So I saw Tannhäuser at the opera last night.
You may not believe this, but before Saturday I'd never heard the damn thing from beginning to end. I don't own a recording, and it was last performed in San Francisco just before I went back to regular opera attendence. I know it only at the bleeding-chunks level, that is, the overture, hymn to love, hymn to the evening star, Elisabeth's greeting to the hall of song. I'm sure I've heard her prayer and his Rome narrative, but not often enough to remember them.
Stupidest. Plot. Ever. Elisabeth: drippiest female character in an array of drippy Wagner women. It's very hard to have any sympathy at all for her. And you know that all the knights are only pissed at Tannhäuser because he got it on with the Goddess of Love and they didn't. Elisabeth is right to try to get him off the hook: he has surely learned a few good moves from the Goddess.
Also, we're burdened with what must be the stupidest production ever, well, maybe not, but good grief. If you have to launch the opera with a ballet, for God's sake don't have the dancers doing the hokey-pokey and bad 1980s aerobics-class routines. Don't have Wolfram breaking Elisabeth's neck after her prayer. We understand that the Bacchanal has something to do with sex, but you don't have to make it explicit. At least give Venus and Tannhäuser a BED if you must. Do you want to leave her back abraded??
Don't have half-naked children crawling out of the dirt you've strewn all over the stage. Don't put a full-sized concert harp on stage and then never have anyone play it. Don't crush someone under the harp, and if you do, don't have him revived by being passed through the trunk of a tree. Don't embarrass the Goddess of Love by making her dress in a towel, and do not have her open the towel so she can flash Tannhäuser (but not us).* Don't trap Venus and Tannhäuser inside a ring of fire for 15 minutes, leaving the audience worried that they're about to see a fine singer burnt to a crisp. We really do get that they have the hots for each other without the visual prompt. Don't put a tree on stage and then have it deteriorate in each act - what do you think it is, the World Ash? Wrong damn Wagner opera! And what's a tree doing in the Hall of Song anyway?
Don't have the Landgraf enter on a horse. Alloy is a beauty, but mostly a distraction, with everyone in the audience - and on stage - hoping his feeding schedule was properly arranged. Don't put the singers on the ground unless they're dead or dying. Don't decorate the pilgrims with HATE and other sins all spelled out for us. We get that they have some good reason for traveling to Rome. Don't have all the knights holding their swords by the blade: no real knight would risk getting cut or damaging his sword. And don't have pages driving swords into the ground to act as fence posts penning in the knights during the battle of the singers.
At least there were no fedoras or black trench coats to be seen. Still, if Graham Vick and the choreographer had taken the stage for bows, you bet I would have booed them lustily, and since I was in Row E of the orchestra, they would have heard me, too.
That said, I'm glad I went and sorry I can't go again, because musically, all was magnificence. Donald Runnicles was at his best, and he is never better than in Wagner; the orchestra played with their customary miraculous skill, some bumps at the beginning of the overture notwithstanding. Hats off to the harpist, especially, for many great moments. Runnicles insisted on the Paris version; I love the Tristanesque flavor of the Paris music but it makes for a musically incoherent text, alas. I can't overstate the magnificence of the chorus.
With the exception of James Rutherford's woolly-voiced Wolfram - and he was not unmusical - the casting could hardly have been better. Petra Lang was a sultry, red-haired Venus, sometimes a bit stretched at the top (for a crossover role, maybe this is better for a soprano with a solid low register rather than a mezzo with a solid top). Eric Halvorson's Landgraf was solidly sung, if with a remaining tinge of the wobble that marred his Gremin in the Mansouri years. Ji Young Yang made her SFO debut with a gorgeously-sung Shepherd.
Best of all were the Elisabeth of Petra Maria Schnitzer and Tannhäuser of Peter Seiffert. He's a wonderful singer with a voice that is not quite beautiful, though it may once have been. At 53, I can imagine there's some wear and tear on his voice, and it showed occasionally in a slight wobble on loud notes at the top of his register. In compensation, he is perfectly accurate and very musical, rare things in this punishing repertory and especially this monstrously difficult role. It is true that his singing was slanted to the stentorian and could have used more softness at times, but his utter security and musicality more than made up for that.
It's funny, I heard him on a Met broadcast of Tannhäuser a few years back and thought him wobbly and not very good. After hearing him live, I will chalk up my previous impression to the terrible engineering and microphone placement for the broadcasts.
Schnitzer has the perfect voice for Elisabeth, and also for Eva and Elsa; a beautiful, easily-produced, high-set lyric soprano with superb control and just enough volume for this role. She overdid the winsomeness and never seemed truly tragic, but it's hard to know how much of this to blame on Vick's direction. Those three roles, Freia, and Gutrune will be her limit in Wagner; she hasn't got the low register for Sieglinde, Isolde, and Brunnhilde. I think she must be stunning in Strauss.
Update: The Standing Room reminds me that I meant to say something above about taxidermy.
* The last time I saw this trick it was Rosemary Joshua as Semele, at ENO. She sang "Endless Pleasure" wrapped in the towel, then strolled offstage and calmly dropped the towel three steps from the wings. Joshua is a slim thing, and needless to say Ruth Ann Swenson, in the highly elaborate production seen here in 2000, did not follow suit.