Review: Charismatic San Francisco Opera “Tannhäuser” – October 12, 2007

Wagner’s ten major operas are about Northern Europe in “times of distant past”. Eight of them directly or indirectly deal with the issues of the old gods of ancient times, and their replacement by the newer idea of one God in Heaven, who oversees Christian peoples.

For readers who find this a strange proposition, consider these eight operas in this order: Das Rheingold, Die Walkuere, Siegfried, Goetterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser.

Even though each opera is based on mythology that evolved in medieval times, each of the eight gives indication of either polytheistic religious activity or some mix of polytheism and Christianity. Thus, I would propose, the eight I have listed are arranged in a chronology that corresponds to the evidence presented in each opera of the degree that Christianity had spread into Northern Europe.

As I have noted elsewhere on this website, “Das Rheingold” is an opera with no humans at all. It starts with the old polytheistic gods themselves at the height of their glory. A small group of humans appear in “Die Walkuere”, but only one in “Siegfried”. By “Goetterdämmerung” and “Tristan und Isolde” there are realms of human beings, but the times are still polytheistic.

By the time of “Parsifal” and his son, “Lohengrin”, the leaders themselves of the realms have converted to Christianity, with its single God in heaven, but there are still hold-outs among their populations who believe that the old gods should be respected, and even worshipped.

By “Tannhäuser”, the realms’ leaders and virtually all of their peoples are fully converted to the idea of allegiance to their single God, although the people obviously know that the alternative of Venus, a holdover from polytheistic times, exists. Those who cavort with her are doing so at a personal peril that includes social shunning in the here and now and eternal damnation in the afterlife.

I offer this hypothetical timeline of these Wagnerian masterpieces, as part of a current quest in California to make sense of “Tannhäuser”, the story of the minnesinger whose dalliances with the goddess Venus shock a community of which he used to be an important part.

These remarks are in the context of my review of the second of three separate productions of the opera to be seen in the Golden State between February 2007 and January 2008.

For two of these productions, Ian Judge and Graham Vick, British directors for the legitimate stage associated with The Bard’s plays, developed two quite different takes on the opera prepared for Paris.

(The third production, to be mounted by the San Diego Opera, will be utilizing the New York Metropolitan Opera’s costumes and production concept designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen – the physical sets themselves recreated for San Diego – in the version that Wagner prepared for Dresden. Those persons who seek a “Tannhäuser” within the mainstream of performance tradition, should consider the San Diego performances.)

Last February, Judge developed a new production for the Los Angeles Opera that appeared to ask the question, what could be happening in the Venusberg that would cause the good citizens of the Wartburg to react with such horror when they discovered Tannhauser had spent his time there?

He answered this question with a display of diverse (simulated) sexual acts by dancers in the Venusberg that went far beyond anything ever seen on an American opera stage, startling Los Angeles’ opera and theatre crowds, who are not used to being shocked.

For San Francisco, half a year later, Vick approached the opera in a quite different way. His production did nothing to cast doubt on the idea that sex happens in the Venusberg. The San Francisco dancers showed lots of skin (the men bare-chested in pajama-like bottoms). However, the dancers were engaged in a modern dance routine that, when compared with the orgiastic . A. troupe, seemed like it was choreographed by a convent’s entertainment committee rather than the debuting Ron Howell.

Nibbling gestures hinted at Venusberg fore-play, accompanied by the kind of writhing that one sees dancers perform in traditional presentations of the Bacchanale in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. Not a single person in San Francisco appears to have found the Venusberg dancing so provocative, that, as was reported in Los Angeles, people bought tickets to later Los Angele “Tannhäuser” performances to see the Venusberg “dance” sequence a second (or third) time.

Vick and Judge both used unit sets for their productions, but Judge’s used panels on a curved track that were moved back and forth to create the various sets for the scenes that the “Tannhauser” story seemed to require, at least up until Vick had at it. In Vick’s conceptualization, a single set, the work of Welsh production designer Paul Brown, representing the Wartburg’s Hall of the Minnesingers, dominates the entire production.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, after one has decided to build a unit set for all three acts that is formed by the four walls, floor and ceiling of the Wartburg Hall, it becomes necessary to find a way to present the Venusberg as somehow existing in the Wartburg, and, perhaps as a bonus, an inventive explanation for what initially seems to be conceptually illogical, or, at least, deviating from Wagner’s storyline.

In fact, in one of the most unexpected parts of Vick’s production, the whole realm of the Venusberg is demoted to a mere section of floorspace within the Minnesingers’ Great Hall. But, for Vick, the Wartburg structure is a magical hall, which not only is the location for the second act’s song contest, but lies astride the route the pilgrims take to Rome. It also serves at various times as the gates that guard the entrance to heaven, a field where a shepherd watches his flock, and the edge of a forest where huntsmen bag wild game.

[Below: the unit set for Graham Vick’s production of “Tannhäuser”, representing the Wartburg Hall of the Minnesingers, and everything else; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Tannhäuser” is, of course, a truly grand opera, with five major roles among its ten principal singers, and requiring a large orchestra and chorus. It has been performed at San Francisco Opera in nine seasons, although prior to its revivals for Leonie Rysanek in 1958, Jess Thomas and Regine Crespin in 1966, and Thomas and Rysanek in 1973, it had accumulated only six San Francisco performances in four seasons.

The conductor for six of the seven performances of the new production is Donald Runnicles. He had also conducted all seven performances of the Dresden version here (in 1994, for Wolfgang Schmidt and Deborah Voigt, in a previous new production by Gerard Howland, apparently destroyed after the one season). Thus Runnicles dominates the San Francisco Opera performance history of the piece, conducting 40% of all the “Tannhäuser” performances ever shown at the War Memorial Opera House.

The opera is not easy to cast, especially since the title role needs a powerful, dramatic tenor who must sing continuously in the upper part of the tenor range. (The opera I saw just before Tannhäuser was Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in Zurich, in which the part of Ernesto is the leggiero tenor equivalent, whose tessitura lies high in his range also. Has any tenor in history performed both roles?)

There are two versions of “Tannhäuser” that are performed, one the original that Wagner produced for Dresden and a revised version with an extended ballet sequence that Wagner produced later for Paris. Traditionally, the Dresden version is most often performed. Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Operas chose to do the Paris version in their two separate 2007 productions.

When the scene opens in Vick’s production, we are conscious of the Hall’s curved, cross-ribbed ceiling, not unlike a middle-sized European city’s central train station, but with boarded windows and a dirt floor. Columns rise from the floor to the ceiling, each topped with medieval statuary emblazoned with rudimentary coats of arms, which, we will see, correspond to the costumes of various groups of minnesingers.

A large tree exists at stage right, and several figures are seen sitting on benches along the periphery of the building’s wall. We identify one figure as the Shepherd (sung by Ji Young Yang) and the others as black-coated elders, whom we come to know as functionaries that lead Elizabeth and then Tannhauser into the afterlife.

[Below: Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) cavorts in the Venusberg.  Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A harp sits towards the rear of stage left. Soon we hear Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert, in better voice than seven months earlier in Los Angeles), and Venus (Petra Lang, who possesses a brilliant and beautiful Wagnerian mezzo). As Seiffert sings his hymn to Venus, a boy accompanies him on the harp.

[Below: Petra Lang is Venus; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

When Seiffert’s Tannhäuser implores Lang’s Venus to let him flee, a circle of fire surrounds them. Lang, who wears a white dress that is little more than a sheet, opens it (discreetly out of audience view) to Tannhäuser to entice him to stay. When she finds herself the scorned woman, Lang’s Venus rolls on the floor, Lang rather obviously keeping track of where the flames are. At Tannhäuser’s request for freedom, the flames die down and Venus disappears into the ground (i.e., the Hall’s floor).

Both Tannhauser and the boy harpist remain in the hall, the latter immediately enlisted into a rite of baptism. Yang’s shepherd proved to have a strong voice, making a case for a female with a voice of Yang’s caliber in the never to be resolved debate as whether or not the shepherd should be a boy soprano.

The door windows of the hall open, as do some basement windows beneath them. Climbing through the door windows and crawling through the basement windows, the chorus of pilgrims prove to be among the most self-loathing of penitents. Several crawl across the stage, with such words as “hate”, “lust”, “sacrilege” and “sorcery” written on their backs.

The door at the rear of the hall opens and the hunting party, consisting of the Landgrave Hermann and Tannhäuser’s former minnesinger colleagues, arrives. They bring the carcasses of a slain stag and bear to dump on the hall’s floor. The Landgrave (Eric Halfvarson) is astride a white horse, which remains at the back of the stage for the entire long scene, a horse whisperer dressed in medieval hunting garb, holding its reins and assuring its perfect behavior.

[Below: Wolfram (James Rutherford, center, returning from the hunt, encounters Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert, left); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Halfvarson dismounts and joins Wolfram (James Rutherford), Walther (Stefan Margrita), Biterolf (Gregory Reinhart), Reinmar (Ricardo Lugo) and Heinrich (Matthew O’Neill) as they cautiously and suspiciously probeTannhäuser’s mysterious disappearance and reappearance. Wolfram, with a reference to Elizabeth’s continuing concern for his well-being, persuades Tannhäuser to stay. (The singers form an impressive ensemble, with Rutherford’s Wolfram, Margrita’s Walther, and Reinhart’s Biterolf particularly noteworthy).

In the second act, Elizabeth (Petra Maria Schnitzer), wearing a blue dress and long blonde wig, runs through the Wartburg hall opening the window-doors, bringing sunshine into a space that evidently has been shuttered and gloomy for most of recent time. The harp now rests over the dirt mounds where the Venusberg’s Ring of Fire was seen earlier.

[Below: Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser and Petra Maria Schnitzer is Elizabeth; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Schnitzer is a physically attractive Elizabeth, with remarkable vocal control and acting ability. She projects girlish anticipation of Tannhauser’s return in her great aria that begins the second act. After Schnitzer’s superb duet with Seiffert (her real life husband), Wolfram/Rutherford, obviously disturbed as Elizabeth twirls about giddily, sings that all his hope is gone. The Landgrave shows surprise at the open windows of the Hall.

The great second act processional begins to a round of audience applause. The chorus members walk in variously, inspecting the newly brightened hall. The women of the chorus, numbering around 30, all are dressed in identical medieval costumes that remind one of nun’s habits, except that each woman wears a crown. They all sit in a line at stage right.

The costumes for the men of the chorus, however, are much more varied. A few wear armor, but many more reflect various designs associated with the principal minnesingers (and those designs themselves are patterned after designs that appear underneath the figures at the top of each of the hall’s columns). The four pages, sometimes sung by women, are in this production sung by boy sopranos. A silver bowl is passed around as one of the rituals that Vick envisions would be associated with a minnesinger song contest.

The contest begins and Wolfram leads off with a song that in traditional productions is assumed to be a paean to chivalric, courtly love. Not so in Vick’s conception. The response to Wolfram’s song by those assembled is what we might expect were we in a community of charismatic Christians feeling the spirit of God flowing through their congregation.

One by one women who were seated in a line are overcome by their outward expressions of religious passion. The men are likewise impacted by his message, some with outstretched arms, some crawling toward him, some embracing each other. In the Wartburg, faith seems to be felt universally and expressed physically. Throughout the second act (and elsewhere in the opera), the behaviors of the men and women of the Wartburg – how they clasp another’s shoulder and hold each other’s hand, how so many appear possessed by a higher ecstasy – seem easily associated with some charismatic religious groups of our own time.

By positing a charismatic community to counter the lair of Venus, Vick appears to sense a deeper insight into the opera. Tannhauser is astride two communities, each with a physical conception of love, each determined that the other is the wrong path. Venus and Elizabeth both wish Tannhäuser happiness, but believe their universe will produce it, while the other will prove disastrous for him.

(I found it illuminating that the San Francisco “Tannhäuser” was in rotation with Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. In this opera, Samson’s lover, unlike the two women Tannhäuser is deciding between, is, without Samson knowing it, his lethal enemy.)

[Below left: Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elizabeth, an edited image based on a photograph by  Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In such a setting, Tannhäuser’s revelation and defense of his personal experiences in the Venusberg is particularly unwelcome. The tree bursts into flames. The women run about. The men set out to dispatch the errant one. Elizabeth is the one person on stage who comprehends the disaster that would ensue if Tannhäuser is shunned or destroyed by a community that she sees he needs, and, herself a victim of his past transgressions, intervenes, requesting mercy for him. In Elizabeth’s entreaties, Schnitzer further confirms the range of expressiveness in her voice.

The rest of the second act is one that tests a conductor’s mettle, with each of the principals singing sometimes separately and sometimes in ensemble, and all of the chorus and orchestra engaged in producing one of Wagner’s triumphant walls of sound. Runnicles proved his mastery of this composer’s demands.

At the end of the act Tannhäuser is dispatched to Rome with the pilgrims to seek forgiveness from the Pope. In Act III Elizabeth, sits at a small fire, near the remnant of the tree. Not finding Tannhäuser among the pilgrims, in yet another extraordinary exposition of her vocal skills, Schnitzer performs the depressed Elizabeth’s prayer for Tannhäuser’s eternal peace, negotiating that aria’s piannissimi memorably.

Perhaps the most controversial element of Vick’s unorthodox approach to the opera occurs next. In Wagner’s stage directions, after her prayer, Elizabeth’s signals that she has no interest in talking with Wolfram or even having him accompany her as she walks up a path towards the Wartburg. Vick has Wolfram come up behind her and murder her, or perform a mercy-killing or assisted suicide, depending on one’s point of view. At that point, an elderly lady dressed in black, whom we know to be a custodian of heaven’s gates takes Elizabeth and leads her away to eternity.

As the custodians close heaven’s door, Tannhäuser comes through a window, revealing the Pope’s damnation and Tannhäuser’s decision to return to the Venusberg, causing Wolfram to crawl backwards towards the windows. The mention of Venusberg results in the women Venusberg dancers appearing from beneath the ground and through the windows, soon followed by the men. Venus straddles three men who act as a three-headed beast of burden. But when Wolfram cries out Elizabeth’s name, Venus and her entourage disappear into the ground mid-stage.

Then a children’s chorus appears, with many boys and girls dressed like Puritans. Minnesingers come through the window as the old lady takes Tannhäuser to the door at the back of the stage, through which a celestial lchight streams. Ten or so kids come up from under the ground with words painted on their backs – “Love”, “Kind”, Hope” and other positive messages that counteract the words that disturbed the older pilgrim penitents in Act I.

[Below: children appear from below ground; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In the story of the opera appearing as preface to an ancient Schirmer edition of the piano score, an anonymous soul (possibly the libretto’s translator, Natalia Macfarren) appends the information “With true mediaeval sternness, Tannhäuser is not redeemed in the old legend, but doomed to return to the domain of Venus, where, conscience-stricken, he finds everlasting wretchedness.” Wagner, 165 years ago, provided an alternative fate for his hero that seemed more comforting to the opera audiences of his age. But in the 21st century, it is clear that there are creative artists who wish to go beyond Wagner’s literal story in a quest for deeper meanings.

We are in a year during which California does Tannhäuser. Judge and Vick, in their respective Los Angeles and San Francisco productions, have both found insights into what in the past did not seem to be so mysterious a story. Perhaps both will prove to be transitory approaches in the performance history of this work, but they have proven to be mind-expanding.

I especially liked Vick’s presentation of the people who comprise the Wartburg, which I believe immeasurably strengthens the dramatic feel of the second act. The pageantry and music is always wonderful, of course, but the display of the Wartburg as a vibrant community of persons who actively participate in their faith, is fascinating. San Francisco Opera has co-produced this production with the Dallas Opera. I am already making plans for a future trip to North Texas.

But, those of us who plan to assemble in San Diego in January and February 2008 to hear Robert Gambill’s Tannhäuser (joined by Petra Lang in another take on Venus), will look forward to even yet another interpretation, probably closer to Wagner’s intentions. With the experience of the two recent new productions, we are certain to find the opera interesting in ways we had not thought of before.

For my review of the other referenced new production of “Tannhäuser”, see: Powerful, Edgy “Tannhäuser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007