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Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
16 Oct 2007

San Francisco stages triumphant Tannhäuser

At this point in his career David Gockley has no need to prove himself. He did that with awesome success as general director of Houston Grand Opera for 33 years, during which he made that company a front runner both on the American and international opera scenes.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser
San Francisco Opera

Above: Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera


In Houston he set a record for world and American premieres and built a house - with both a 1000- and 2000-seat theater that bespeaks the commitment of that oil-rich town to the arts. Indeed, Gockley is the man who made opera grand in Houston and made the HGO a way of life in the city.

And when Pamela Rosenberg departed from the San Francisco Opera after six rather unfortunate seasons, it was widely agreed that Gockley was the only person who could put the company together again and restore it to the position of prominence that it had had for well over half a century. Gockley arrived as SFO general director just before the opening of the 2006-2007 season and during that year he was largely the executor of plans made and laid by Rosenberg. Thus it is in with the season that opened in September that Gockley’s presence is now clearly felt in the Bay Area, and it is clear that he is doing even more than might reasonably have expected of him in so short a time.

Gockley set out to make his mark with two productions: the world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” and Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser, which opened on September 18 as his first all-new staging at the SFO. And in choosing “Tannhäuser” as his signature piece, he has gained the respect not only of his community, but of the larger opera world as well.

In an essay in the program book for the staging Gockley says that he chose Wagner’s “Italianate” work to “make a statement on how a company views itself and what it thinks opera ultimately is,” stressing further the necessity “to keep moving into the future just as we are rooted in tradition.” Thus the new “Tannhäuser” is more than just one more “go” at the opera; the production is something of a lab experiment that lets the public in on what Gockley has in mind for the SFO. And there is hardly another work in the established repertory that presents the challenge that Gockley sought - and found - in Wagner’s early and often revised work.

Despite those who would yoke the composer to his own 19th-century Bayreuth stagings, it was Wagner who commanded: “Kinder, macht Neues!” - “Do something new, guys!” That Gockley had those words in mind is obvious from the fact that 13 of 17 members of the cast made SFO debuts in this “Tannhäuser,” and the same is true of five of the production staff - including at the top director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown.

Vick, Brown’s frequent co-worker in Europe, speaks of the opera as a mix of “site-specific Romanticism and open-ended symbolism,” a combination that sparks the creative imagination. The two men see no need to move visually out of the Middle Ages, as was rather cutely done in last season’s “Tannhäuser” at the Los Angeles Opera, where as the eponymous hero Peter Seiffert cast his mini-harp aside and - clad in black tie and tales - sat down at an on-stage Steinway to belt out his song of sensuous love.

That’s doesn’t make academic medievalists of Vick and Brown, for as the director explains, his mission was to define the point at which “the content of the opera interacts with the world today” in his quest for “a wilder, more mythic view.” And they found this by focusing upon the troubled man that Tannhäuser is. Or as Vick puts it: “Tannhäuser’s problem is Tannhäuser.” Thus the knightly minstrel is not torn between the sexual excesses of life on the Venusberg and a calmer existence with virginal Elisabeth; he is rather the helpless victim of conflicting desires raging within him.

Once the director opens the listener’s eye to this view, it is hardly surprising to realize that Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, those early explorers of the psyche, were born - respectively - in 1856 and 1875, well before Wagner composed “Parsifal,” his last work, and then died in 1882. Vick thus takes Tannhäuser on a turbulent stream-of-consciousness journey that brings unusual fascination to the opera.

“It’s the story of the married man who has left his wife and gone to live with the other woman,” says Vick. “But he can’t settle down with his mistress, so he returns to his wife, only to discover that he can’t live with her either. “He loses out on all fronts and has a nervous breakdown.” Thus Tannhäuser is not lured to destruction by woman, but by his own desire; he is struggling to find fulfillment and integration of his own personal life.

Even at the penultimate performance of the season on October 7, the production was of exuberant freshness. Peter Seiffert sang as if 20 years younger than he was in Los Angeles a year ago, and Petra Maria Schnitzer, the Los Angeles Elisabeth, gave an inspired performance of her “Prayer” aria. Petra Lang was an appropriately seductive Venus. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson seemed rejuvenated as the Landgraf. The show-stealer, however, was youthful James Rutherford as Wolfram; his “Evening Star” will long shine in the memory. And Czech Stefan Margita — Walther — is clearly a tenor worth watching. Ian Robertson, long chorus master at the SFO, had his ensemble gloriously well prepared for both the arrival of the guests and “Pilgrims’” Chorus.

In Donald Runnicles the SFO has for 15 years had the services of one of the top Wagnerian conductors of the day. Runnicles opted for the Paris version of the score with its expanded ballet, which was choreographed by Ron Howell. While in this scene others today titillate the ageing opera audience with a bit of soft porn, Howell took “Bacchanal” at face value and unleashed his dancers upon the stage in a true state of Dionysian frenzy. It might not be ballet, but Howell’s concept was totally in keeping with Vick’s approach to the story. Completing the cast, by the way, was Alloy, a white quarter horse, who — handled by his owner Gary Sello — behaved impeccably on stage.

This “Tannhäuser” leaves no doubt about it: the San Francisco Opera and David Gockley has both made correct choices!

Wes Blomster

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