Musicality soars free of muddle

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Regime change in the world of opera is never swift or painless, but need it always look that way? Twenty months after Pamela Rosenberg handed over the direction of the San Francisco Opera to David Gockley, his ongoing campaign for “traditional” productions – meaning, one presumes, productions that reject the often challenging approaches to Regietheater favoured by his predecessor – has at last borne fruit with a representation of Wagner’s 1845 opera that proclaims its importance with all the insistence of a manifesto.

Unfortunately, the production, which introduces the British team of Graham Vick and Paul Brown to this company, both abjures traditional staging and emerges more muddle-headed than anything wrought by Rosenberg during her five-year tenure. Medieval Thuringia has metamorphosed into a grey mid-19th century room with earthen floor and multiple doors and windows. When the white-clad dancers cavort in the first act Venusberg, we might be in a deluxe spa. When the set serves for the song contest in the Wartburg, one feels trapped in a crowded provincial railway station. The third act suggests cataclysmic devastation.

At least, Vick sees the essential conflict here between Tannhäuser’s quest for savouring life in both its carnal and spiritual aspects and conventional society’s refusal to acknowledge worldly desire. We know where the director’s sympathies reside.

But Vick sprinkles symbols over Wagner’s moral scheme like a pâtissier decorating a birthday cake. He introduces a tree that blooms in the Venusberg and gradually withers to a blasted stump. He litters the stage with harps in various stages of disrepair. He periodically ignites fires to symbolise raging passion. From Asian theatre, he appropriates black-clad attendants who escort the principals to their fate. And he never flinches from deploying children to suggest innocence; the tots squirm from the floor like earthworms in the final moments.

The result is an indigestible stew of a production, intellectualised down to the final semiquaver. It either deprives us of the opera’s great moments or mitigates their impact. Pilgrims don’t wend their way to Rome; they enter through one set of windows and depart through another, their bare torsos inscribed with their sins. Elisabeth’s glorious apostrophe to the Hall of Song finds her struggling with a pair of doors. Tannhäuser hails Venus and the stage is littered with bodies that roll, creep and crawl.

The extended Venusberg scene of the Paris version yields Ron Howell’s choreography during which backs are arched, arms are rotated and nipples are nuzzled. Has ever a bacchanal looked so exhausting? Has ever a Venus seemed quite as unalluring as Petra Lang’s spiky-haired temptress, extolling a life of sensuality, while encumbered by a bath towel to which she clings for dear life?

Happily, Gockley has proved more astute in his musical judgment. Amid the proliferation of company debuts, Peter Seiffert’s Tannhäuser assumed pride of place. As much minstrel as knight, the German tenor dispatched the assignment with uncommon stamina, clarion tone and admirable authority, while underlining the character’s primal conflicts with heartrending urgency, notably in the “Rome Narration”. The bowing Austrian soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer invested Elisabeth with radiant tone, floated an exquisite pianissimo, phrased masterfully and conveyed vulnerability without a hint of priggishness.

Lang’s mezzo-soprano registers indifferently in this house. The lower register lacks support, the top is bright and focused; a hectoring quality substitutes for the wonted voluptuousness, admittedly a difficult state to invoke when the singer is clambering through a window. The English baritone James Rutherford brought a virile instrument to Wolfram von Eschenbach, but the role demands a lyrical line and poetic introspection that this artist does not yet muster. Among the knights, the tenor Stefan Margita’s ardent Vogelweide stood out. Eric Halfvarson’s rolling bass served the Landgraf nobly. Ji Young Yang piped prettily as the shepherd, complemented by an exquisite English horn contribution.

Ironically, the company’s traditional strengths prevailed. Two decades under Ian Robertson’s stewardship have transformed the S.F. Opera Chorus into a shining asset. In the pit, the music director Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials were vouchsafed long ago, outdid himself. In the past 15 years the orchestra has become an instrument of the Scots conductor’s will, but never before has the impulse seemed as organic as here. Runnicles shaped the score with an unswerving sense of its grandeur and an unerring ear for the telling detail. To cite the concertato that concludes the second act is merely to mention one of several eloquent moments in this performance. One noted a newly acquired repose, a disdaining of effect, an amplitude that serves San Francisco exceptionally well.

But not for much longer. Runnicles’ contract has not been renewed beyond 2009. The opera world moves in mysterious ways.
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