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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Opera Review

This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.—Laurence Olivier

Although the Olivier quote above came at the beginning of his film version of Hamlet, it applies equally to Tannhauser, the medieval knight torn between his erotic passion for the goddess Venus and his yearning for the light and peace embodied by his mortal love, Elisabeth. The LA Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser is visually stunning and inventive with a cast whose German stars have the vocal weight and experience to inhabit the major roles.

The Parisian Bacchanale which opens the opera was inserted in 1861 at the insistence of the French audience who adored ballet. Wagner acceded but insisted it remain at the beginning of the Opera, so infuriating the aristocracy who always arrived fashionably late that the opera had to close after three performances. Very few Los Angelenos arrived fashionably late, maybe because the word was out that the former ballet, performed in Mark Doubleday's subtle lighting on a scarlet set with a cast who slowly stripped off their erotic scarlet costumes, was graphically sexual. Director Ian Judge, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, knows how to draw the most out of this material. Comparisons to the Shakespearean productions Sir Peter Hall did at the Ahmanson a few years ago are inevitable.

Tannhauser (Peter Seiffert) is in thrall to the goddess Venus (Lioba Braun) but yearns to return to the mortal world and the peace and light embodied by his first love Elisabeth (Petra Maria Schnitzer). He does but bursts into praise of eroticism in the contest of love songs held at the Hall of Song in Wartburg. Elisabeth's hand is the prize but the knights are so angry with Tannhauser's impurity that only Elisabeth's protection saves his life. He goes to Rome to seek the pope's pardon but the pope tells him he could as soon be forgiven as the papal staff could burst into flower. Sadly he staggers home and is about to return to Venus when the knight Wolfram (Martin Gantner) reminds him of Elisabeth. Her funeral procession draws near and Tannhauser collapses, dying by her bier. A chorus of pilgrims enters, bearing the Pope's staff which has miraculously flowered. This production has a happier post-ending, as Seiffert and Schnitzer are married in real life.

Seiffert has the physical bulk and his tenor has a vocal weight for a role whose demands range from passionate duets to the two women to the narrative of his trip to Rome and his final surrender to Elisabeth and a redemptive death. There's a lovely purity and clarity to Schnitzer's soprano that complements their duet like an ivy vine twining around a mighty tree but there's nothing clinging in her acting interpretation, which has vivacity and charm. Braun, a petite brunette, plays Venus with playful authority and total vocal control. Wolfram, who sings the famous "O, Evening Star!" expresses the knight's nobility while giving full value to his friendship for Tannhauser.

The knights, who wear white fedoras, are only part of an extremely large cast. The Pilgrim Chorus, in white hoods, enter with the stirring "Zu dir wall'ich, mein Herr und Gott. " Gottfried Pilz's sweeping satin ballgowns, tuxedos and simple medieval sets don't try to detract from the music and its themes. He extends the modern theme with the use of a grand piano during the singing contest. The many windows of the Hall of Song are effectively used by Ian Judge who has the singers flit behind them.

Conducter James Conlon has a keen ear for the opera's tension and conflict and works with Ian Judge to inhabit the musical bridges with effective action. He also brings out the lushness in the score, enhancing the many harp passages, reminding us that this is not some musty medieval redemption story but a creation as psychologically modern as Hamlet.

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Ian Judge
Cast: Peter Seiffert (Tannhauser), Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth), Lioba Braun (Venus), Martin Gantner (Wolfram), Franz Josef Selig (Landgrave Hermann), Rodrick Dixon (Walther), Robert MacNeil (Heinrich der Schreiber), Jason Stearns (Biterolf), Christopher Feigum (Reinmar), Isaac Calvin (A Shepherd), Karen Vuong (Voice of the Shepherd), Leslie Cennis Renee Sousa, Sara Campbell, Michelle Fournier (Four Noble Pages)
Set and Costume Design: Gottfried Pilz
Lighting Design: Mark Doubleday
Running Time: Four hours, two intermissions
Running Dates: February 24-March 18, 2007
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 972-8001
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on February 24.
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