SEX, SIN, AND SUPERIOR VOICES
Jaws dropped, fingers pointed, and gasps were unavoidably released, while the audience’s eyes were left slightly squinting at the opening of LA Opera’s latest, Tannhäuser. Perhaps what caused such a stir was the fact that, from the very start, women baring their naked chests and men wearing nude thongs jointly formed a lattice of sadomasochistic visuals across a dim lit stage.
As a result, the sophisticated opera audience was momentarily deafened to Wagner’s raging and sumptuous music, and—instead—thought they were in a movie theater watching more of Big Hollywood’s prurience.
After the nearly 30-minute overture/ballet/pornography successfully sparked the audience’s attention, an entirely new cast appeared onstage to express beauty beyond their bodies, through powerful voices that sang over an immense orchestra unwilling to quiet down.
The audience then discovered that Tannhäuser is about a minstrel with a heart divided between two women: Venus, the pagan goddess of love, and Elisabeth, his old flame. Forced to choose between sin and salvation, Tannhäuser must either return to Venus with ease, or journey to Rome, confess his sins, and appease the heart of the pure Elisabeth.
There is an extreme religious undertone to Wagner’s obsessive drama that director Ian Judge cut to the heart of by going just far enough with his translation. While the cold, monochrome set by designer Gottfried Pilz provided the appropriate backdrop, Judge infused excitement into every moment—from the introductory orgy in Venus’s den, to the moving, perfectly timed departure of Elisabeth—in order to accentuate the very meaning behind Wagner’s music.
When the audience was not captivated by the absolute emotional power of Wagner’s instrumentals, they were enthralled by the performers’ authentic acting and powerful vocals. It was in fact this great veteran cast of native German speakers that contributed an unstoppable energy to the LA Opera stage.
Martin Gantner as Wolfram von Eschenbach produced baritonal solidity throughout his entire range, and although he lacked the intensity of a leading character, he cultivated a convincing performance. Adorned in brilliant red, Lioba Braun sung a stunning Venus. Standing out amongst her nude cohorts, her charming stage presence and dazzling voice made hearts flutter.
Petra Maria Schnitzer delivered a compelling account of Elisabeth with her lilting, sweet voice that defied expectation as it rose above the orchestra to resonate across the entire theatre. Schnitzer combined singing of truly instrumental accuracy with a delightfully precise tonal quality—just what the doctor ordered.
Of the rest, the role of Tannhäuser may not be the longest of Wagner’s heroic tenors, but it is considered one of the most difficult. After performing the opera at the Met and Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, as well as winning a Grammy Award for his recording with Daniel Barneboim, Peter Seiffert unmistakably mastered this titular role.
Seiffert demonstrated sheer vocal strength in his ability to sing above the hefty orchestra, the chorus, and accompanying roles, and still produced a profound and consistent spinto voice of high tessitura. To maintain such a resonating sound over three hours is truly incredible.
In fact, the entire production shocked audiences from beginning to end, not simply because of its unabashed nudity, but because of the performers’ vocal prowess. Unsurprisingly, LA Opera’s Tannhäuser was a complete masterpiece in three acts.