Tannhäuser at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Tannhaeuser-2013* Notes * 
The current production of the Bayreuther Festspiele's Tannhäuser is unsatisfying. Sebastian Baumgarten directed a busy and tedious staging, relying on lots of projected text. There were also giant stuffed animal-like rays, menacing ape people, and assorted funny characters. The set, with its multiple levels, could have been used much more cunningly, but instead blocked the back projections. All of the singers showed a deep commitment to the direction, but the many unconnected ideas never cohered. The action did not go with the music in any way, and in the end, the spectator was left bored.

The orchestra was lead by Axel Kober, whose tempi were measured. Although not bad, the playing lacked sensuousness. On the other hand, the chorus sounded great. The most formidable part of the evening was certainly the end, where the set was put to best effect with chorus members on different stories. The volume alone was quite impressive.

Singing was the redeeming factor in the performance on Tuesday night. Katja Stuber (Ein junger Hirt) was exacting in her choreography as some sort of drunken hoodlum, and yet sounded brilliant and unreal. Günther Groissböck was a commanding Landgraf Hermann, his voice has a lovely richness. Michelle Breedt may not have been the most alluring Venus, but sang with power.

Camilla Nylund (Elisabeth) was occasionally shrill, though has a certain vulnerable quality that is appealing. Michael Nagy did a beautiful job with Wolfram von Eschenbach. His "O du, mein holder Abendstern" was exquisite, he sang with sensitivity and warmth. Torsten Kerl was fine in the title role, never pushing his voice too hard, yet always audible.

* Tattling *
Someone tried clapping after the overture and one could feel the disapproval of the other audience members. A grey-haired woman next to me (Row 20 Seat 27 on the right side of the theater) collapsed on me during Act I. I was afraid she was having a seizure, but she had simply fainted from the stuffy heat, and recovered in a few minutes.

Before Act III there was some sort of mass acted on stage, and when some of the audience clapped at the end of this, others booed to express their contrary opinion of the production. Likewise, there was a segment of the audience that was vocal in ridiculing the staging at final ovation, and I was surprised to hear my companion join in, as I have never heard him boo before.

Tannhäuser at Unter den Linden

Tannhaeusersoudl* Notes *
Yesterday Tannhäuser had its final performance this season at Staatsoper Unter den Linden. To my great surprise, Harry Kupfer's production was fairly simple and worked well. The lines were clean and Buki Shiff's costumes for the principals were inoffensive, and some of her evening gowns for the chorus were stunning. This is consistent with her work in the David Alden production of Rodelinda in Munich and San Francisco. There was a particular red number with one feathered sleeve that was fetching. The staging was amusing, the bacchanalia ballet was conducted on top of an over-sized white piano. The nude dancers were painted white in most cases, but one was also gold, and for the most part they just held various modern dance poses. The piano reappeared in a black guise for Act II, and the hall was not unlike an opera house. Part of the staging had a supernumerary arriving late and trying to find her seat, which she had great difficulty with, naturally. Another recurrent theme was having Tannhäuser supine on ground, which was where he started the opera and where he was found by the hunting party. Best of all, he threw himself into this position before the Pope after singing "Nach Rom!" at the end of Act II.

Musically there were a few rough starts, the hunting horns at the end of Act I Scene 3 were clearly flat at times and Anne Schwanewilms (Elisabeth) was not great in her first aria, "Dich, teure Halle." For the most part the orchestra sounded good, Philippe Jordan kept the musicians together and reigned them in so that the singers were never completely overwhelmed. Soprano Schwanewilms sounded quite beautiful after she was warmed up, she only cracked slightly on the word auch when she protected Tannhäuser after the song contest. Michaela Schuster sang well as Venus, her dark tones in fine contrast with Schwanewilms' brilliance. Robert Dean Smith was convincing as Tannhäuser, his pretty voice did sound heroic and tragic when necessary. He was a bit quiet, though not as weak as Roman Trekel (Wolfram). Trekel lacked resonance and volume, and his "O du, mein holder Abendstern" was the only moment in the opera that was truly disappointing. Nonetheless, this performance was the best I have witnessed at the Staatsoper in Berlin, the end was absolutely transcendent.

* Tattling *
There was a small fire somewhere in the opera house during Act II Scene 3 and one could smell the smoke in the third tier. As the Landgraf and Elisabeth sang, the audience stood up and some people started to exit. The singers looked rather confused, and someone came out to explain that the fire had been extinguished and that there was no danger. Then we stood around for a bit, and someone else came out and said we would take a 15 minute intermission to wait for the smoke to clear.

Someone on the left side of the third tier was wearing a watch with an alarm on the hour, which I heard at least three times. Additionally, somehow I sat amidst a school group from Majorca, pianists from the ages of 12-20. They did not understand German terribly well, and the three on the right of center made us get up about 10 times during the intermissions so that they could get from one side of the theater to another. These children had to be hushed multiple times, which they found entertaining. However, they did quiet down, and whispered instead of speaking aloud. They also took a half dozen flash photographs during the performance. I believe they will also be at the performance of Don Giovanni tonight.

Meeting Venus Talk at WSNC

Encuentroconvenus* Notes *
Last weekend the Wagner Society of Northern California had its first meeting of the year, featuring a talk by Professor Heather Hadlock based on a paper entitled
"From 'beloved hall' to Evening Star: The televisual apotheosis of the diva in István Szabó's film Meeting Venus (1991)." Dr. Hadlock presented the paper last year at Columbia University's "Technologies of the Diva" conference. The darkly comic film involves a production of Tannhäuser at the fictional Opera Europa in Paris that is to be televised in a simulcast. Szabó in fact directed Tannhäuser for Opera de Paris in 1982, apparently it did not go well.

In her talk, Hadlock differentiated the prima donna from the diva and discussed the progression of the diva in this particular film from self-absorbed egotist to self-sacrificing savior. While Hadlock clearly finds Meeting Venus fascinating, she also noted that it is an artistic failure, as there are too many story lines that become somewhat incoherent. Since the film deals with a telecast, she also spoke about the Met Opera - Live in HD simulcasts, and how the general audience seems more interested in the behind the scenes parts than the actual operas themselves.

* Tattling *
It is the first WSNC event I have attended since the Tristan und Isolde symposium in 2006, so the board members spoke to me a good deal as a welcoming gesture. I was asked if I was a singer and if I liked Wagner, it was quite charming.

Dr. Thomas Grey was to discuss the music of Tannhäuser, the differences between the Dresden and Paris versions, and Wagner’s external artistic influences. Unfortunately, he could not make it, but will speak at the symposium on Das Rheingold in June.

Tannhäuser Opening at SF Opera

Petra Maria Schnitzer, photo by Terrence McCarthy* Notes *
Graham Vick's production of Tannhäuser opened at San Francisco Opera yesterday. Designed by Paul Brown, this co-production with Dallas Opera strikes an elusive balance, it is neither cloyingly traditional nor starkly contemporary. The bacchanalia is one of the weaker points, Ron Howell's choreography here looks to be inspired by Graham and West African dance, but somehow is vulgar, more so than same scene in the recent
Los Angeles Opera offering earlier this year. However, the rest of the choreography is solid and works well with the lighting, designed by Adam Silverman. The entrance of the men's chorus in Act I was particularly beautiful with the light streaming in through the windows one side and the singers emerging from the glow. The pacing of the staging was excellent, there was enough action but it was not superfluous.

Runnicles conducted well, the orchestra was together and the tempi were brisk. I was quite worried that Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser) and his vibrato would annoy me all evening, but he sounded better in this space. Perhaps the Dorothy Chandler is less forgiving, but Seiffert sounded warmer than I remembered, though he did wobble a great deal. Petra Lang was not the most alluring Venus, her shrill voice and her unflattering bed sheet costume were both less than ideal. I had liked hearing James Rutherford at Opera in the Park, but as Wolfram I found his voice lacks heft. On the other hand, Ji Young Yang sounded just as bright as the Shepherd as she had in Golden Gate Park. Her control is imperfect, at times she shrieked a bit. Petra Maria Schnitzer was good, she seemed better matched in this production than in Los Angeles, her voice did not stand out quite as much.

* Tattling *
The San Francisco audience for Wagner tends to be rather quiet, though I did hear, albeit very faintly, a watch alarm. I commend the audience for not applauding for the horse with the hunting party. Such restraint! In standing room man inserted himself next to my companion and the person to her left, he interrupted our conversation to mention the "X-rated" production in Los Angeles. He repeatedly rubbed his arm during the performance and muttered a few times, but this was pretty minor as I could not discern what he was saying. He probably found a seat after Act I, for we did not see him after the first intermission.

Tannhäuser at LA Opera

Tannhaeuser* Notes *
A few weeks before I was to catch the last performance of Tannhäuser in Los Angeles, I received an alarming postcard from the opera warning that viewer discretion was advised as there was nudity, sexual content, and strong language in the production. The bacchanalia was explicit, though watching scrawny ballet dancers prance about in lingerie was not particularly titillating. It was surprising how nonchalant the audience was about the simulated sex scenes in an opera, but they were warned and it did fit the plot. Certainly it was more in keeping with the spirit of the opera than the boring Robert Wilson Parsifal in 2005.

Speaking of boring, the first act was awfully long and not much happened, but it did pick up and I ended up liking the opera over all. The singing competition in Act II was not unlike Die Meistersinger, which I adore, though the end of the act was a bit odd, at least musically. It seemed superfluous, especially when Tannhäuser sings "Nach Rom!" and everyone joins in with another "Nach Rom!" The choral parts in the last act were amazing though.

The orchestra was not together, even under James Conlon, the music director of the Los Angeles Opera. In the title role was Peter Seiffert, who had an annoying amount of vibrato. Lioba Braun was a shrill Venus, which was rather inappropriate. Thankfully, Petra Maria Schnitzer sang well as Elizabeth. She had good volume, enough vibrato but not too much, and good diction. The audience liked Martin Gantner very much, his baritone is pleasing. I believe I last heard him as Guglielmo in Così at the Bavarian State Opera in 2003, and I remember liking his voice then as well.

Gottfried Pilz's set and costumes had a lot of clean lines. I did like how the set turned, which made the scene changes simple. The set remains for all three acts, so in a way it's a bit heavy-handed, the scenes for sacred and profane love are the more or less the same, but with different colors. The thing that irked me most was the neon lighting. Maybe at Venusberg it was fine, but at Wartsburg?

* Tattling *
People were pretty well-behaved, there was some chatter, but it was minor. Mostly they seemed bored, perhaps they were expecting something more exciting since their discretion was advised.