of Los Angeles Opera’s presentation of “Robert Wilson’s ‘Parsifal'” last December). Everything that is supposed to happen in a traditional performance of “Tannhäuser” happened here.

Upon reflection, the wildness of Ian Judge’s Venusberg brought new insights into the relationships between these mythic characters. As the countervailing force to that wildness, the production was fortunate in having Schnitzer, a revelatory Elisabeth, who combined a beautiful voice, good acting abilities, and an attractive appearance. One could imagine a soul torn between Venus and Elisabeth, who comes to realize too late that it is the latter with whom he really wants to be.

I suspect that one way to determine whether the incorporation of non-traditional features into a standard repertoire work is whether you can exchange the traditional and non-traditional elements without doing violence to either the standard or non-traditional presentation. Here, clearly one could do so, without any harm whatsoever.

It would not matter whether Wolfram was wearing a white suit or the classic medieval tunic we associate with this opera, nor whether there was a shepherd boy or an angel, nor a grand piano or a lyre. (In my review of the Los Angeles Opera “Manon” in October, 2006 with Netrebko and Villazon, I made a similar argument in support of Vince Paterson’s updating of that opera.)

But this production, I believe, illuminated some aspects of what Wagner intended when he wrote his own libretto for this work. His Wartburg characters’ degree of shock in learning of Tannhäuser’s time in the Venusberg seemed out of proportion to the situation, unless Wagner intended that Tannhäuser’s activities in the Venusberg were something the Wartburgers would truly find unsettling.

I think the Los Angeles Opera production helps us sort through the sometimes recondite meanings in this work. It will be interesting to see the other two productions promised for California within the next year.

For my other reviews of Los Angeles Opera performances, see:

Thriller”: Paterson Links with Netrebko, Villazon and Domingo in L. A. “Manon” – October 5, 2006

Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway?