Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tannhäuser at The San Francisco Opera

Last Wednesday I was at the San Francisco Opera to hear the new production of Tannhäuser. I was very happy with the the performance musically. I would have much preferred to hear Runnicles in the pit, but still I thought the orchestra played expressively under Donato Cabrera. I hope it was because they were well-rehearsed by Runnicles. The opera orchestra sounds great these days: Uniform playing within sections & beautiful solos, from the flute, violin & clarinet in particular. I never realized that there is such an extensive bass clarinet part. It reminded me of the prominent use of the instrument in Die Walküre.

The cast was uniformly good. Petra Lang as Venus & Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elizabeth were both excellent singer/actors. I liked Petra Lang's earthy Venus. I also liked Eric Halfvarson's weighty & sonorous Landgraf. He got to make his entrance riding a real horse & seemed very pleased with his horsemanship! Peter Seiffert did a fantastic job in the punishing title role. After the lengthy 1st scene with Venus I was already wondering if he would be able to hold out for the whole opera, but I needn't have worried. If anything, he sounded even stronger in the 3rd act Rome Narrative.

I'm not sure who it was exactly, but one of the tenors in the Landgraf's court had this very clear, bright voice that cut through even the big ensembles numbers. I think it was Stefan Margita. Whoever he was, I hope I get to hear him again in a bigger role.

This is a new production directed by Graham Vick. The moment the stage was revealed, I knew we were in for another Eurotrash production. The entire action takes place in a large barn-like, fully enclosed space with a dirt floor & a barren tree stage right. Plenty of wacky shenanigans, often in direct opposition to the action of the opera. For example the famous entry of the guests chorus in act II doesn't accompany the chorus actually entering. The chorus fills the stage during the orchestral introduction, then they start singing with everyone standing still on stage. In the 3rd act, in a shocking departure from the text, Wolfram strangles Elizabeth then sings the Abendstern song over her dead body. I pity someone coming to this opera for the first time & trying to make sense of it. These sorts productions I think only work, if they work at all, for audiences that are over-familiar with the opera in question.

If I had to assess the production, I'd say that it was a series of dream images or hallucinations about an internal struggle between one's higher & lower instincts. But I might be giving the staging more credit than it is due. The local bloggers have already thoroughly ridiculed it:

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