I think we can safely call Graham Vick’s production of Tannhauser controversial, which might be the only safe thing about it. Actually, I think Tannhauser itself is sort of a hard sell these days; when it’s new any piece's strangeness works against it, and then it becomes overfamiliar and taken for granted, and it’s difficult to find the moment of perfect balance, especially when cultural conditions have changed as much as they have between nineteenth century Germany and twenty-first century America. For one thing, if we don’t actually live in Venusberg, we’d like to, or we assume that we should; I’ve had to explain to people why the Wartburg court might look askance at the realm of unbridled sensuality (think of it as the end of Death in Venice, when the Dionysiac leads to dissolution, ghastly comedy, and death). People who eagerly hang categorical labels on themselves as well as others, or the many journalists who blithely declare that “the boundaries between workplace and private life are dissolving” as if that’s a good thing, are not in the cultural frame of mind to understand the tormented divisions of Wagner’s creation. Tannhauser is a man in constant confrontation with the agonizing limitations of life: if you’re in one place doing one thing, you can’t also be anyplace else doing anything else; you thereby, every moment, cut yourself off from thousands of life’s possibilities, and the further you go the less able you are to encompass all of life.
I’m going to mention some of the things that went wrong with the production, but most of them are fairly minor, and to me Vick’s production was an honest and intriguing approach. It’s also an example of what I think of as the staging gap between opera and other forms of theater: the single set, with its seraphic corbels and large symbolically used windows above a dirt floor, and its tree and big harp stuck in the middle of the stage, and its consistent use of the ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water), wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows at all in a production of King Lear, or even of The Way of the World. I’ve read and heard from people who hated this production, and I respect that. I don’t see any need for an avant-garde pissing contest with anyone (even the need to be avant-garde can be a trap). If you don’t have an initial connection with this type of production, then you just don’t. Many times I've heard people talk about "Jungian archetypes" and I think, Or you might say, "cliches" or "stereotypes". Other times I’ve listed dozens of objections to particular productions, only to get the response, “I agree with all you’ve said, but I still liked it.” And that’s fine with me. There’s a level different from the intellectual at which we respond (which is part of what Venusberg is about, and why I was careful to say “different from” rather than “below”). But here’s the thing: I can’t slam the Opera for being as timid as school kids at their first dance and then sneer at them when they do something adventurous. For his first season Gockley would have thrilled a lot of locals if he’d thrown Boheme on stage with a couple of well-known names from the Met and plenty of half-hour intermissions so that all the fancy overstuffed furniture could be moved on stage and all the fancy overstuffed audience members could admire each other and themselves. Instead he took a chance on a non-traditional approach to a big work, and even if the result had been less successful than I considered this Tannhauser, I’d rather see an interesting failure than a safe, conventional production that will be forgotten the next day. He could have kept on sticking Fledermauses into the schedule, but he didn’t, and I have to salute that gratefully.
The major staging mistake was having Wolfram strangle Elisabeth, at her request. I don’t see any need to spell out how exactly she dies, and it’s already clear how deeply Tannhauser’s desertion has wounded her. She just needs to be up in Heaven at the end so that her Ewig-Weibliche qualities can redeem him (whatever redemption means in this context; at the Wagner Society’s Tannhauser symposium, someone asked why he had to die at the end, but there’s really no other resolution to his riven personality). It’s against Wolfram’s character to do something so rash, especially to a woman he loves himself in his conventional courtly way, but the main point is that there is nothing in the music to justify the murder, which has the psychological and moral implications to be an opera in itself.
I should say a few words justifying Elisabeth (and in a different time, it would be Venus I would have to defend, but the Goddess of Love requires no feeble aid from me). I don’t think she’s a simp or conventional, though like Desdemona it is part of her tragedy that she is seen that way, and not just because of her social status, but also because of her compassion and individuality. She is drawn to Tannhauser, as Desdemona to Othello, exactly because of the alien qualities that repel the genuinely conventional. Given the court’s frequent references to her as an angel, it’s revealing that she is drawn to the one man who thinks of her as a woman, and she boldly intervenes to rescue him at the song contest. And I’m not sure if I’m making this up, but I’ve always understood her to be at least partly based on St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who defied government orders (that would be either her father or her husband; I can’t remember the details) by continuing to give help to the poor and oppressed. Here’s her miracle: she was stopped on her charitable way with her cloak full of bread; when ordered to open it, the bread had been turned into roses. Like many saints she’s subversive beneath the halo, and if Elisabeth isn’t exactly the same woman, she’s that type.
Most of my objections to the staging other than the inserted mercy killing are minor or debatable. The Landgraf shouldn’t enter on a real horse. Live animals always get the audience’s attention, which is why they’re almost always a mistake, since what the audience is attentive to is whether the animal will crap on stage. Tannhauser should not play his harp with the sweeping gestures wittily described in The Standing Room as “air harp” and Venus should not open her towel to flash him, as such coy naughtiness is beneath the dignity of a goddess. I had mixed feelings about the pilgrims having their sins written on them. It is a bit over-literal. On the other hand, it’s exactly the sort of thing medieval pilgrims would do. We all draw the line in different places: what bothered me about the words is that if they are actually cut into the pilgrim’s flesh as the program states, then they can’t really wash them off later, and the words would be scarred over after the pilgrimage (wouldn’t gangrene have set in by then otherwise?), and if the pilgrimage ends when the leaves are falling, wouldn’t it be too chilly for the pilgrims (all of whom are male, though that might be Wagner and not Vick) to have bare torsos, and if they’re using the cold to punish themselves even after the pilgrimage, then what was the point?
But to turn to yet another hand, the pilgrim’s inscribed sins were echoed at the end by the children emerging from the earth with virtues written on their bodies, and again, you might find this too obvious, but without it the striking image just uses the children themselves as symbols of hope and rebirth, a use which can only be justified by those who have no memory of what being a child is like. I don’t usually like having types of people representing qualities, and if you wanted to object to the way the main women in this work function symbolically or as means of redemption, then I won’t argue with you, because I think such representations work only if you take “masculine” and “feminine” as conventional labels for different, more ambiguously gendered qualities (say, justice or law or war versus mercy or creative nurturing or peace). But it’s best not to be too literal about the staging, since its suggestiveness is its strength.
For instance, the tree and the harp center stage: are they nature and art? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil versus the angelic harps? The living (and therefore the sexual) versus the man-created? Or did the stage picture just need the anchor of the tree as a strong vertical element, and a subordinate (sometimes horizontal) element in the harp to keep the other object from dominating the stage? The end of the first act exemplifies the method: Tannhauser joins the retinue from the Wartburg court to return to civilization and Elisabeth, and the hunters throw down their kill and start carving it up, an act foreshadowing the attempted killing of Tannhauser in the second act, or showing the Wartburg court’s destructive, possessive attitude towards flesh, or simply because that is what hunters have to do with their kill – slice it up for easy transport. Venusberg itself is staged to suggest something other than just “this place represents sex”; the Martha-Graham-does-Pilates dancing suggests the primitive or chthonic or aggressive rather than the standard funtime orgy. As I suggested earlier, it’s probably wise, particularly for a contemporary San Francisco audience, not to make Venusberg too clearly just about sex. The use of a single set suggested that Venusberg and Wartburg are not so much separate places as separate mental states, or approaches to life.
The production was like an art installation. It used an elemental approach throughout, not just with the dirt floor, but in the vivid sky blue (or watery blue) of Elisabeth’s cloak (which also helps associate her with Mary as well as relieving the steady pale ash-gray of the set; if you think of the Virgin’s endlessly altar-pieced cloak, it’s that shade of blue), and in the fires of Venusberg. I had some mixed feelings about the fire. It is a common symbol for passion (perhaps too common, though I didn’t object to its use in the Sellars/Viola staging of Tristan), as well as purification and also destruction. But the ring of fire around Venus and Tannhauser did indeed make me think of Johnny Cash, and even more than that it made me think of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. And the tree bursting into flame as an apparition of Venus was visually stunning, but the bush that burns yet is not consumed is already pretty strongly associated with a different Deity. But visually you needed the hot orange color of the flickering flames to contrast with the cool blue of Elisabeth (also, I really like watching things burn). The ending, with the children emerging from the earth and individually placing green leaves on the bare limbs of the tree beneath a steady hazy shower of rain coming down through a strong white light, was also visually stunning (unless you had already checked out of the show, in which case it wasn’t going to change your mind) and thrillingly solved the problem of making the staff flower without looking like a provincial magic show.
If I haven’t mentioned the musical side of things until now, it’s because I think there’s a lot less debate about that than about the staging. Even those who hated this production could shut their eyes and be drawn into the performance while visualizing their own preferred action. Runnicles is known for his Wagner, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be praised every time he conducts it (though I have to admit there’s usually a moment in the beginning of his Wagner performances when it seems a bit slow to me, but then either he adjusts or I do). I particularly liked Ji Young Yang as the sweet-toned young shepherd. Petra Maria Schnitzer was strong and sweet as Elisabeth. I was a little more mixed about Petra Lang’s Venus; she was vivid and fiery, but there was a sort of metallic edge to her voice that I don’t always respond to. And Peter Seiffert commanded the stage, unflagging for hours, as the tormented Tannhauser.