Review: Music triumphs in S.F. Opera's 'Tannhäuser'

For those who can’t (or won’t) see the forest of an opera for the trees of performance minutiae, here’s the word about the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which opened Tuesday:

Donald Runnicles’ Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus give a magnificent account of the music, which is among Wagner’s most sweeping and bewitching. Runnicles and General Manager David Gockley have assembled an outstanding cast for this, the first new production of Gockley’s 20-month-old intendancy. The cast delivered the goods, in an ensemble performance of international stars the likes of which have not been heard in these parts for some time.

However demanding and difficult the opera may be vocally and instrumentally, this tale of the 13th-century minstrel torn between Venus’ earthly, “sinful” and Elisabeth’s idealzed, redemptive love is a near-impossible bear when it comes to staging, especially in the 1861 Paris version and its extended ballet scene.

On that point, Graham Vick’s busy, occasionally just plain silly direction will be discussed (and derided) heatedly.

Attention-diverting production excesses seem close to some of those under Gockley’s predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg.

There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four-hour performance that unfortunately opens with a ballet that’s a mix of Pina Bausch, Greco-Roman wrestling, and a Groucho Marx routine, and ends with little boys emerging from the stage floor as if in a prairie dog hunting game.

But music, the essential component of the evening, triumphs over it all, making the stage monkey business almost immaterial. Runnicles’ customarily outstanding direction of Wagner holds true.

The Opera Chorus, handicapped by Vick’s requirement to wave arms, roll on the floor, and act ecstatic or possessed at the most inappropriate moments, gave a memorably solid, beautiful performance.

Peter Seiffert — a large man and no actor — was vocally sensational in the title role, fulfilling the dual and conflicting requirements of heroic and lyric tenor. Warmth and beauty characterized Petra Maria Schnitzer’s Elisabeth; vocally and dramatically, she gave a true star performance.

Mezzo Petra Lang was the bold Venus, singing well, but not quite at her best. The young English baritone James Rutherford made a memorable San Francisco debut as Wolfram.

Vocally, one of the most striking performances came from a young singer in a three-minute role. Having been made to sit onstage motionless for almost an hour, Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang sang the Shepherd’s aria with affecting brilliance.

Ron Howell’s choreography for Venusberg — women in long, clinging white shifts, men naked to the waist — was angular, clinically (and unsuccessfully) sexual, and altogether distracting from some of the most sensual music ever written.

Paul Brown’s stage design uses a hangar-like unit set, with large windows, all scenes enhanced by opulent costumes. Brown and Vick areprovoking the audience to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater by using up gallons of propane that flare as a large circle on the ground, as branches of a tree, for long periods.

But just how crowded was the theater? A startling fact from opening night, something clearly indicating what a tough row Gockley must hoe to attract audiences back to the War Memorial: in this once-Wagner mad town, on the opening night of a major new Wagner production, the second balcony — with its affordable seats and best acoustics in the house — was half empty.

Wagner fans, opera lovers: you don’t know what you’re missing.

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