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OPERA REVIEW

Wagner pornucopia

Once it gets past all the silly sex, Los Angeles Opera's `Tannhauser' redeems itself.

February 26, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

IN "Tannhauser," the second of his 10 mature operas and presented for the first time by Los Angeles Opera Saturday night, Wagner finds no sanction between love and lust. For sex, Tannhauser, a troubadour, sinks into the arms of the goddess of love, Venus, in her 24/7 orgy realm. For salvation, he returns to strait-laced society of the virginal Elizabeth and seeks the pope's forgiveness.

It might seem pretty clear what Wagner's idea of heaven is. Except nothing satisfies this troubled troubadour. Remorse ruins his stay in Venusberg. Inhibited castle life revives impulses unacceptable to churchgoers. Several years ago, Peter Sellars staged the opera in Chicago with Tannhauser a modern-day lapsed evangelist in the era of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The names have changed, but little else.

For its new production by Ian Judge, Los Angeles Opera -- ever eager to seem an adjunct of Hollywood -- advertises raunchiness, not redemption. Nudity is promised and delivered in quantity onto the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.

Tannhauser is here an over-the-hill, '50s style, mustachioed, pompadoured crooner. The Earth he returns to might be British high society or royalty. Elizabeth's hairdo matches Princess Diana's. Troubadours accompany themselves on a grand piano. The earthly scenes are splendid. After a troubled start, Peter Seiffert proves a pungent, touching Tannhauser. Petra Maria Schnitzer is a glorious Elizabeth.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Mozart opera: A review of Los Angeles Opera's "Tannhauser" in Monday's Calendar section called a Mozart opera "The Abduction of Figaro." It is "The Abduction From the Seraglio."

But first things first. The opera starts with the bacchanal in Venusberg. Extras dressed in variations of long skirts and formal tails slowly disrobe down to thongs and shorts. Clothes and Mark Doubleday's glamorous lighting are all red.

You can't see much, the stage is dark and bodies appear indistinct. The effect is what I imagine the Transportation Security Administration has in mind with those new X-ray machines equipped with body-smoothing peep filters it threatens to put in airports. Women are trim, the men hunky, as if a West Hollywood gym had been raided. Coupling is every which way, kinks included, all of it self-consciously mechanical. At the scene's end, everyone ends up in a photo-op group grope.

Everyone, that is, except Tannhauser and Venus, fully dressed in evening clothes. A bickering old couple between whom any spark had long ago been extinguished, they could have been sent by a marriage counselor to the Playboy mansion. A hyperactive shepherd child in a Sherpa's get-up with rudimentary angel's wings takes Tannhauser home.

You, too, might think of doing the same, especially if you've come for the nudity. Wagnerians don't have much to look forward to in the first act either. Seiffert, a veteran Tannhauser, looks and sounds uncomfortable throughout this act. Lioba Braun's edgy Venus exhibits more rage than Eros. James Conlon conducts the act with a studious firm hand and his love of a long lyrical line, but sets no one on fire.

After half an hour of silly sex, a lot of redemption is required. Amazingly, the makeshift production achieves it.

L.A. Opera has always in the past treated Wagner as special. David Hockney designed its "Tristan and Isolde," Julie Taymor directed "The Flying Dutchman," Robert Wilson set "Parsifal" aglow. This time, the company made less effort.

Gottfried Pilz's sets of revolving walls of tall doors were adapted from a Salzburg Festival production of Mozart's "The Abduction of Figaro" (it can be seen on a new DVD). Pilz's second-act costumes are Salzburg similar as well. Judge, who is an L.A. Opera regular, had the unenviable task of anonymously updating "Tannhauser."

Judge accomplishes that brilliantly with the song contest in the second act, at least once past the awkward prancing of the chorus' entrance. Tannhauser stalks the hall, impatient with upstanding citizens but never sure of himself either. Even songs sung at the piano, while a troubadour's harp is heard from the orchestra, are surprisingly interesting.

Still, it is Schnitzer's Elizabeth who, by supplying the warmth and ardor missing from Venus, illuminates this production. Martin Gantner is an appealing Wolfram, the one knight who doesn't turn against Tannhauser, and his song to the evening star, given a slow and stately tempo by Conlon, is moving. Rodrick Dixon makes Walther von der Vogelwiede the most fervent troubadour. Franz Josef Selig is a capably rigid Heinrich, Elizabeth's uncle.

The last act is a director's nightmare. Tannhauser, now an anguished pilgrim, does not achieve the pope's pardon. Elizabeth dies for his sins. He dies for his sins. God overrules the pope with a miracle.

Stepping back, Judge let the music do its business. Conlon trusted Wagner, urging a glowing sound from the pit. The chorus and orchestra, uneven but mostly decent all evening, consistently rose to the occasion here.

"Tannhauser," which usually starts wonderfully and ends drearily, did just the opposite Saturday night. Forget the ads. Los Angeles Opera's "Tannhauser" redeems itself Wagner's way, not Hollywood's. Whether you consider that triumph or tragedy may depend upon which side of town you live.

mark.swed@latimes.com

*

`Tannhauser'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, March 8 and 15; 2 p.m. March 11 and 18

Price: $30 to $220

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com

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