Conductor Donald Runnicles
Production: Paul Brown
Venus Petra Lang
Tannhäuser Peter Seiffert
Landgraf Hermann Eric Halfvarson
Walther von der Vogelweide Stefan Margita
Wolfram von Eschinbach: James Rutherford
Elisabeth Petra Maria Schnitzer
I went to see Tannhäuser at the San Francisco Opera yesterday afternoon. I sat in the front row of the balcony right by one of the new projection screens that hang down from the ceiling up there. I found that I looked at it and ignored the stage far below. I am pondering if this is a good thing. It was quite nice to watch the conductor during the overture.
I think it is primarily the religious kitsch that has always bothered me about Wagner. My favorites have always been Walküre and Meistersinger--one is myth and the other isn't religious at all. The kitschiest by far are Tannhäuser and Parsifal. I guess I have grown up enough to laugh at a world view that includes both the virgin Mary and the goddess Venus.
Tannhäuser, or Heinrich as he is called here, has achieved the ultimate fantasy and is having an affair with the goddess Venus. All this endless love making is starting to get on his nerves, and he wants to go back to his ordinary life.
Both of his women, Venus and Elisabeth, like him for his singing. k d lang once said that she became a singer because it was a great way to get laid. This may explain why the devoted Elisabeth, beautifully sung by Petra Maria Schnitzer, ignores the available Wolfram for the better singer Heinrich.
Wagner was an intuitive dramatist who recognized when the story required a musical gesture. He provides a beautiful male chorus for the returning penitents. The most beautiful musical gesture comes when Elisabeth has died (in this production she is strangled by Wolfram after she begs him to kill her) and Wolfram sings the beautiful aria "O du mein holder Abendstern," sung magnificently here by James Rutherford. He knew where to put an aria and he knew how to write one. "Evening star, greet an angel who now passes by." It is one of the great moments in opera.
I'm not sure Heinrich is worth saving, but the saintly Elisabeth intercedes on high, and he is saved. Perhaps God also likes a good singer.
The production was also filled with theatrical gestures. The single set is a large room (box set) with large windows along both sides and a dirt floor with a tree growing in the middle. The first theatrical gesture came when Heinrich, Peter Seiffert, first tells Venus, Petra Lang, he wishes to leave her. They are immediately surrounded by a ring of fire.
My problems with religious kitsch and the woman as angel/whore plot were very successfully overcome by the wonderful and restrained conducting of Donald Runnicles and the uniformly high quality of the singing. It was a treat.