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Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & James Rutherford (Wolfram von Eschinbach). Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera.
19 Sep 2007

Music Triumphs in S.F. Tannhauser

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 “Tannhauser” that opened tonight:

Richard Wagner: Tannhauser

Above: Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & James Rutherford (Wolfram von Eschinbach)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera.


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.

Tannhauser_SFO_2.pngPetra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & Eric Halfvarson (Landgraf Hermann)

There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four-hour performance that unfortunately opens 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 sangthe 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.

Tannhauser_SFO_3.pngPetra Lang (Venus) and Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)

Stage directors have forever tried to “improve” on Elisabeth’s quiet, offstage death as she is sacrificing her life for Tannhauser’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, Damm’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.

Janos Gereben © 2007

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