Richard Wagner’s epic opera about the timeless struggle between profane and sacred love unfurled at the L.A. Opera on Saturday over a period of almost 4 hours to a rapt audience. Say what you will about the controversial German composer (his operas are still not performed in Israel), Tannhauser is the quintessential opera, replete with soaring, melodious arias, archetypal human passions, and a turbulent backstory to boot.
Originally written for Dresden audiences in 1845, the opera did not enjoy the successes of Wagner’s earlier works, and he made subsequent revisions. It’s ironical that the version which arguably works the best (the one we were shown) is the one he created for the Paris Opera in 1861. Wagner broke with tradition and placed a long, voluptuous ballet at the beginning of the opera rather than the middle, creating such a fiasco that it had to be shut down after just three performances, forever dashing the composer’s hopes of establishing himself with the French.
The opera depicts the tale of a Franconian knight, Tannhauser (Tenor, Issachah Savage) who has spent an orgiastic sojourn with Venus, the goddess of love (Soprano, Yulia Matochkina) in her salaciously red-hot, pansexual abode, but now longs for the mundane and virtuous joys of mortals in medieval Thuringia, as well as the virtuous love of Elisabeth (Soprano, Sarah Jakubiak). But who, having tasted such wanton pleasures, can return to the puritanical mores of society? Certainly not our knight. Turning a deaf ear to Venus’s pleas and threats, Tannhauser returns to uptight Thuringia where he participates in a joust of love songs in honor of Elisabeth only to realize the naive and preposterous nature of courtly love. Losing his patience with his fellow knights, Wolfram (Baritone, Lucas Meachem) and Vogelweide (Tenor, Robert Stahley) he bursts into an ode to love’s unbridled, carnal nature and ends up being ostracized. Here Tannhauser becomes more than just a man well acquainted with and wistful of his lust. He is also the avant garde artist who dares to go against the grain, introducing something new and controversial to an obstinate, short sighted society that will make him repent.
The singers are in top form with Jakubiak’s Dich, teure Halle a rousing highlight of the evening. Under the direction of the brilliant James Conlon, Wagner’s music remains both melodiously romantic and darkly colubrine; Wagner’s influence on modern film composers like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams is indisputable, especially in the opening ballet. The contemporary sets and costumes by Gofried Prize are no doubt innovative, but incongruous, making us wish the modernizing had stopped somewhere short of baroque. There’s a good reason Wagnerian is an adjective, for Tannhauser is nothing if not dramatic and emotional on a massive scale.
— G. Dhalla
Wagner’s “Tannhauser” is running at the L.A. Opera through November 6th. Tickets HERE.