Thursday, September 20, 2007

Temptations at the Opera

SFO's Tannhäuser

The British director Graham Vick made his belated SFO debut last night in a new staging of Wagner's Tannhäuser, the first new production undertaken under Gockley's regime. While there was much to recommend about the performance, the overall feeling about this production is one of disappointment.

In case you weren't aware, a common trend in Graham Vick's stagework is that he tends to favor more-or-less conventional-looking sets, costuming, etc., while pairing it up with staging that is heavily laden with the sort of edgy symbolism and psychobabble that is so fertile in European productions. This approach has been successful for the British director in the past, who has signed-off on some of the most commented productions in Britain and the rest of Europe. I can attest first-hand that I had the privilege of seeing his memorable Meistersinger staging at the Royal Opera House back in 2002, and it remains to this day one of my favorite operatic experiences.

At the SF Opera Tuesday night, we could be thankful to Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer for some fine singing, as well as other strong performances from the supporting cast. But what we saw on stage was a production running desperately short of really strong and unified ideas, serving up instead a string of scattered gimmicks, executed with varying degrees of success.

The Venusberg cave and the great Wartburg Hall become one, in a uni-set that reminded me of a bath house at a German spa I once visited. Were it not so plain and uninteresting to stare at for four hours, the idea is conceptually interesting, and in anycase does away with the bothersome spectacular theatrics required by the scene change that should occur at Tannhäuser's invocation of the Virgin Mary. And perhaps to make up for the lack of spectacle, a large ring of fire -- real fire -- encircling Venus and Tannhäuser stays tediously lit for an eternity and the better part of act I, making the carbon footprint of this production simply unacceptable for the artistic value it delivers.

The production's costumes were equally uninspiring: not exactly medieval period but non-descript enough as to not offend those who would complain about an outright contemporary updating. Most pilgrims wore ragged clothing, which is worked well, but he also had some "super-pilgrims," clad in all black, making enigmatic assorted appearances at Venusberg. The women during the song contest looked like an entire choir of Our Ladies of Fatimas.

Our Lady of Fatima

And an amateurish calligraphic mistake was made in the drop curtain with the word "Tannhäuser" printed as in a archaic storybook title page: the lower-case letter "s" lacked the distinctive mid-stroke displacement found in the Germanic Fraktur style type.

lowercase "s" has no mid-stroke displacement: looks like a curve on the freeway

"s" with proper mid-stroke displacement

Of course, these minor displacements violations are dwarfed by Vick's shamelessly provocative disregard of Wagner's several specific instructions (written into the score), when Vick has Wolfram choke Elisabeth to death on stage, after she finishes the gorgeous "Almacht'ge Jungfrau." Wagner specifically asks for Elisabeth to exit, because he knew that by ommitting the act of her death onstage, he would afford the listener contemplative space, and allow the heightened lyricism of that moment to shine. Vick's stunt is merely designed to provoke public commentary, coming at the expense of disrupting the splendid flow of the work during the opera's superb Act III.

So whether it is perceived as radical, foolish, or both, this Tannhäuser is perfectly suited to the stealth undertones of the SF Opera's current administration: bring in a few established singers, don't make any outlandish updatings, and David Gockley can have his cake and eat it too. One can only imagine what sort of abuse and ridicule Pam Rosenberg would have had to endure, if she had presented this very same production with minstrels dressed up in trenchcoats and fedoras.

© 2007 C. Chang

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tannhäuser and Senator Larry Craig

Stets soll nur dir mein Lied ertönen

One only needs to look at the tale of Larry Craig to be reminded of how very current are the themes examined in Tannhäuser.

Venusberg at MSP

The men's room at MSP might as well stand-in for Senator Craig's Venusberg, while the Wartburg great hall of song, of course, takes place on the floor U.S. Congress. This is not so farfetched, after all Craig was an original member of the Singing Senators, along with John Ashcroft and Trent Lott.

First he is guilty, and then he is not. He is going to resign and then he doesn't want to. He sings of virtue on the great halls of congress, but on the way back to Idaho, he is constantly tempted to stop by his own private Venusberg.

The only thing missing in Craig's tale is a self-sacrificing Elisabeth (his current wife doesn't count -- by now, she is part of the problem), which is why he painted himself into a corner with no way out.

"Man goes constantly in fear of himself. His erotic urges terrify him", wrote Georges Bataille, an early 20th Century French priest and sociologist, who renounced his faith so that he could partake more freely of the offerings at Parisian whorehouses, without feeling like a hypocrite. Perhaps Larry should be reading more Bataille now, as the senator's salvation is more likely to come from Bataille than the Bible.

© 2007 C. Chang

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