Review: Wagner Knows Best – Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhäuser” Sticks to the Story, January 26, 2008

In the past 12 months, two of California’s opera companies each presented new productions of  Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”. Each production was based on radical story line re-conceptualizations by controversial theatrical innovators Ian Judge (Los Angeles Opera) and Graham Vick (San Francisco Opera). To open its 2008 season, the San Diego Opera revealed a production that was based mainly on the ideas of another theatrical firebrand – Richard Wagner himself.

The San Diego “Tannhäuser” was performed on the opening night of San Diego’s 2008 season. Like last season’s “Wozzeck”, it brought together an important international team of singers and production designers, working with a veteran stage director.

Opening Night was the occasion for a lustrous debut of Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund (Elizabeth), and Canadian baritone Russell Braun’s role debut as Wolfram, the role for which his father, the late Viktor Braun, is best remembered. It also marked the return to the United States of Robert Gambill, whose international reputation as a Wagnerian heldentenor was forged in Europe, to sing his most famous role, Tannhäuser, for the first time to American audiences.

The performance was directed by Michael Hampe, the Cologne-based director associated with such operatic productions praised on this website as San Francisco Opera’s reading of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (with John Gunter’s sets). If one studies Wagner’s stage directions and observes the product of Hampe’s efforts, there should be no dispute that singers whose stage actions are directed by Hampe, as opposed to Judge and Vick, comes closest to realizing what Wagner specified.

The most striking feature of the San Diego “Tannhäuser” is the physical production itself. This website has suggested that it would be worth the effort for opera companies to rebuild some of the successful operatic sets of previous decades (some of which have worn out or have been destroyed), adapting them to more recent innovations in stage machinery and lighting. San Diego Opera has done just that.

The sets recreate the designs of Guenther Schneider-Siemssen, whose original production was conceived for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The person with the title of Scenic Designer for the San Diego production is Indiana University’s James Mulder. A creative spirit whose credits include a long career with Walt Disney Imagineering, Mulder has been responsible for many ideas that have enhanced the public’s experience with, for example, Epcot Center’s rides and attractions.

Fascinated with Schneider-Siemssen’s use of light projections in operatic productions, Mulder in time established contact with the master and ultimately became his protege. San Diego Opera, itself with a long-standing association with Schneider-Siemssen and with his blessing, commissioned Mulder to re-invent the Met sets for San Diego Opera and the Civic Theater’s stage.

Those persons who have understood the symbolism of the physical sets used in the Judge and Vick production, will have a new appreciation for the sets in the Schneider-Siemssen/Mulder collaboration.

There are basically three sets. Two of these sets first appear in Act I, the remaining set in the second act. Act I’s first scene is the Venusberg; its second scene is an open space in the Wartburg, where a wayside cross provides a place of temporary solace for deeply conflicted persons (such as Tannhäuser upon departing the Venusberg) and a route for the pilgrims to traverse. The remaining set, seen only in the second act, represents the Wartburg Hall.

Although both the Judge and Vick productions used the Paris version with its extended ballet sequence, the Dresden version has traditionally been the “mainstream” choice of opera companies producing the work. The most obvious difference is that the overture is completed before the opera’s action commences. Conductor Gabor Oetvoes led the San Diego Opera Orchestra in a sympathetic reading of that great Romantic Era orchestral standard.

When the curtain rises on Act I, we are in the mists of Venus’ grotto. Tannhäuser lies at Venus’ feet at center stage, while the women of the opera ballet dance as nymphs, in time joined by the men. Unlike the much longer ballet sequences of the Paris production used in the San Francisco production (that was strongly influenced by modern dance) and the L. A. production (that could not really be described as dancing at all), the San Diego opera ballet utilized their much briefer time onstage to perform beautifully realized classical ballet dances, choreographed by Britain’s Nicola Bowie, that still managed to suggest the eroticism of the surroundings.

The Venus, Petra Lang (who had appeared in this part with great distinction in San Francisco), sang with the same purity of tone and expressiveness that had impressed me before.

[Below: Tannhäuser (Robert Gambill) sings praises to Venus (Petra Lang); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I had some reservations about Robert Gambill’s performance in the title role. There is no doubt he is a handsome Tannhäuser, with an extraordinary voice. His notes in middle range were rich and secure. The beauty of his voice extended to his upper range, but his vibrato on his high notes, welcome when under control, would broaden and sound forced.

Tannhäuser is a wicked role, much of whose music lies high in the tenor range and a great deal of which must be performed in the first scene, just after the curtain rises. A tenor singing the role must be able to get his voice in control, including adjusting it to the size and acoustics of the house. Difficulty in producing the the right sound for those high notes in the first scene could mean emerging vocal problems (not impossible if a tenor sings a lot of Tannhäuser) or it could mean simply that the tenor has not yet calibrated his voice for that performance.

Although Gambrill had sung in United States previously (he had two relatively small roles in San Francisco Opera’s production of Berg’s “Lulu” in 1997), this was the first night of performing the role that established his European reputation in a large United States opera house (San Diego Civic Theater is a 2900 seat facility, only slightly smaller than San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.)

In the later acts, his performance was mostly on target, and reports of his dress rehearsal performances indicated that he had not had problems earlier. So, the problematic notes were likely a case of first night jitters.

When Tannhäuser and Venus find their differences irreconcilable, the Venusberg disappears beneath a sea of clouds projected on a scrim. The sets for the second scene come into view. A rocky clearing appears, with the small wayside cross is at stage right. Small stands of birch trees are seen on a hillside on stage left.

After Laura Fortune sings the Shepherd Boy’s song (commendably), we meet the remaining male principals of the opera. Landgraf Hermann (Reinhard Hagen), Wolfram (R. Braun), Biterolf (Andrew Greenan), Walter (Martin Zysset), Heinrich (Simeon Esper) and Reinmar (Scott Sikon) are dressed in richly appointed floor-length robes and tunics.

[Below: Tannhäuser (Robert Gambill, center with harp) comes across a hunting party of minnesingers. To the right is the Landgrave (Reinhard Hagen) ; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

We can tell by the uniform quality of this ensemble of minnesingers that the Thuringian song contests must be a grand display of the vocal arts. Special mention must be given Hagen’s commanding Landgraf.

We were welcomed to the Wartburg Hall with the vibrant appearance of Nylund as Elizabeth. Her American debut proved a coup for the San Diego Opera. She has a pleasing spinto voice that met Wagner’s demands for the role. Since her performance resume includes operas by Mozart, Verdi and Richard Strauss, as well as Wagner, she should prove a popular artist in the States.

The set for the Wartburg Hall is as elegant a Wagnerian set as one has seen in opera houses in recent times. As the act opens, we note the classical design of the large and lavishly appointed edifice, with white pillars and Roman arches framing the rows of windows (at both ground floor and mezzanine levels) that are the sets’s focal points. The mezzanine provides a convenient space for a line of trumpeters to herald the beginning of the minnesinger festivities.

[Below: The Wartburg Hall, edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Today, we associate Thuringia with its two historic university towns, Erfurt and Jena. We must construe from these Second Act sets, that in Landgraf Hermann’s day, Thuringia must have been an intellectual center affected by the Italian Renaissance, and closely identified with the latest in Venetian and Florentine fashion and architectural styles.

We may also infer that with this elegance comes the expectation of a social conformity. The Wartburg Hall is structured, its ceremonies (down to processions and presentation of the guild banners) are formal, and the standards of conduct strictly observed.

[Below: The Landgrave (Reinhard Hagen) presides over the Minnesinger’s song contest; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

It is a polity, like so many of the German and Swiss towns of the sixteenth century, where the community leaders (be they Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist or Anabaptist) have a very specific idea of one’s responsibilities to the community and the boundaries of acceptable behavior, including sexual behavior.

All of the Minnesingers, save Tannhäuser, approve of Walter von der Vogelweide’s very strong view of the necessity of chastity as a component of a truly significant expression of love (and are quite prepared to vociferously express their shock at Tannhäuser’s expression of a contrary opinion).

One recalls from previous discussions on this website, that Judge’s “Tannhäuser” in Los Angeles centered on the Wartburg’s community’s aversion to sexual expression. Vick’s “Tannhäuser” in San Francisco, I have argued, found in the Wartburg a community whose passion was channeled through religious zeal. With these insights, one is able to pick up other clues that Wagner provided us to the Wartburg way of thinking.

One of the most interesting is a hint of a slight disdain on the part of the Landgraf towards the pilgrims, whom he states have embarked on their pilgrimage for supposed sins that he regards as too small for such an extreme gesture. So we have another group – the pilgrims – whose behavior does not conform to the Landgraf’s expectations of proper conduct. (The only person whom he seems to believe has sinned enough to warrant a pilgrimage is Tannhäuser, and so it is off to Rome for this true sinner.)

The Act I second scene (the wayside cross) reappears as the principal set for Act III. Stage Director Hampe has Elizabeth search through each of the groups of pilgrims, looking at their faces, to determine if Tannhäuser is among them. Nylund then, at the wayside cross, delivers Elizabeth’s prayer to the Virgin affectingly, and (explicitly following Wagner’s stage direction) walks up a hill towards the place where she will die.

[Below: Elizabeth (Camilla Nylund) prays to the Virgin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Braun, whose baritone voice itself has a very interesting texture (including a nicely focused vibrato that enriches the sound), delivered the opera’s most famous aria, O du mein holder Abendstern. This was a memorable evening for this son of a famous Wolfram of the past generation.

[Below: Edited image of, left to right, Robert Gambill (Tannhäuser) and Russell Braun (Wolfram),  based on Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Tannhäuser returns, and relates to Wolfram his failure to obtain the Pope’s forgiveness. In despair (but with Gambill singing much more securely than in parts of the first act), Tannhäuser gives up on the ideas of atonement and redemption. Then, both the Venusberg and Wayside Cross scenes merge together. Wolfram and the cross are there in the Venusberg with Tannhäuser and Venus, so when Wolfram cries out the information that Elizabeth has saved him, and the Venusberg disappears, the effect is magical.

The opera ends with Elizabeth’s funeral procession, the appearance of pilgrims with the sign of Tannhäuser’s redemption, and a standing ovation from the San Diego audience.

(Those attending this production should note how different the Act II set, that represents established order and social conformity, is from the other two sets, that represent the natural and supernatural worlds and the worlds of emotion and non-conformist behavior. That the sets for the Venusberg and the pilgrim’s crossing can be merged into a single scene is yet another revelation experienced in this 12 month period of California doing “Tannhäuser”.)

This was the first of four performances of “Tannhäuser” in San Diego. This production, based on one of the Met’s treasures of recent decades, surely now should become a national treasure as well, accessible to other regional companies desiring to perform this opera as Wagner intended.

For a review of San Francisco Opera’s recent new production of the opera, see: Charismatic S. F. “Tannhäuser” – October 12, 2007

For a review of Los Angeles Opera’s recent new production of the opera, see: Powerful, Edgy “Tannhäuser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007

1 thought on “Review: Wagner Knows Best – Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhäuser” Sticks to the Story, January 26, 2008”

  1. Dear William!

    Many thanks for you kind remarks. It’s nice to see a return to the composer’s original intent can still be appreciated. We have such an opportunity to go high tech on stage today. There is hardly an intent of Wagner that cannot be effectively done on stage. Wagner when honestly produced, can be a bloody good show.

    James Mulder

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