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A Tenor for the Times : Wolfgang Schmidt brings power and passion to 'Tannhauser' in the San Francisco Opera presentation.


SAN FRANCISCO — Hats off, gentlemen. A Tannhauser. The real, irrational thing.

His name is Wolfgang Schmidt. Bayreuth knows him as Siegfried. The Met has seen him as Bacchus. At the War Memorial Opera House on Thursday, he proved that the bona fide Wagnerian tenor may not be as rare as the dodo bird after all.

Schmidt is not an absolute paragon. Contrary to Richard Wagner's prescription, he is human. He forces for impact once in a while, and his tone sometimes tightens under pressure. In context, it hardly matters.

Here is a singer who has all the basic goods, and, for the most part, uses them with rare skill, imposing fervor and affecting theatricality. Here, at last, is a Germanic hero who looks like a Germanic hero (in opera, everything is relative), and, more important, sounds like one.

Wagner certainly wasn't kind to any of his protagonists, but he may have been least kind to this one. The composer demanded that his minstrel knight command leather lungs, endless stamina, the touch of a poet, expressive ardor and a top register that can sustain fervor throughout a four-hour marathon with the worst test coming at the end.

This, of course, was asking too much of a singing mortal, especially a male singing mortal who happens to have a high voice. But Schmidt, oddly underrated, rose honorably--even poignantly--to every challenge on Thursday.

He sang the introspective passages with something remarkably akin to bel-canto purity. He brought plangent power to the mighty outbursts. He enacted both the agonies and the ecstasies of the foolish hero with passionate conviction, and paced himself wisely. He actually made the treacherous Rome Narrative in the last act the overwhelming climax it should be, yet all too seldom is.

It would be wonderful to report that the San Francisco Opera mustered a new "Tannhauser" worthy of its new Tannhauser. No such luck.

Lotfi Mansouri, the beleaguered general director of the company, staged the sprawling masterpiece as if it were a dull museum piece. Gerard Howland, the resident designer, devised budget sets (partially recycled) that flip-flopped from silly stylization to vulgar symbolism to hoary pictorialism. Walter Mahoney provided costumes that suggested an indiscriminate raid on a musty warehouse.

The first act was amusing, at least, in its arcane corniness. The Venusberg turned out to be a glitzy showplace in which semi-nude (also quasi-nude) dancers wiggled through Vegas-vulgarity routines (choreographed by Michael Smuin) and struck soft-core porno poses amid lots of mirrors, a back-panel projection worthy of Neuschwanstein and quaintly ominous snake statuary. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Venus and paramour were rolled on, reclining, literally, on a half shell.

No wonder Tannhauser suffered the pangs of wanderlust.

From here, the director and designer took us to a painterly redwood forest in old Deutschland and thence to an outdoor hall of song that resembled bad window dressing at good old Macy's. Finally, it was back to the forest for a prosaic finale in which Wolfram sang his beloved ode to an invisible evening star. The proper illusions remained painfully elusive.

The musical values turned out to be more persuasive, thanks to Donald Runnicles' work in the seemingly understaffed pit. Conducting the Paris version of the score, he consistently stressed propulsion and lyricism that hark back to Meyerbeer. In the process, he slighted the massive grandeur and dramatic energy that preview coming Wagnerian attractions. It was a legitimate approach, however, and, in this limited context, it made good sense.

The cast, reasonably strong by current standards, was patently uneven. As the boringly saintly Elisabeth, Deborah Voigt often sounded glorious (better loud than soft) and looked like the operatic diva caricatured in all those unkind New Yorker cartoons. Catherine Keen mustered a pallid, vocally small-scaled counterforce as the should-be sultry Venus.

Jorma Hynninen, oddly stilted and somewhat monochromatic, brought much sensitivity if not much voice to the sanctimonious baritonal platitudes of Wolfram. Victor von Halem introduced a woolly, woofy, strangely muted basso as Landgraf Hermann.

The duties of the secondary knights were allotted to bland young journeymen. James Locke piped the song of the shepherd boy sweetly--though not as sweetly as a girl-soprano can. The all-important chorus, trained by Ian Robertson, seemed drastically under-powered.

This, not incidentally, was San Francisco's first "Tannhauser" in 21 years. Perhaps things will be better in 2015. Hope springs internal.

* "Tannhauser," presented by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House, 199 Grove St. (at Van Ness), San Francisco. Remaining performances Sunday at 1:30, Wednesday, Saturday and Nov. 2 at 7:30. Tickets $10 (standing room) to $130. Information: (415) 864-3330.

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