L.A.Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through March 18, 2007
For various reasons, not relevant here, a Wagner opera is approached by some with a certain degree of dread; will the music be too Wagnerian? Will the theme be unclear? And what about those horned Valkyries flying on winged horses through the fires of hell? All dread is dropped as the lights go up on a red-coated troubadour, the eponymous Tannhauser (a heroically built Peter Seiffert) as he is being tempted by Venus (Lioba Braun), a fiery mezzo-soprano in a scarlet ball gown, to return to the scene of their mutual revels - a red on red organic slumber party in the Mountain of Venus, the naughty Goddess' pleasure abode. Mark Doubleday's soft red lighting imparts a feeling of hell, but a supremely seductive hell full of exquisitely beautiful people, where everything goes, and goes on, and comes off, between Venus's acolytes and their male on female, male on male, female on female, everyone on everyone sex partners. This is what real love is about, Venus tells Tannhauser; stay here with us and you'll be happy forever.
Wagner's beautiful, and familiar Overture and Venusberg Music erotically set the sensual tone of the opera under James Conlon's sensitive baton. But alas, for all its pleasures, the troubled knight is weary of the revels and calls on the Virgin Mary to release him back to the real world where pain is the penance one must pay for enjoying the sins of the flesh. Thus he leaves, and we also have to, one of the best orgies ever seen in an opera.
Back on earth, our hero is joyfully, but only spiritually, reunited with Elisabeth (the exquisitely played and superbly-voiced Petra Maria Schnitzer), whose purity represents sacred love, as opposed to the profane, which is not as much fun, but is better for the soul. In a glorious black and white scene (exquisitely dressed by Set and Costume Designer Gottfried Pilz), where the best song will win the hand of the fair Elisabeth, Tannhauser, still glowing from his sojourn with Venus, dominates with his worldly lyrics about carnal love, which shock the religious elders and the pure maidens into demanding that he go on a pilgrimage to Rome as penance for his wrongdoing. An opera, especially one of Wagner's, is not over until the main characters die for their sins, hopefully in a state of grace. Tannhauser, having really taken a massive fall, fails to get the Pope's blessing, until Elisabeth forfeits her immortal soul for his iniquity.
An excess of religiosity sits unevenly on the libretto (Wagner's own), possibly giving an unwonted precedence to the music, which is gracefully ambient and colorful, and gloriously realized by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under the accomplished hands of their new musical director (Conlon). The lyrics, which are almost purely narrative don't, for the most part, get the same intricate attention that is paid to the music. As the lead vocalist, Seiffert's voice begins shakily; he doesn't reach the heldentenor level he needs to until his final aria just before dying. Wolfram's (baritone Martin Gantner) "Ode to an Evening Star" in the final act is an operatic standout. As Landgrave Hermann (Elisabeth's uncle), Franz Josef Selig is a solid asset, as are Rodrick Dixon, Robert MacNeil, Jason Stearns and Reinmar Von Zweter as townsfolk and singing rivals for Elisabeth's hand. A huge chorus does yeoman work under Ian Judge's imaginative direction, with picturesque and colorful scene setting by Pilz and lighting designer Mark Doubleday. The four-hour playing time flies by, setting to rest those worries some of us were almost afraid to voice.
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Composer: Richard Wagner
Libretto: Richard Wagner
Conductor: William Conlon
Director: Ian Judge
Set/Costume Design: Gottfried Pilz
Lighting Design: Mark Doubleday
Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster: Stuart Canin
Los Angeles Opera Chorus Master: William Vendice
Tannhauser: Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth: Petra Maria Schnitzer
Venus: Lioba Braun
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Martin Gantner
Landgrave Hermann; Franz Josef Selig
Walther von der Vogelweide: Rodrick Dixon
Heinrich der Schreiber: Robert MacNeil
Biterolf: Jason Stearns
Reinmar von Zweter: Christopher Feigum
A Shepherd: Isaac Calvin
Voice of the Shepherd: Karen Vuong
Four Noble Pages: Leslie Denis