Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
18 September 2007
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannEric Halfvarson
TannhäuserPeter Seiffert
Wolfram von EschenbachJames Rutherford
Walther von der VogelweideStefan Margita
BiterolfGregory Reinhart
Heinrich der SchreiberMatthew O’Neill
Reinmar von ZweterRichard Lugo
ElisabethPetra-Maria Schnitzer
VenusPetra Lang
Ein junger HirtJi Young Yang
New York Times

Wagner’s Minstrel Knight, Entwined in Desires

After 33 years as the general director of the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley was hardly an unknown presence in the field when he took charge of the San Francisco Opera in January 2006. Still, those who have been wondering what artistic vision he will bring to this important company have learned a lot recently.

On Friday night he presented his first premiere here, “Appomattox,” by Philip Glass. On Sunday afternoon I caught up with the first new production of a standard repertory work in the Gockley era, the veteran English director Graham Vick’s staging of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” introduced last month. The production, insightfully and urgently conducted by Donald Runnicles and featuring the impressive German tenor Peter Seiffert in the title role, bodes well for Mr. Gockley’s tenure.

In a program note Mr. Vick states that it is just too comfortable a choice when productions depict the German minstrel knight Tannhäuser as a vulnerable man torn between two women: the voluptuous goddess Venus, who has lured him to her pleasure palace in the subterranean Venusberg, and the virtuous young Elisabeth, who lives in the courtly Christian world of the Wartburg and loves Tannhäuser dearly.

To emphasize that Tannhäuser creates his own problems, that he is struggling to reconcile conflicting aspects of himself, Mr. Vick has blurred the distinctions between the erotic realm of Venus and the upstanding society of Elisabeth. All the action takes place in a unit set (by Paul Brown). It’s a large, simple and stately room with grayish-white wood walls, a curved ceiling and tall, shuttered windows. The floor is incongruously covered with clay-textured dirt, suggesting the “primal slime” of life, as Mr. Vick puts it.

During the first scene, an extended ballet of frenzied cavorting among the denizens of Venusberg (in the 1861 Paris version of the opera, used here), wiry, bare-chested men dance wildly with lithe young women in lacy white dresses. There are even moments of same-sex coupling, which would have rattled Wagner’s audiences but seemed to resonate in San Francisco.

When the dancing died down, a kindly man dressed like an old friar (an invented character) stepped forward to usher these orgiastic revelers back indoors, as if they were simply hormonal children whose play had gotten out of hand.

Venus, the soprano Petra Lang, comes across like some hot redhead with whom Tannhäuser has gotten himself involved. During the seduction scene Ms. Lang, lying on her back, acrobatically entwines her legs around the kneeling knight, which may be a first in a “Tannhäuser” staging. The pilgrims passing through the room en route to Rome are a bedraggled lot, grimy, shirtless men (there are lots of bare torsos in this show) on whose backs and chests are painted the names of the sins they are atoning for: Hate, Sorcery, Sacrilege and so on.

The Hall of Song in Act II is typically a grandly medieval place. Here the scene remains in the all-purpose white room with the dirt floor, though the costumes are in period, detailed and captivating.

The effect of Mr. Vick’s staging concept was greatly enhanced by the compelling musical performance. Mr. Seiffert brought a burnished voice and plenty of stamina to the daunting title role. His real spouse, the lovely soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer, was an exceptional Elisabeth, singing with creamy tone, lyrical grace (a rarity in Wagner) and earthy top notes.

Ms. Lang’s smoky mezzo-soprano voice carried Venus’s vocal lines over the orchestra. Pitch was the problem in her singing, prone to shaky tone and flatness. But she embodied the role and never played it safe.

The bass Eric Halfvarson as the fatherly Landgrave Hermann and the baritone James Rutherford as the earnest knight Wolfram gave strong performances, though Mr. Rutherford seemed visibly uncomfortable as he executed the production’s one outlandish idea.

When Tannhäuser disgraces himself by singing a scandalously explicit ode to love at the song contest, he is exiled and urged to seek repentance through a pilgrimage to Rome. Left behind, Elisabeth, struggling to maintain faith, sick at heart and longing for death, finally expires, as sopranos sometimes do in opera. But in this staging she begs Wolfram to end her misery, and the anguished knight strangles her.

Mr. Vick’s idea, presumably, is to make Elisabeth’s death more tragic and credible. It comes off like a soap-opera ploy. But what’s a Wagner production without a little outrage?

ANTHONY TOMMASINI | Published: October 9, 2007

Los Angeles Times

A new tone in San Francisco

The focus is on vocals over theatricality in the first production with David Gockley’s stamp.

If you step on it, somehow manage to avoid traffic, take no rest stops and remain unintimidated by big rigs, you can drive from the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles to the War Memorial Opera House here in less than six hours. Flying, you might make slightly better time, door to door, but you can never count on it.

All this means that San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera are not exactly neighbors, even though the companies keep a competitive eye on each other. It also means that the new production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” unveiled here last week is a peculiar representation for a new regime at San Francisco Opera.

David Gockley, who began as the company’s general manager last season, is giving San Francisco Opera a new tone after the edgy, theatrically provocative, socially and politically relevant, intellectual approach of his predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg, didn’t sit well with the city’s moneyed opera hounds or its fanatic canary fanciers.

Gockley has proposed a middle way, less Eurocentric, less artistically formidable but still timely. “Tannhäuser,” which I saw Sunday afternoon in its second performance, is the first production fully planned by him. But, at least superficially, it seemed to follow L.A.’s lead.

Last season, L.A.’s “Tannhäuser” — the first new production conducted by a new music director, James Conlon — starred Peter Seiffert as the troubadour knight Tannhäuser and Petra Maria Schnitzer as his beloved, Elisabeth, and was sexed up by a flashy British director, Ian Judge. Seiffert and Schnitzer are also San Francisco’s choice. The gaudy Brit up north is Graham Vick. In fact, though, the two productions have little in common.

If this “Tannhäuser” is indicative of Gockley’s intentions for San Francisco, he is returning the company to a focus on singing over theater. Nearly everyone involved with the production — including the director, lighting and production designers, choreographer and large cast (with the exception of three very minor roles) — was making his or her company debut. Longtime music director Donald Runnicles conducted, but this is his last season.

There was beauty to be found Sunday in the lush orchestral playing in the pit, in the voices onstage. But it was a bland beauty, devoid of drama. “Tannhäuser” begins in Venusberg, where our hero soon tires of the sexually voracious Venus. He returns to uptight medieval society and naive Elisabeth. He seeks redemption, but his peers and the pope are unsympathetic. It takes the sacrifice of Elisabeth to produce a deathbed miracle.

Everything in Vick’s “Tannhäuser” takes place in a simple structure with dirt floors and a tree in the middle. A big silver harp gets pushed around in the dirt quite a bit. Fire pops up from the ground when a little visual liveliness is needed. A white horse happens in. The designer of the sets and traditional troubadour garb was Paul Brown.

The opening orgy is handled by dancers choreographed by Ron Howell. Jittery figures grope, twitch, stand on their hands, quickly couple and uncouple. The men are bare-chested. The woman have an odd habit of lifting their long negligees over their heads. A clingy Venus and a tired Tannhäuser do their business inside a circle of fire. Petra Lang, who has a voluptuous voice, could be a highly sensual Venus if given the opportunity.

In L.A., Seiffert took some time to warm up, at least on the first night. Sunday he was clarion all the time. But in L.A., he was also an amusing and touching lost soul — an over-the hill, mustachioed crooner. For Vick, he became just another pudgy heldentenor, standing and singing. Schnitzer, radiant in L.A. as a kind of Princess Diana, radiated less in Vick’s conventional girlish innocence-to-experience approach. Still, she sang very nicely if she no longer dominated the stage. James Rutherford was a pleasant Wolfram; when he sang to the evening star, he looked up at a skylight.

To Gockley’s credit, San Francisco Opera’s current season is more imaginative than L.A.’s. Next month he will offer the premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox.” Other highlights include Robert Lepage’s acclaimed Brussels production of “The Rake’s Progress” and the start of Francesca Zambello’s “Ring.” By June, when Mary Zimmerman’s production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” (which opened the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night) reaches San Francisco, “Tannhäuser” may just be a distant, meaningless memory rather than symbol of a new era. I hope so.

Mark Swed | September 25, 2007

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Premiere 4724
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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 423 MByte (MP3)
A production by Graham Vick