LA Opera glories in the music of Tannhäuser

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Tannhäuser: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 24.10.2021. (JRo)

Sara Jakubiak (Elisabeth, left) with the pilgrims © Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Original production – Ian Judge
Director – Louisa Muller
Sets and Costumes – Gottfried Pilz
Lighting – Marcus Doshi
Chorus director – Grant Gershon
Choreographer – Aszure Barton

Tannhäuser – Issachah Savage
Elisabeth – Sara Jakubiak
Venus – Yulia Matochkina
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Morris Robinson
Wolfram – Lucas Meachem
Biterolf – Philip Cokorinos
Walther von der Vogelweide – Robert Stahley
Heinrich der Schreiber – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Reinmar – Patrick Blackwell
Voice of Shepherd – Erica Petrocelli

If a contemporary audience of Tannhäuser has difficulty with the clichéd, Romantic elements of Wagner’s view of the feminine – woman as malevolent seductress or woman as saint and angel – then LA Opera’s sensitive production worked to temper the extremes.

Torn between sensual love as experienced in the underworld of the Venusberg, and his desire for freedom – for ‘spring’s awakening’ and ‘summer’s healing warmth’ – Tannhäuser flees to the upper world and finds himself welcomed back to the Medieval court of Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia. But it is the call of his former love, Elisabeth, that convinces the knight to stay.

In this original LAO production, thankfully, all is not black and white. Venus was indeed a seductress with her lustful cortege, but Yulia Matochkina’s goddess had very human emotions. Her love for Tannhäuser was palpable. As for the virginal Elisabeth, Sara Jakubiak seemed to be resisting her very physical desire for Tannhäuser. I wasn’t there for the 2007 staging directed by Ian Judge; this time around, Louisa Muller was at the helm.

The parallel duality of pagan and Christian, as represented by the Venusberg and the upper world of Thuringia, was modulated by the ambiguous, abstract setting. Revolving platforms with doors and windows were reconfigured to suggest the Venusberg or the Wartburg Castle’s Hall of Song. A massive and beautiful abstraction of the limbs of a birch tree demarcated the outdoor world, and stark lighting added the right notes of color throughout. Though short on inventiveness, the vaguely twentieth-century costumes had some virtues. They made the challenging themes somewhat more palatable. For example, there were simple shifts for the dancers rather than the near naked and clichéd apparel of many productions. The pilgrims wore modest white robes, sparing us the dirty rags of penitents. More puzzling were the ball gowns and tuxedos of the song contest, reminiscent of a Verdi opera.

However, once again, it was the extraordinary James Conlon and the LAO orchestra that brought this production to vivid life. The dual musical voices of the upper world and the lower – the spiritual and the erotic – were rendered in all their glorious colors. The strings were swoon-worthy, and the brass echoed in the mind long after the evening was over.

As the immortal Venus, Russian mezzo Matochkina was a force to be reckoned with both musically and dramatically. She reigned over her court with a steely presence while at the same time exuding warmth and intense sensuality. Choreographer Aszure Barton, who has worked with major international dance companies, managed to keep the feverish antics of the lustful to a less literal pitch. Except for a few lapses into Bob Fosse territory, her choreography used the dancers’ bodies with sculptural artistry, rather than as sex toys as in many previous productions.

Issachah Savage (Tannhäuser) & Yulia Matochkina (Venus) © Cory Weaver/LA Opera

As the evening progressed, Issachah Savage as Tannhäuser grew in expressive power, coming alive dramatically during his character’s frustrations in the song contest. It is here, when he can no longer bear the naivety of his fellow knights, that Tannhäuser explodes into his hymn of praise to Venus and shocks the assembly, propelling the act to its climax: Elisabeth’s defense of Tannhäuser’s body and soul.

As Elisabeth, Jakubiak’s soprano was powerful enough to hold sway over the horrified assembly and the LAO Orchestra. She was less the innocent girl next door and more the long-suffering woman in this production. In Act II, costumed in a ball gown with a low-cut neckline and massive stand-up collar, her dress seemed at odds with her virginal character. Nevertheless, Jakubiak prevailed, singing magnificently.

Baritone Lucas Meachem proved a charismatic Wolfram, solid in his friendship for Tannhäuser and tender in his unrequited love for Elisabeth. He sang the famous ‘Song to the Evening Star’ with elegance and depth of feeling. Morris Robinson’s luxurious bass and formidable presence on stage made him an imposing leader of the Thuringians.

Robert Stahley, Philip Cokorinos, Anthony Ciaramitaro and Patrick Blackwell were Tannhäuser’s fellow knights and minnesingers. They, along with Meacham and Savage, sang a rousing septet, encouraging the long-lost knight in a stunning ensemble at the conclusion of Act I.

Whether singing the religiously tranquil Pilgrims’ Chorus or the joyous Grand March, the LAO chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon brought forth the majesty of Wagner’s often frustrating but undeniably beautiful music drama.

Jane Rosenberg

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