“Tannhäuser” at the LA Opera

Tannhäuser
by Richard Wagner

24 February 2007 (Première Performance)
LA Opera – James Conlon, Music Director and Conductor

New Production
Paris Version in Act One (full ballet), reverting to Dresden Version in Act Two.

Director: Ian Judge
Set and Costume Designer: Gottfried Pilz
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Chorus Master: William Vendice

Tannhäuser: Peter Siefert
Elizabeth: Petra Maria Schnitzer
Venus: Lioba Braun
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Martin Gantner
Landgrave Hermann: Franz Josef Selig

an account by KEN QUANDT

At the beginning of each act, in lieu of a curtain, we are faced with seven floor to ceiling doors a few feet from the front of the stage with a familiar four-light fenestration, a tall lower pair of windows and a shorter upper pair. Their mullions form a cross. Somehow these doors are able to slide sideways off center and create an opening into the space behind them, and also to separate from each other entirely and swing and realign themselves into smaller walls at any angle you wish. Behind them the stage has two turntables both gimbaled so that they can be flush with the sloping stage or else sloped to true level so as to create platforms separate from the stage. The iconography of the cross is more or less salient depending on the backlighting. Something tricky and efficient is needed to shift the scene from Venusberg to the area near the Wartburg, to which the scene according to Wagner’s libretto is to shift the moment Tannhäuser calls to Maria, while he moves not at all. Doors will be important to the plot in several ways and at several moments. They can serve as the outer walls of the hall for the song contest; they can serve as a façade of storefronts that evoke a street scene for the “place near Wartburg” where the second scene of Act One and the entire last Act take place. At the very end they will play an entirely unforeseeable role that gives this production unique profundity.

ACT ONE

At the beginning a grand piano stands in front of the façade of doors stage right. Thirty two bars from the end of the Overture, Tannhäuser enters from the left, walks pensively across the stage in front of the doors and sits at the piano. The doors slide apart near the piano to reveal a red world behind and then fly off to the two turntables, on which are positioned pairs of persons dressed in red and casually pairing here and there. They seem interested and about to begin to make love to each other and then they do, stripping down more or less immediately and adopting various positions, with the rotating turntables giving us a variety of things to watch, sometimes separated by walls of doors but sometimes not and just a few feet distant from each other. Four of these slim dancers come over to Tannhäuser at the piano and bring him to Venus who lies on an odalisque’s chaise in the odalisque pose, which in fact makes her quite inaccessible to the sexual embraces catalogued around her. Tannhäuser languidly kneels before the chaise with his head in her lap, either plaintive or just ineffectual and tired. They remain dressed, he in a red robe and she in a red cocktail dress with elbow length red gloves.

The display of sexual intercourse is naked and explicit and involves a variety of pairings and acts. It lasts as long as the wordless ballet music Wagner added to the piece in 1860 at the insistence of the Paris crowds – not a short amount of time. Once the dancers are spent the action can begin, which consists of Tannhäuser telling Venus he is tired of dalliances here and with all due respects yearns to return to the mortal world of change and stars and seasons. Only the gods can live on a diet so fixed.

Tannhäuser moves to the piano to sing his farewell praise to Venus. She follows him there and stands by it looking a little too much like a torch singer. The harp in the orchestra plays the accompaniment he mimes playing on the piano. We have a Liberace moment, soon broken by the manner of his song to Venus, which is after all heroic in a tone quite alien to the languid or sugary sensuality of Venusberg; it is a song Wagner had written before he added the radically chromatic ballet music we have been hearing for the last several minutes, composed after he completed Tristan und Isolde.

Venus’s last large attempt to seduce Tannhäuser includes a change in lighting, some bright blue varying the blood red light by which we have been besotted for the last half hour. Again four naked dancers escort him gracefully from the piano back to the chaise where he readopts the suppliant pose in Venus’s lap. But he has made his decision. In the last iteration of his song of heroic praise to Venus he takes off his red robe to show the dark and featureless street clothes he will be wearing for the rest of the piece. She warns him she will never receive him so kindly again and he apologizes by promising he will never ask her to do so. As he closes the scene by invoking the Virgin Mary he sinks prone onto the floor with his arms outward from his sides, downstage left, where he will stay while the scene changes. Venus, distraught and in shock, is carried out above their heads by four of the hunks in her entourage, her arms also outward as if on the cross.

The scene change includes the abolition of all redness and a quick and well-oiled sliding around of the doors that reconfigures the stage into a street with wall front façade oriented upstage right toward downstage left. Downstage right there stands a black cross. At the last moment the bare branches of a tree descend from the flies stage right and snow begins to fall. The new accent color is blue. When all is in place an angelic young boy with a shepherd’s pipe enters stage left and walks across to the piano, downstage right. He climbs up onto the piano and mimes playing his pipe to the accompaniment of the cor anglais in the orchestra. His “Shepherd’s song” about the sweetness of May (despite the snow and bare branches) is sung not by him but by female a voice offstage and is nearly inaudible. After a while we notice small white angel wings on his back. A child popped up in Wilson’s Parsifal here last year, similarly precious and similarly extra argumentum – and I wondered if the insertion might be an appropriate homage for this town to pay, owing its existence to dreams that have made a lot of people a lot of money no matter how fatuous. The snow was refreshing after what might notionally at least had been a hot scene in Venusberg, and certainly cleansing; and the bare branches likewise introduced a note of humility and suffering.

The penitents are heard offstage approaching. They enter from the rear and move in along the street, dressed in plain white hooded robes. Tannhäuser has had his wish come true in spades, for here is his opportunity to begin his penance, but he is too preoccupied by his private remorse to do so. The penitents’ beautiful song expresses their consciousness of sin in a way that calls into question whether Tannhäuser left Venusberg to clean up his act or because, as he said at first, he was bored. Next come on his old friends from the Wartburg dressed in white suits and hats. Other than the penitents and Tannhäuser in his simple black clothes that look more and more scruffy as the action continues, the characters are overdressed in a tuxedoed and cartoonish way that would draw attention to itself had it not become familiar since the Batman movies. Quickly his old friends’ concern he will mistreat them again is dispelled, perhaps by his very unobtrusive manner, as self-possessed as it is humble, and they eagerly tell him what a great prize he has won, the prize of Elisabeth’s non-attendance at the song-contests.

The logic here is striking, and suggests that the difference between the human world and Venusberg is not only that there are no seasons there, but also that in Venusberg all desire is satisfied – fulfilled indeed upon command – while here desire has become diverted and complicated by mediations. Despite his having left them on bad terms, Tannhäuser’s peers praise him: he is the cause of their having been deprived of their inspiration, namely, Elisabeth’s presence at the song contests; since he left, she has lost interest. But now that he has returned, she will come back. To put the matter in Girardian terms, Elisabeth is the mediator of desire for all the singers (”inspiration” stands in for desire), and keeps the rivalry under control, whereas in the utopia of Venusberg all desire is satisfied by its object until it becomes aware of itself, at which point the influence of Venus becomes visible, and she becomes impotent and angry.

The scene closes as the first one did, with Tannhäuser calling out “her” name, this time Elisabeth’s rather than Maria’s.

ACT TWO

The seven doors face us lined up side-by-side and dark. Through them we see Elisabeth approaching. They slide open to allow her into the forestage and she sings us her story. She is wearing a tightly contoured cocktail dress just like Venus’s but white, with white elbow length gloves, and a long cream satin train. Wolfram (von Eschenbach, sung and acted by Martin Gantner) brings Tannhäuser on from behind the doors to meet Elisabeth and they sing their scene in the forestage. Wolfram remains behind, made visible through the windows in the doors with a spotlight. As we hear Elisabeth’s confused confession of love for Tannhäuser, and hear Tannhäuser construct an expression of remorse with his emotional toybox that culminates in their simultaneous duet, we can see Wolfram’s jealous and envious reaction, which they are too busy to notice, through the windows. Much in this Act, as Dahlhaus pointed out in reference to its song contest (in RWMD), depends on the onstage behavior of the actors rather than the libretto. Elisabeth’s white version of Venus’s red dress sets us off thinking that a contrast between sin and purity, or “lust and love” as the LA publicity had it, is being overdrawn, so that watching Wolfram gives us something to sink our teeth into. Gantner and his director here and all through do a very fine job. At the same time Schnitzer’s singing of Elisabeth dispels any doubt of her complexity and honesty, which in contrast with Braun’s Venus gives all the beauty and substance to the Light Side.

The shift of scenery from the solo and observed duet scene to the Singing Hall is the tour de force of the evening and draws the first interruption by applause, which the earlier Wagner compositions can still accommodate. The doors slide and shift, their windows reflecting random splashes of light as they move around, and in the end they have made a large room out of the stage by becoming its windowed walls. The backdrop color is deep blue as if it were late evening and to top it off a large chandelier descends from the flies and becomes three or four chandeliers by its reflections in the windowed doors. Next from stage right enter those who will attend the song contest in a formal promenade that owes something to Robert Wilson in its stiff and over-the-top elegance. As in the Venusberg scene there is a large amount of music to fill with dance, and this time the dancers, whose faces some of the audience might recognize from Act One, come on in pairs as if entering a ball, elegant in evening gowns and tuxedoes. It is not the usual throng of scruffy or festive Germans. During their stately entrance it occurs to us to identify with them as members of the song contest audience. The Landgrave enters with Elisabeth in her white dress from the rear. He is distinguished by wearing white gloves. Here there is an unfortunate mistake in the lighting. His entry is through a pair of windowed doors that define the rear wall of the Hall. Beyond them and above there is a very bright light, cold like the pink of a fluorescent lamp, flooding the room from the rear and reflecting so strongly off the slick floor of the hall that the overall effect of the scene, so effectively introduced, is overpowered through to the end. The lighting director has left his brights on.

The contesting singers then enter from the rear, one by one, also in tuxedoes, bowing to us and then to the audience on stage. Tannhäuser comes in last dressed in those same black clothes. The singers take their seats in chairs opposite the audience, except for Tannhäuser who keeps milling around aimless. Aimless he is, and aimless is what the director told him to be.

Wolfram is chosen by lot to sing first and goes over to the piano, which has reappeared in its former position downstage right. He sings his song on the nature of love, in which his subject is safely sublimated in a farrago of transferred enthusiasms, but the presentation evinces a sincerity and tenderness that proves his point regardless. Again Gantner adds to the role of Wolfram what the ink of the libretto lacks.

In the Paris version Tannhäuser is now made to fall into a trance brought on the musical force of Wolfram’s song and involuntarily interrupts the proceedings by singing a stanza in which he confesses to Wolfram that he too would love to sing such pretty stuff but the topic of love arouses desires within his own chest that he can barely control. Elisabeth then gestures her interest and approval, but Walter von der Vogelweide breaks in with a stanza disapproving the “position” Tannhäuser has taken, to which Tannhäuser responds by taking a “counter position” against Walter. Though he chose the Paris version with its extensive ballet for Act One, Conlon has chosen the original Dresden version for Act Two, in which this stanza is omitted, so that Tannhäuser’s first interruption becomes the belligerent response to Walter directed by a change of name against Wolfram. It was in order to motivate Tannhäuser’s belligerent interruption that our director made him mill about ever since he entered.

In the present version then, Tannhäuser’s first interruption takes everyone but Elisabeth by surprise who along with us has noticed him milling about. From here on she is watching him rather than listening to the songs. This version leaves unclear whether Tannhäuser has contrived to lord it over his peers and scandalize them, or whether his behavior is driven by bad habits he has formed in Venusberg – or both. The scandal is caused not so much by his continually singing out of turn, nor by his singing style (as Walther’s in Die Meistersinger) but by the “positions” his lyrics assert, just as the dreamy lyrics of Wolfram’s song are given their force and meaning by his delivery. Our director adds a climax to Tannhäuser’s contumely behavior by having him grab Elisabeth in an access of passion and kiss her forcibly.

By the time of the ensuing melee, all the elegant women have left, except for Elisabeth, who intervenes with great authority, strength and tenderness. Tannhäuser of course does not deserve her love, but for that very reason he also provides the perfect occasion for her forgiveness. Her transformation of the scene redresses with a single stroke both scandal & rivalry and Tannhäuser’s inner turmoil that caused them. The strength of our love and forgiveness is greater than the weakness that leads us to sin, and we, along with everyone else on the stage, learn it from Elisabeth, the person they were wise enough to choose as the mediator in the first place.

Her father the Landgrave then closes the scene by applying to these unexpected events the deep wisdom he expressed at the beginning of the scene and for which his elegant audience had there called him Protector of Art. When he explains to Tannhäuser that the penitents are going to Rome to expiate lesser sins than his because they have a deeper consciousness of sin than he has, one wonders for a moment whether his tuxedoed audience was a bit overdressed after all. The weighty correctness of Elisabeth’s intervention accumulates through the last minutes of the act, which closes with Tannhäuser’s exit through the rear. By now he has flip-flopped twice and he has become almost completely irrelevant.

ACT THREE

Behind the wall of doors we see patches of bright green light. At the end of the overture the doors slide quickly to recreate the street scene from Act One when Tannhäuser arrives from Venusberg, but now the entire street is green. Wolfram enters dressed as if walking home from work, in a gray suit with his tie loosened. He is weary. During all these months he has watched Elisabeth, whom he truly loves, wait for Tannhäuser’s return in hopes he will be forgiven by the Pope. The penitents arrive from Rome in great stateliness punctuated by shocks of enthusiasm. At the moment of the two Alleluias they notice the black cross opposite them on the stage and lurch toward it in a devotion that has become instinctual. Elisabeth looks among them eagerly like a mother or a wife looking among the faces of troops returning from war. Finding no Tannhäuser she sings her long lament while Wolfram stands and watches unseen by her. When she is done he gently offers to walk along with her, but where she must go she must go alone. Left on the stage he sings “O Du, mein holder Abendstern,” certainly the climactic singing of the evening.

Tannhäuser returns and sings his long monologue, but whatever drama his experience in Rome might have had suffers for lack of a predicate. The character has become a cipher. He is still dressed in those black clothes though now he is barefoot, as Tristan should also be in his Act Three. Elisabeth is brought in on a bier and he falls prostrate over her in a pose that might have, but happily does not, recall his pose with Venus on the chaise.

For the reappearance of Venus at Tannhäuser’s moment of decision the storefront of windowed doors that had created a street in front of them, open up to show Venus’s red realm with a sample of her dalliants. The scene is confused and chaotic, and after Tannhäuser chooses to stay with Elisabeth’s corpse the doors begin to close on Venus. At the last chaotic moment, with a stunning directorial stroke like the corner of a Brueghel painting, I swear I saw Wolfram join her. The quiet desperation he has been shown to suffer throughout this production has taken its toll on him after all. The doors close behind them and the triumphant closing cadence proclaims the victory of Elisabeth’s love, for Tannhäuser at least. But who will save Wolfram?

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