Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Love for Sale

March 01, 2007

I knew a girl named Nikki...
Photo: Robert Millard 2007

Perhaps the only thing less erotic than watching people have real sex on stage is watching them have simulated sex on stage. Or at least it felt like that last night in the opening minutes of LA Opera’s new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Ian Judge. For Judge, Venusberg was sort of a politically correct red-light district where a number of hardbody men and women were recruited to cavort bare-chested in red or nude color g-strings in various combinations. There was even a whip, but sorry folks, no animals. As squirm-inducing as this may have been, I can’t say that the gesture went totally unappreciated. It made sense and fit in the piece, so Judge gets an A for effort.

Judge is a bit of a house director, given that he is single-handedly responsible for a large number of LA Opera’s productions including their most recent Figaro, Tosca, Romeo et Juliet, and Don Carlo to name just a few. He knows how to fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage with sets that are both simple and eye-catching. Most of the time things work well, but sometimes they don’t. Overall, his Tannhäuser wasn’t so bad, although it certainly wasn’t his best. The design was equal parts Dan Flavin and Erte with a large, angled, black lacquer room, the two sides of which rested on angled rotating platforms allowing the sides of the room to be altered in different ways to represent Venusberg, the Wartburg Hall, or the outdoors. Corners were lit with a single long vertical neon bulb that would change colors back and forth from the lustful red to the redemptive green over the course of four hours. Costumes followed this overly simple color scheme with red, green, white, and lots and lots and lots of black. This may be the darkest Tannhäuser on record simply due to the totally black set and overall lack of lighting. The symbolism could have been a little more subtle, but again, it was nice that someone was actually thinking about the work itself in the production design.

This is what it sounds like when doves cry
Photo: Robert Millard 2007
This commentary sounds negative, but it isn’t intended to be. I actually liked the staging and feel it worked better as the opera went on. The performance itself was very good if not great. Conlon continues to wow local audiences in his first season that seems filled with endless surprises. He continues to marshal great performances from the LA Opera orchestra and this evening was no exception. The principals are two of my favorite Wagnerians: Peter Seiffert in the title role and Petra-Maria Schnitzer as Elisabeth. Seiffert started out a little wobbly but pulled out of it and was bright and heroic throughout Act II and III. I worry, though, that this is a part he has become too familiar with and has gotten sloppy in the acting department. Last night he seemed more a graduate of the Jim Rockford School of Dramatic Arts than the Peter Seiffert I’ve come to know and love. Schnitzer fared far better and impressed everyone with her assured touch. The supporting cast was serviceable across the board.

In the end, it is a show definitely worth a return visit. Provocative if not necessarily erotic, the production may owe something to the music videos of Prince, but it certainly isn't cookie cutter Wagner either which is a very good thing.

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