Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Sex: The Worst Thing You Can Do--Tannhäuser at LA Opera

Michael Palin once said “All I ask of food is that it doesn’t harm me”, and I’m beginning to have the same view of LA Opera’s productions—all I ask is that they don’t chisel away little chunks of my soul until I’m an empty shell of a critic. Since there haven’t been any Robert Wilson productions this year, my soul is in fairly good shape so far. My boredom gland, on the other hand, has been working overtime, and it pulled another double shift this weekend at Tannhäuser, which, for all its big promises of onstage boobage, was really rather dull.

Any residual goodwill I had toward Wagner after last year’s Met Parsifal is pretty much gone. I don’t hate him because he was a total dick (and I don’t mean just because his name was “Richard”)—most of my problems with Wagner come from the fact that he’s horribly self-indulgent. This is a bit rich coming from someone who 1.)has never created anything particularly beautiful or special, and 2.) writes 3,000-word opera reviews, but Wagner obviously thought he was hot shit, and therein lies the problem. As a composer, he was great, but as a dramatist and librettist… Tannhäuser’s libretto is flabby, badly paced, and full of omissions. Why do the characters repeat themselves over and over, at the expense of seeing any backstory? I don’t know why Elisabeth loves Tannhäuser so much; Wagner just tells us that she does and leaves it at that. Then again, I might have been sleeping during that part, because the second half of the first act dragged quite a bit. **Note: Yes, I was sleeping at that part. It was his losing song that made Elisabeth fall for Tannhäuser. Well, it’s not a good reason, but I’m sure there have been much stupider ones in opera. Still, I think I’d prefer to see that original singing contest than a 15 minute orgy.

As an aside, the entire opera makes no sense whatsoever because Venus is a pagan goddess and therefore doesn’t exist in Christianity. So what (or who) was Tannhäuser doing in that cavern? Either she was just a random whore in a cave, or he’d been fucking a hole in a wall connected to a milking machine that doesn’t let go until fifty gallons have been withdrawn. That would explain his exhaustion at least. I know I’m being maddeningly literal, and that Venus is supposed to represent the feminine in fleshly form or something, but I choose to be literal because the alternative is too insulting. In Tannhäuser, the gates of hell are clearly shaped like a “V”.

But going to a Wagner opera and complaining about a poorly paced, repetitive, misogynist libretto is kind of like writing a review of Beethoven’s 9th and complaining that it’s a symphony. In nonsensical corporate-speak, it is what it is. At any rate, the music is quite beautiful, and there are some gorgeous arias in it, such as Wolfram’s “Ode to the Evening Star”.

As much as I’d like to see a version of Tannhäuser in which Tannhäuser is a former porn star (he could tell the other knights to go to the San Fernando Valley to learn how it’s done!), updating this opera just doesn’t work. But the people at LA Opera never met an opera they couldn’t update for the sake of cheaper sets and costumes, and so the women wore ‘40s-‘50s style ballgowns and the men wore gangster-like suits. Most of the supernumeraries wore nothing at all (though the male ones had those flesh-colored thong things on that made them look like Ken dolls with just a bizarre flesh-toned flap in front). The set itself was recycled from a production of The Marriage of Figaro, with rather oppressive black doors that could slide around to create different rooms.

I think there was supposed to be some sort of symbolism involved with the color choices—red for Act I, scene I; white for Act I, scene ii; mostly black for Act II; and green for Act III. It could’ve either been Christmas or the pan-African flag. The red was anviliciously obvious (red-light district and everything), since Act I, scene i was at least 9/10ths orgy. In that scene, the two rotating pieces of set turned to show different rooms of Venus’s Den of Naughtiness, like back in the day on Wheel of Fortune when the poor “winner” had to choose “prizes” off a rotating set. This was Wheel of Fornication: “Yes, Pat, I’d like the diamond-studded ceramic poodle for $100, and some cunnilingus for $75.” The orgy itself (which is called “The Bacchanalia” on the LA Opera website) was one of the least erotic things I’ve ever seen, beaten only by Marlon Brando telling the girl in Last Tango in Paris to “get the butter.” The word “bacchanalia” implies a lack of abandon or a hedonistic frenzy, but the orgy in Tannhäuser was just a bunch of well-toned people verrrrry sloooowly taking off their clothes and mechanically simulating a variety of sexual acts – girl-on-boy, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy, S&M – it was a porn sampler, but it didn’t look very fun. Where were the wispy mounds, the honeyed linings, the mossy clefts? That wasn’t eroticism; it was just animatronic porn. Also, the director seems to have missed the fact that Venus was the goddess of love, not just the goddess of fucking.

Act I, scene ii had another ubiquitous LA Opera fixture—the unnecessary child that’s either painted or dressed in white. The child usually does the Cabbage Patch, or walks while pretending to fan away a fart, or eats invisible grubs. Luckily, the one in Tannhäuser, who was supposed to be the shepherd (the role was sung offstage by a woman), just pretended to play in the snow. But since no child’s appearance can be not baffling, this kid had little wings on the back of his jacket, and then later reappeared at Tannhäuser’s death with full wings and an emo-boy haircut. Why? I guess nothing will banish the ghost of Robert Wilson and his numbnuttery from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. His shade again reared its hideous head during the procession of the nobles in Act II, which, of course, had the noblemen and women doing intensely funny walks into the Wartburg.

All this might have been overlooked if the singing had been up to the standard of, say, that Parsifal at the Met. But it wasn’t. The performances weren’t bad either; rather, they were mostly just bland and inoffensive—not painful, but not at all inspiring. Petra-Maria Schnitzer stood out the most as Elisabeth. Her voice was warm and full, and made it easy to believe that the character’s soul was as beautiful as her voice.

Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser got better as the night went on, though his voice had a worryingly wide wobble in the higher passages, and he never seemed believably eloquent; his voice would never have won a singing competition. Physically, Seiffert was even less equal to the task and tended to lumber around the stage like a bear in a Robert Goulet mask. Even when all the other men had on their gangster suits, Tannhäuser never relinquished his Venusberg souvenir black silk pajamas.

Martin Gantner’s Wolfram was predictably nerdy and looked like the Nazi who melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His voice wasn’t baritonal in the least, which made the “Ode to the Evening Star” somewhat disappointing for me, even though he sang it well. I just expect Wolframs to sound like baritones. Gantner’s performance was also affected by the direction. Instead of seeming like a true friend to Tannhäuser, he was always kind of lurking around, watching Elisabeth and Tannhäuser, and then at the end, Wolfram went with Venus, which made no sense at all and turned him into a hypocrite.

Not even her bejeweled nipples could make Lioba Braun’s strident Venus alluring. Franz-Joseph Selig was a fine Landgrave, and the other knights were, for the most part, better than your average American Idol contestant during the singing contest in Act II and were strong in the ensemble singing. The weak link in the cast was Rodrick Dixon as Walther, who seemed like he was about to be an on-the-spot reporter for Muppet News Flash. If Elisabeth had been a jealous, purple-gloved pig, Walther would’ve won the singing competition for sure. Dixon’s Kermity tones stood out during the ensemble pieces and were quite distracting.

The less said of James Conlon the better, not because he conducted poorly, but because I know he’ll say plenty about himself...long and boringly too. The orchestra played well, aside from some roughness in the horn section.

I’ve been trying very hard to figure out why Parsifal worked for me last year while Tannhäuser didn’t. It’s too easy to write it off with the “Wagner is a pompous, self-important blowhard” defense or to say that Parsifal at the Met worked because the cast was far superior to that of the LA Tannhäuser (it was, but that’s not it). I could even say that I have a tiny brain in my rump that says it doesn’t like being sat on for four hours straight. Both libretti are quite misogynist, though for some reason, I think that I can understand Parsifal better because I am a woman. In Kundry, I think that Wagner came as close as he ever would to writing a realistic, sympathetic woman (yes, realistic in spite of the fact that she’s a thousand year-old sorceress. In Tannhäuser, the female roles are strictly black and white—naughty ho-bag Venus and pure as driven snow Elisabeth. Kundry, on the other hand, has done bad things (real bad things, not just getting plowed), yet she wants to be redeemed and chooses to be redeemed. That is what humanity is—the right to choose the wrong way or the right way, because you want to, not because the Pope’s wood won’t sprout for you.

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