LA Opera Tannhäuser Music Rules

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Issachah Savage as Tannhäuser in LA Opera 2021 production of Tannhäuser | Credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

Few of us have known a true Faustian struggle between the different facets of our nature: for this we turn to opera characters. We have to “to breathe or not to breathe”. They must “love carnally or spiritually”. Well, the love dichotomy might not weigh heavily on people’s minds now, but it’s the hero’s central obsession in Tannhäuser, Richard Wagner’s four-hour opera set to run from October 16 to November 6 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with two performances broadcast live on October 24 and 27.

Originally premiered in Dresden in 1845, but heavily revised in 1861, the work is one of Wagner’s most popular scores. His memorable, soaring melodies are sometimes worthy of fainting. This production, first performed at the Los Angeles Opera in 2007, after its debut at the Salzburg Festival, was originally directed by Ian Judge; Louisa Muller led the revival.

Yulia Matochkina as Venus and Issachah Savage as Tannhäuser in the LA Opera 2021 production of Tannhäuser | Credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

Unfortunately, the staging has hiccups on several levels. An awkward start, Tannhäuser (tenor Issachah Savage) is first seen stroking a grand piano at the side of the stage, we don’t know why. Then there were the sets by Gottfried Pilz: the revolving walls of the large doors resembled the glass elevators at the Bonaventure Hotel, with lighting designed by LAO newcomer Marcus Doshi, doing little more than using intense reds and greens, mostly black and white. third act notwithstanding.

In the Act I ballet, the usually skillful choreographer Azure Barton, who is also making her LAO debut, took swinging arms, rhythmic shifts, and awkward partnerships to new heights in the eroticized realm of Venusberg. A decidedly different approach from that of 2007, where the dance was replaced by an orgy.

There have been many updates to Tannhäuser, with a 2019 mount in Bayreuth by Tobias Kratzer featuring the minstrel as a clown, his Citroën-leading Venus making a foray into a Burger King and a cast that included the drag queen, Le Gateau Chocolat. On the überoffensive side, Burkhard Kosminski’s Production 2013 for Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Germany, featuring costumes adorned with swastikas and decor reminiscent of a gas chamber. This roundly booed production was, needless to say, canceled shortly after.

Yulia Matochkina as Venus in LA Opera 2021 production of Tannhäuser | Credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

Although during LAO’s current release there weren’t any such wacky choices, she has a foothold in both traditional and modernized camps. The production feels both infernal and anachronistic. Pilz’s costumes – costumes for the men, which looked more like members of Elks Lodge gone mad, a “Pilgrim’s Choir” in standard dress and hood, and dresses for the girls (additional costumes from Misty Ayres), topped with a black and white ball-cum-crooning competition featuring Act II. (The lustful terpsichores in Act I wore work-appropriate clothes: wispy and flowing.)

Sara Jakubiak as Elisabeth and Morris Robinson as Hermann in the 2021 LA Opera production of Tannhäuser | Credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

This neo-dystopian world has done little to advance history: a minstrel-knight returns home after a long erotic trapping with the goddess Venus (mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina, in her LAO debut), so that he can pursue a more virtuous path. Of course, the singer’s argumentative admission on his adventure not only stuns the court, but also leaves him unable to win the affection of the virginal Elisabeth (the soprano Sara Jakubiak, who is also making her debut in company).

Savage’s song the exhausting lead role became more secure as the opera progressed, but he didn’t seem quite comfortable in the role. In front of Savage, Matochinka raves over the sounds of the bugle. Jakubiak, while at times an appropriate girl, sang powerfully, including an almost explosive “Dich, teure Halle”, while Erica Petrocelli as The Voice of the Shepherd was in great shape.

The Pilgrim’s Choir in the 2021 LA Opera production of Tannhäuser | Credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

With a singing competition in the center of the opera, the minnesingers, these FOT – fellow knights / friends of Tannhäuser – reigned: Baritone Lucas Meachem has proven to be a formidable Wolfram, the only horseman who does not turn against the hero, his sweet “Song to the Evening Star” a climax; the always fine bass Morris Robinson performed well as Landgrave (local ruler) Hermann and also served as the embodiment of the Pope. In addition to the testosterone quotient, tenors Robert Stahley as Walther von der Vogelweide and Anthony Ciaramitaro as Heinrich der Schreiber. Bass baritones Philip Cokorinos and Patrick Blackwell gave weight to Biterolf and Reinmar respectively.

The third act opens with an orchestral prelude describing The pilgrimage to Tannhäuser. He went to Rome, but he is denied papal forgiveness. Elisabeth prays that her soul will be received in heaven, her corpse soon brought back on stage. Venus makes a brief appearance in an unsuccessful attempt to bring Tannhäuser back, before he collapses and dies, calling “Saint Elizabeth, pray for me” near the corpse of her beloved. A children’s choir finally tells of a miracle: the Pope’s staff has made greenery sprout, rules of redemption, and Elisabeth becomes a local saint.

James Conlon | Credit: Dan Steinberg

The whole production would fall flat without the orchestral genius and endurance of James Conlon, now in his 16th season as Music Director. What a sound they made as he artfully articulated the thrilling lines of the score. The brass resonated throughout the theater, while the strings were particularly captivating. JoAnn Turovsky was equally impressive and never less engaging in her beautifully plucked harp solos. Congratulations also to outgoing conductor Grant Gershon and the wonderful LAO choir, once again showing their musical courage. But it’s Conlon’s vision that makes the show work on a music-dramatic level. “In my opinion,” he writes in the program, “by living this drama at the opera, we are in fact living a part of the ‘optimistic’ version of romanticism to which [noted political, philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah] Berlin refers to and allows our “infinite nature to fly away”.


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