Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Be careful what you wish for...

September 30, 2007

Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
It seems almost unfair to criticize David Gockley's artistic leadership of the San Francisco Opera after such a short time on the job in the wake of the much-maligned new SF production of Tannhäuser - the first of his tenure. But on the other hand, he asked for it. Even though it was designed and directed by Graham Vick, Mr. Gockley has taken more of the heat in the newspapers. I can see why. Despite his oft repeated distaste for anachronism, Mr. Gockley apparently has no problems with heavy-handed symbolism. (Note to Mr Vick: in Wagner the heavy-handed symbolism is already built in. - Add extra at your own risk.) I won't go into specifics here since there is a far wittier summary than I could ever produce over at The Standing Room. Mr. Gockley did in fact get something akin to "period costumes," as he requested, though the result often makes Peter Seiffert look more like the Dude than any Medieval knight I'm familiar with. Thank god he protected the sensitive SF audience from fedoras for this.

Perhaps I'm being a tad unfair. It was a handsome production. It's just that it was an excessively dull one as well. Like helium, it could be lighter than air, but was often little more than inert gas. The musical values were in fact excellent. Seiffert and Schnizter are the leading practitioners of these roles and they dazzled here as in Los Angeles Opera's far superior production earlier this year. Donald Runnicles worked his magic and the orchestra was superior. I would disagree with the gentleman behind me who told his companion that the playing was too "light" and "Italianate" for "what is essentially a German opera." True, there is much on the surface of Tannhäuser that would make it seem Italian, but it is essentially a German opera. It's moments like this that I'm convinced that people who don't think they like opera think so less because of what anyone says or does on stage, and more because of the kind of people they have to sit in the audience with. (My neighbors had an extensive reflection on the prodigious acting talents of Angelina Jolie)

Of course, this compounds the possible direction problems under Gockley, given that Runnicles, who will be leaving San Francisco in the next few years, continues to be the company's biggest asset. But who knows? I could be wrong and perhaps the company is about to arise from the ashes like some pre-pubescent teen with the word peace scrawled across his chest.


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