James Conlon
Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Orchestra
24 October 2021
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannMorris Robinson
TannhäuserIssachah Savage
Wolfram von EschenbachLucas Meachem
Walther von der VogelweideRobert Stahley
BiterolfPhilip Cokorinos
Heinrich der SchreiberAnthony Ciaramitaro
Reinmar von ZweterPatrick Blackwell
ElisabethSara Jakubiak
VenusYulia Matochkina
Ein junger HirtErica Petrocelli
Stage directorIan Judge (2007)
Set designerGottfried Pilz
TV directorSara E. Widzer
Los Angeles Times

L.A. Opera is back big time with ‘Tannhäuser’

The long wait for Wagner has ended. After eight years, the flabbergasting master, monster and magician of Bayreuth is back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The occasion is the return of the 2008 Los Angeles Opera production of “Tannhäuser.” Wagner’s themes don’t go away. In this, the second of his 10 mature operas, and one the obsessive composer never stopped revisiting, he poses problems he knew very well and that we confront regularly. Is there redemption for someone who cannot control sexual urges?

Tannhäuser snubs uptight social mores of the medieval troubadours and ventures off to the mystical libido-liberating realm of the goddess Venus, who lords over an eternal love-in. Rather than be true to himself, Tannhäuser finds the culture, and insatiable Venus, interminable. Coming back to a stubbornly unchanging society, however, is not so easy.

Coming back to this 2008 Ian Judge production is not so easy either. It was, to begin with, a compromise. Rather than create something from the ground up, the company cost-cut by obtaining an abstract, boxy, bland set from a Salzburg Festival production of a Mozart opera. To liven things up, Judge created a “Wagner pornucopia,” to quote the headline for The Times review.

The over-the-top opening scene in Venusberg was a crude cornucopia of nudity and sex in an attempt to be shocking that proved more ludicrous than lascivious. A louche Tannhäuser sported a pompadour. Thankfully, a more-considered seriousness overtakes later scenes as Tannhäuser returns to the court and woos his former love Elisabeth in a song competition but then can’t control himself within the court’s moral confines.

A penitent outcast, he goes to Rome seeking forgiveness from the pope and is refused it. It takes true and pure Elisabeth dying of heartbreak and Tannhäuser’s own death to achieve divine retribution.

L.A. Opera has reconsidered the production and scaled it down further. The original production has been turned over to a new director, Louisa Muller. There are some new costumes, new choreography and new lighting. Retained are the sets, which look worse than ever, and James Conlon’s conducting, which is better than ever. I attended the second performance Sunday afternoon of the run, which continues through Nov. 6.

Venusberg has hit the skids. It now resembles a small-town bordello and Venus its madame. Tannhäuser, no longer louche but styled with a shaved head and dressed in baggy black, comes across as a sad sack hanging out at the piano. (For some reason, Judge called for a piano and, for some reason, it’s been retained.) Dancers dutifully slink. There is no chemistry between Issachah Savage’s seemingly tame Tannhäuser and Yulia Matochkina’s maternal Venus.

Conlon didn’t appear able to help. The orchestra sounded underserved buried in its pit, and the conductor wasn’t concerned with whipping up momentary excitement, which he can capably do in Wagner. Instead he created a comfortably luxuriant symphonic mattress for the singers who had no use for a real mattress.

But within seconds of the second act, the opera came to life, proving, perhaps, that there is redemption in at least some things.

That was the doing of Sara Jakubiak. The young soprano from Michigan, who has been garnering attention in Europe and is making her L.A. Opera debut, came on stage all gangbusters, which the sheltered Elisabeth probably shouldn’t. Dressed in high-style vintage white, she sang her joyous greeting to the hall where the song competition was to be held as if she were a teenager at her first prom or Taylor Swift concert.

She may have over-emphasized every line and showed off every emotion, but in so doing she displayed a real Wagner voice, with a vibrancy that should take her far. In her presence, Savage came to life as well, and there was more erotic frisson between these two than there had been between Tannhäuser and Venus.

The orchestra too came to life. The chorus was splendid. This act was closer to what it had been the first time around, a setting that looked like a formal European ball in the 1930s, not particularly imaginative but not objectionable.

In the last act, Wagner removes all the frippery, with just three characters and their own personal stories. Wolfram, who also loves Elisabeth, sings his ode to the evening star, and Lucas Meachem made it glow. Elisabeth, true to her love to the end, has her revelation to which Jakubiak brought decided Wagnerian intensity and meaning, this time with emotions worth showing off.

Savage too came to his own. He is a strong but not heroic tenor. His projection is clear and focused. He has stamina. But he needs to be drawn out. Venus did not draw him out. Elisabeth did some, especially when he sexually attacks her at the end of the singing competition (for which she defends him against the angry crowd). Narrating his harrowing trip to Rome and rejection by the pope drew out a broiling, deep-seated anger. By this point he had become a gripping, convincing Tannhäuser.

Conlon conducted with patience, turning on the heat only when absolutely necessary. He allowed the orchestra to almost imperceptibly grow in prominence in the last act so that the big chorus of heavenly redemption at the end could be the most magnificent climax of the evening, coming down big time on the side of redemption.

A redeeming last act in an opera of redemption was also the saving grace of the first “Tannhäuser,” but not nearly on this level. Contributing to the hard-won magnificence was, at one extreme, Morris Robinson’s imperial Landgrave Hermann, who is Elisabeth’s uncle and the hall’s big cheese. At the other extreme was Erica Petrocelli’s sweet-toned shepherd. The various troubadours eager to get a song in were well placed.

All this magnificence does comes at a price. L.A. Opera takes its mask mandate seriously and clearly knows there is a problem. Flyers on each seat beseech the audience to keep masks on for the health of all and the company too.

Yet there was the woman, mask off, eating and talking loudly behind me as I took my seat. A couple nearby, same thing. In the row in front, three had their masks below their noses. Bandanas for masks appear a fashion statement with the opera crowd.

The Music Center follows L.A. County guidelines, which means vaccinations or nervous-making proof of a negative test within 72 hours. Children under 12 are permitted if parents meet nervous-making guidelines. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale have boldly defied those Music Center guidelines and require full vaccination, period, to get in the door at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Even though L.A. Opera offers the option of purchasing a ticket for streamed performances, it is time that the company follow the L.A. Phil’s lead. Let the risk be in the staging, not the air.

MARK SWED | OCT. 25, 2021

Los Angeles Daily News

LA Opera’s ‘Tannhäuser’ is a feast for the ears, if not the eyes

In holistic medicine there is a therapy called a “Sound Bath” that heals by immersing the individual in an all-consuming, meditative world of music and song. That is certainly the experience offered by Los Angeles Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which opened Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Just the chance to hear a live 147-piece (brass resounding) orchestra, full men’s and women’s chorus, and a cast of dynamic vocalists, all under the direction of LA Opera’s music director and Wagnerian master, James Conlon, is transformative — especially after all we’ve been through for the last year and a half.

If Louisa Muller’s direction and Gottfried Pilz’s sets and costumes represented the opera’s original 13th-century setting, the stage would be filled with sword-bearing Germanic knights who take time out now and then to compete in signing contests. Instead, what we see are noble knights and ladies in elegant cocktail attire more attuned to the sophistication of Noel Coward or the ball from “My Fair Lady.” For them, love is chaste, “No sex please!”

The problem is, the opera’s hero, Tannhäuser (tenor, Issachah Savage), has, unbeknownst to his countrymen, been residing in the mystical, erotic realm of the Venusberg, arm-in-arm (and very much more) with his seductive paramour Venus (soprano Yulia Matochkina). And since LA Opera is performing Wagner’s 1861 Paris version of the opera, the overture melds directly into a ballet where lithe dancers cavort in Kama Sutra-esque variations. The Venusberg they inhabit, however, has all the appeal of a bare-bones, red-light strip club.

Poor Tannhäuser. It seems he is having second thoughts about all this indulgent pleasure. He tells Venus he longs for a good battle with lots of blood and a hefty dose of Christian piety. For him, he says, the party’s over!

And with that he finds himself back in the land of penitent pilgrims, singing knights (in black tie) and the virginal girl he left behind, Elisabeth (sung by the dynamic American soprano, Sara Jakubiak).

Tannhäuser is greeted by the most up-tight and proper of the knights, Wolfram von Eschenbach (tenor Lucas Meachem). He’s a poster child for the idea that “nice guys finish last,” but he does get to sing the opera’s greatest hit, “The Evening Star.” He greets his long-lost friend and urges him to compete in the annual singing joust — the topic is, “True Love.” At first all goes well until Tannhäuser can’t help voicing a refrain of, “You guys don’t know what love is!”

Finally, he loses it completely, with Elizabeth (who is the prize) looking on, and tells them if they want to really find out what love is, “Call Venus for a good time!”

With that, he is immediately shunned and subject to execution. But Elizabeth begs for his “salvation.” He must become a pilgrim, suffer and beg the Pope to be forgiven for his sins. Of course, Venus warned him, this is the life that lay in store. Nevertheless, “To Rome!” he proclaims and the curtain falls on Act 2.

Pining away in prayer, Elisabeth waits. And it must be said, that throughout the entire performance, Jakubiak, with her powerful voice and in-the-moment dramatic presence, is the only member of the cast that made any of this seem believable, right up to the moment of her demise.

When a haggard Tannhäuser finally returns, he admits his meeting with the Pope did not go as planned; forgiveness, it seems, is not his long suit when it comes to transgressions of an erotic nature with That Woman. For Tannhäuser, however, the option of picking up where he left off with Venus sounds pretty good. But it’s too late. No Venus. No Elizabeth. Time to die.

It’s really time for a revolutionary Feminist, Freudian, Marxist, LBGTQ take on “Tannhäuser.” If LA Opera presents a performance on the radio, don’t miss it. Close your eyes. It may be the best way to see it.

JIM FARBER | October 18, 2021


Music Rules LA Opera’s Tannhäuser

Few of us have experienced a truly Faustian struggle between different sides of our nature: For that we turn to operatic characters. We have “to vax or not to vax.” They have “to love carnally or spiritually.” Well, the love dichotomy may not weigh heavily on peoples’ minds now, but it is the central obsession of the hero in Tannhäuser, Richard Wagner’s four-hour opera that runs Oct. 16 – Nov. 6 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with two livestreamed performances on tap for Oct. 24 and 27.”

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

Unfortunately, the staging misfires on several levels. Getting off to a clumsy start, Tannhäuser (tenor Issachah Savage) is initially seen caressing a grand piano at the side of the stage, we’re not sure why. Then there were the sets by Gottfried Pilz: revolving walls of large doors resembled the glass elevators at the Bonaventure Hotel, with lighting design by LAO newcomer Marcus Doshi doing little more than making use of intense reds and greens, the mostly black-and-white third act notwithstanding.”

In the Act I ballet, the usually deft choreographer Azure Barton, who is also making her LAO debut, took flailing arms, rhythmic slithering, and awkward partnering to new heights in the eroticized realm of Venusberg. This was a decidedly different approach than in 2007, where dance was replaced by an orgy.”

There have been numerous updatings of Tannhäuser, with a 2019 mounting in Bayreuth by Tobias Kratzer featuring the minstrel as clown, his Citroën-driving Venus foraying to a Burger King and a cast that included drag queen, Le Gateau Chocolat. On the über-offensive side, Burkhard Kosminski’s 2013 production for Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf, Germany, featured swastika-festooned costumes and a set reminiscent of a gas chamber. That production, roundly booed, was, needless to say, cancelled shortly thereafter.”

Though in LAO’s current outing there were no such outlandish choices, it has a foot in both the traditional and updated camps. The production feels both nether-worldish and anachronistic. Pilz’s costumes — suits for the men, who looked more like Elks Lodge members gone amok, a standard-fare robed and hooded “Pilgrim’s Chorus” and gowns for the gals (additional costuming by Misty Ayres), topped by a black-and-white ball-cum-crooning contest comprising Act II. (The lustful terpsichores of Act I were in work-appropriate attire: filmy and flowy.)”

This neo-dystopian world did little to advance the story: a minstrel-knight returns home after a long erotic entrapment with the goddess Venus (mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina, in her LAO debut), so that he may pursue a more virtuous path. Of course, the singer’s argumentative confession of his adventure not only stuns the court but also leaves him in no position to gain the affections of the virginal Elisabeth (soprano Sara Jakubiak, also making her company debut).”

Savage’s singing of the exhausting lead grew more secure as the opera progressed but he didn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role. Opposite Savage, Matochinka thrilled with clarion tones. Jakubiak, while being appropriately girlish at times, sang potently, including a near-explosive “Dich, teure Halle,” while Erica Petrocelli as The Voice of the Shepherd, was in fine form.”

With a singing contest at the center of the opera, the minnesingers, these FOTs — fellow knights/friends of Tannhäuser — ruled: Baritone Lucas Meachem proved a formidable Wolfram, the one cavalier who doesn’t turn against the hero, his gentle, “Song to the Evening Star” a highlight; the always fine bass Morris Robinson comported himself well as the Landgrave (local ruler) Hermann and also served as the embodiment of the Pope. Adding to the testosterone quotient were tenors Robert Stahley as Walther von der Vogelweide and Anthony Ciaramitaro as Heinrich der Schreiber. Bass-baritones Philip Cokorinos and Patrick Blackwell gave Biterolf and Reinmar, respectively, some heft. ”

The third act opens with an orchestral prelude describing Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage. He’s been to Rome, but is refused papal forgiveness. Elisabeth prays that her soul be received in heaven, her dead body soon brought back onstage. Venus makes a brief appearance in a failed attempt to lure Tannhäuser back, before he collapses and dies, calling out “Holy Elisabeth, pray for me” by the corpse of his beloved. A chorus of children finally recounts a miracle: the Pope’s staff has sprouted greenery, redemption rules, and Elisabeth becomes a local saint. ”

The whole production would fall flat without the orchestra’s brilliance and the stamina of James Conlon, now in his 16th season as music director. What a sound they produced as he artfully articulated the pulsating lines of the score. The brass reverberated throughout the theater, while the strings were especially enthralling. Also impressive and never less than engaging was JoAnn Turovsky in her beautifully-plucked harp solos. Kudos, too, to outgoing chorusmaster Grant Gershon and the marvelous LAO chorus, again showing their musical mettle But it’s Conlon’s vision that makes the show work on a musico-dramatic level. “To my mind,” he writes in the program, “by experiencing this drama in the opera house, we actually live a part of the ‘optimistic’ version of romanticism to which [noted political, philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah] Berlin refers and allow our ‘infinite nature to soar.’”

Victoria Looseleaf | October 19, 2021


LA Opera glories in the music of Tannhäuser

If a contemporary audience of Tannhäuser has difficulty with the clichéd, Romantic elements of Wagner’s view of the feminine – woman as malevolent seductress or woman as saint and angel – then LA Opera’s sensitive production worked to temper the extremes.

Torn between sensual love as experienced in the underworld of the Venusberg, and his desire for freedom – for ‘spring’s awakening’ and ‘summer’s healing warmth’ – Tannhäuser flees to the upper world and finds himself welcomed back to the Medieval court of Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia. But it is the call of his former love, Elisabeth, that convinces the knight to stay.

In this original LAO production, thankfully, all is not black and white. Venus was indeed a seductress with her lustful cortege, but Yulia Matochkina’s goddess had very human emotions. Her love for Tannhäuser was palpable. As for the virginal Elisabeth, Sara Jakubiak seemed to be resisting her very physical desire for Tannhäuser. I wasn’t there for the 2007 staging directed by Ian Judge; this time around, Louisa Muller was at the helm.

The parallel duality of pagan and Christian, as represented by the Venusberg and the upper world of Thuringia, was modulated by the ambiguous, abstract setting. Revolving platforms with doors and windows were reconfigured to suggest the Venusberg or the Wartburg Castle’s Hall of Song. A massive and beautiful abstraction of the limbs of a birch tree demarcated the outdoor world, and stark lighting added the right notes of color throughout. Though short on inventiveness, the vaguely twentieth-century costumes had some virtues. They made the challenging themes somewhat more palatable. For example, there were simple shifts for the dancers rather than the near naked and clichéd apparel of many productions. The pilgrims wore modest white robes, sparing us the dirty rags of penitents. More puzzling were the ball gowns and tuxedos of the song contest, reminiscent of a Verdi opera.

However, once again, it was the extraordinary James Conlon and the LAO orchestra that brought this production to vivid life. The dual musical voices of the upper world and the lower – the spiritual and the erotic – were rendered in all their glorious colors. The strings were swoon-worthy, and the brass echoed in the mind long after the evening was over.

As the immortal Venus, Russian mezzo Matochkina was a force to be reckoned with both musically and dramatically. She reigned over her court with a steely presence while at the same time exuding warmth and intense sensuality. Choreographer Aszure Barton, who has worked with major international dance companies, managed to keep the feverish antics of the lustful to a less literal pitch. Except for a few lapses into Bob Fosse territory, her choreography used the dancers’ bodies with sculptural artistry, rather than as sex toys as in many previous productions.

As the evening progressed, Issachah Savage as Tannhäuser grew in expressive power, coming alive dramatically during his character’s frustrations in the song contest. It is here, when he can no longer bear the naivety of his fellow knights, that Tannhäuser explodes into his hymn of praise to Venus and shocks the assembly, propelling the act to its climax: Elisabeth’s defense of Tannhäuser’s body and soul.

As Elisabeth, Jakubiak’s soprano was powerful enough to hold sway over the horrified assembly and the LAO Orchestra. She was less the innocent girl next door and more the long-suffering woman in this production. In Act II, costumed in a ball gown with a low-cut neckline and massive stand-up collar, her dress seemed at odds with her virginal character. Nevertheless, Jakubiak prevailed, singing magnificently.

Baritone Lucas Meachem proved a charismatic Wolfram, solid in his friendship for Tannhäuser and tender in his unrequited love for Elisabeth. He sang the famous ‘Song to the Evening Star’ with elegance and depth of feeling. Morris Robinson’s luxurious bass and formidable presence on stage made him an imposing leader of the Thuringians.

Robert Stahley, Philip Cokorinos, Anthony Ciaramitaro and Patrick Blackwell were Tannhäuser’s fellow knights and minnesingers. They, along with Meacham and Savage, sang a rousing septet, encouraging the long-lost knight in a stunning ensemble at the conclusion of Act I.

Whether singing the religiously tranquil Pilgrims’ Chorus or the joyous Grand March, the LAO chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon brought forth the majesty of Wagner’s often frustrating but undeniably beautiful music drama.

Jane Rosenberg | Los Angeles, 24.10.2021

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