Monday, December 3, 2007

Rethinking Wagner

It's no secret that we live in the era of the stage director. Nor is it news that certain stage directors like to spruce up the operas they interpret in order to make them more relevant to today's audiences. Several years ago, while rehearsing Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at the Chautauqua Opera, director Peter Mark Schifter decided to see what would happen if someone entered Juliette's tomb before she could stab herself to death. As a result, one of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers remained alive at the end of the opera. Word of Schifter's experiment quickly reached the Washington Opera (which had contracted the director to stage Romeo et Juliette at the Kennedy Center several months later) and, at the stroke of midnight, the telephone rang in Peter's motel room. As Schifter picked up the receiver, he heard the gravelly voice of Martin Feinstein barking at him like an angry Mafia don. "Peter?" bellowed the General Director of the Washington Opera. "This is Martin. I want those two kids dead!"

All too often, Richard Wagner's operas fall prey to "directoritis." In their attempts to make Wagner's 19-hour tetralogy seem more relevant, stage directors have transplanted the Ring of the Nibelungen to industrial factories, concentration camps and outer space! The Flying Dutchman has been reworked until the opera bears little resemblance to Wagner's original vision. Several years ago, a European production of Tristan und Isolde had dancers miming the romantic leads while their music was delivered by two singers stationed in the orchestra pit.

This fall, two of Wagner's most religious works, Tannhauser and Parsifal, were given the royal treatment by stage directors who are known for their wretched interpretive excess (one has even been nicknamed "the Hollywood ax-murderer of opera"). The curious results of their experiments proved that when a director does his homework and is willing to stretch a modern audience's credibility to its limits, an otherwise dusty Wagnerian opera can become an extremely meaningful experience. Alas, audiences in San Francisco also learned that when a less-inspired production team stages a five-hour religious epic with limited dramatic insight, they can end up witnessing little more than some pretty stage dioramas which fail to capture the spiritual core of the opera in question.


The "major scandale" of this fall's opera season was Peter Sellars' highly-publicized interpretation of Tannhauser at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Taking risks is the name of Sellars' game. The success of his Tannhauser went much further than offering one of the most exciting opera/music theatre experiences to be found on the North American continent this fall; it delivered a stern warning to cowardly General Directors that their audiences really can and do want to take risks.

Although about 80% of the production was dramatically riveting, the problem which plagued Sellars throughout the evening was his morbid fascination with communicating text. In an attempt to transmit three levels of thought to the audience (Wagner's original libretto, the poetic sources which might have inspired the composer, and Sellars' own raunchy contemporary version of what the characters were thinking) the director attempted to use three sets of Supertitles which were projected in a patriotic red, white and blue color scheme. If this experiment failed miserably, it was because (a) the audience couldn't follow the color coding too easily while trying to pay attention to what was happening onstage, and (b) Sellars' use of the English language, when taken to its basest extremes, becomes much more juvenile than the ideas he is attempting to communicate visually. Phrases like "Racy ream" or "Grab that harp, honey," sound bratty and infantile. Sadly, they also serve to reinforce Peter's image as a "bad boy director" while detracting from the basic dramatic strength of his work.

Much of his work as a stage director is excellent. Although there was enough nudity and progressiveness onstage to offend any and all Wagnerian traditionalists, the bulk of the evening was theatrically brilliant. The first act showed Tannhauser and Venus in a motel room (dressed as Jimmy Swaggart and some blowsy prostitute) while naked female dancers did aerobics in the hallways; their bouncing breasts highlighting certain snatches of music. Act II took place in the Reverend Schuller's Crystal Cathedral as a group of singing evangelists waged musical war for top honors in some kind of holier-than-thou religious sweepstakes.

Act III hit home with the greatest dramatic power. Dubbed as "the lonely crossroads," Sellars placed the action near sunset in a sterile airport lounge at LAX. George Tsypin's airport panorama was simple, unobtrusive and yet remarkably eloquent. In this staging, the pilgrims' chorus became a group of weary travelers carrying attache cases and shoulder bags as they disembarked from a long international flight. A drunken Tannhauser was rudely escorted off the plane by security guards and, near the end of the opera, Venus made her crucial comeback in the form of a busty American Airlines stewardess as the dying Elisabeth, her body hooked up to intravenous supports, was wheeled onstage in an ambulance stretcher. Wolfram's ode to the evening star (magnificently sung by Hakan Hagegard) has never had a more wrenching and lyrical poignancy. Special credit goes to George Tsypin and John Boesche for their evocative scenic projections and to Jennifer Tipton for her sensitive lighting designs.

Despite the occasional vocal weaknesses of the aging Richard Cassilly (who replaced William Johns in the title role on extremely short notice) the opening night performance was musically quite strong. Ferdinand Leitner's conducting was rock-solid and, in addition to Jan Hendrik Rootering's august Hermann and Ben Heppner's Walther, soprano Nadine Secunde displayed a voice of impressive proportions in her American debut as the preacher's goody two-shoes daughter, Elisabeth. Last, but certainly not least, Sellars' production proved (in its steamier moments) that the more clothing you rip off soprano Marilyn Zschau, the more likely she is to sing on pitch.


While the San Francisco Opera's new Parsifal was magnificently sung by a splendid cast of soloists, its dramatic impact was so minimal as to be downright embarrassing. In attempting to effect some kind of pantheistic symbolism to satisfy director Nicolas Joel, Pet Halmen's fiberglass sets ended up looking like a grove of Lalique trees at Forest Lawn. Large scenic elements (the huge skull in which Klingsor made his descent at the beginning of Act II as well as Kundry's peacock bed) made one think of Donn Arden's ridiculously overproduced and excessively campy Las Vegas spectacles. While the two mounds of muscle pudding in G-strings who held the tethers to Klingsor's skull whetted one's appetite for some healthy ass play, their pulchritudinous presence had little to do with the kind of inspiration Wagner's opera should offer.

Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier (who spent most of Act II dressed like a Halloween drag queen) made a stunning debut as Kundry while Jorma Hynninen's Amfortas and Kurt Moll's Gurnemanz sang with a dignity befitting Wagner's score. Rene Kollo's soundly-sung Parsifal demonstrated that ignorance (especially when surrounded by a bevy of very strange-looking flower maidens) can indeed be bliss. Unfortunately, as Klingsor, Walter Berry sounded way past his prime.

As expected, Sir John Pritchard took his time meandering toward the final curtain and, while I am a great admirer of Pet Halmen's work as a stage and costume designer, his Parsifal, all too often, was better off being heard and not seen. However, San Franciscans can take comfort in the knowledge that the final new production to emanate from Terry McEwen's administration will probably not be seen again for quite some time.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 8, 1988.

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