Lyric Opera

On Monday night, October 10, Lyric Opera opened the first production of Wagner’s Tannhauser seen in this city in 25 years. Opening night fell on Columbus Day, which is (or should be) a celebration of the bold and original spirit that led to the discovery of the New World. The irony is that Lyric offers us nothing more than a rehash of the kinds of productions that have been plaguing the provincial opera houses of Germany for the last 20 years.

Though all of Wagner’s works have been badly performed, Tannhauser–the story of a medieval minstrel who falls from grace and is then redeemed through a woman’s love–has perhaps been the most victimized. After its premiere in Dresden in 1845, Tannhauser started making the rounds of the little opera houses of Germany in a series of inadequate performances that must have aggravated the composer’s chronic case of shingles. Fifteen years later came the performance, well noted in musical history, that Wagner hoped would open up the Paris “market” for his wares–but at the Paris premiere of his work, Wagner fell prey to politics. Produced at the command of the emperor through the string pulling of the Princess Metternich, the performance was disrupted by the disgruntled members of the Paris Jockey Club, who wanted the ballet in the second act so they could see their favorite nymphets dance after their late suppers. Undependable fellows these: where are they now that we need them? Scattered booing was certainly not as evident as general applause at the fall of the curtain at the Lyric performance.

Peter Sellars’s star has shone brightly in the last few years, and he has been called a wunderkind and an enfant terrible. Since the program lists his age as 31 it may be time to drop the “enfant.” Lyric Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado allowed Chicago audiences to get a taste of his method. In it he freely combined elements of old productions right out of the warehouse with electric guitars and modern sports cars, while turning the entire seating area of the house into a wide-bodied jet. Whether in Tannhauser, Mikado, or King Lear, Sellars employs a one-size-fits-all method: set it contemporaneously and fill it with various icons drawn from pop culture. Maybe that’s why he’s called iconoclastic, though the word is meant to describe someone who attacks established beliefs, not someone who strives for an order as stultifying as that which he seeks to replace. Last year, in Sellars’s staging of Nixon in China, many critics seemed surprised at his rather conventional approach to the work, though why this should have surprised them is unclear. Deprived of his favorite technique of standing traditional stagings on their heads by putting them in a contemporary setting, Sellars could think up nothing to amaze or shock. In a way, Sellars could be a textbook case for Allan Bloom’s recent best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. His vision, narrowed to the last few decades of the 20th century, seeks to reduce all experience to the common images available on TV. Instead of expanding the audience’s comprehension of a work by reinterpreting it, he stunts that comprehension by couching the work in the familiar and the mundane.

In this particular case, Wagner’s medieval Germany is changed to the world of the television evangelists. Wagner’s libretto is a tale of the competing attractions of sacred and profane love. On one hand, the magic realm of Venus, filled with all earthly delights, and on the other, the medieval minnesingers, or troubadours, singing the praises of chaste courtly love. This conflict almost costs our hero, Tannhauser, both his life and his soul. But the intercession of the saintly Elisabeth gains his pardon from God, when the pope won’t give his. Replace Venusberg with a bordello and the contest of song with a hymn sing, and you can probably fill in the rest. While the concept is completely predictable, coming from Sellars, the objectionable part of the whole exercise is the claim, often reiterated in the concerted media campaign mounted by Lyric, that these ideas are either new or original. Such approaches are nothing new in Europe, where, not dependent for their budgets on contributors and ticket sales but drawing on the public purse, opera houses have the freedom to experiment.

Whatever one may think of the worth or freshness of Sellars’s Tannhauser, the quality of the execution deserves a few words. On a sheerly technical plane, the projections used for the backgrounds were very effective, particularly in the third act, where a sunset faded most convincingly. The staging itself was stilted; Sellars seems not to know what to do with his players except march ’em on and march ’em off.

The biggest liability of the show, however, was–surprisingly–the surtitles. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Lyric’s innovation of projecting translations of the dialogue above the stage, crabbing only a little bit about what sometimes seemed to be inadequate translations, or mistimed projection. But this show could be used to make a very strong case against them, or rather their misuse by a director who admits he doesn’t understand German. The rationale behind surtitles is to make the audience aware of the meaning of lines sung in foreign languages. In last season’s Satyagraha, when Philip Glass didn’t want the audience to know the meaning of the dialogue, the titles were simply omitted. The messages flashed at Tannhauser fell broadly into three categories: first, passable translations of lines from Wagner’s libretto; second, deliberate mistranslations or insanely literal translations of other lines from the libretto; and, last, random words and musings inserted willy-nilly by Sellars and his accomplices. These last were shown in different colors from the others in an attempt to assist the perplexed operagoer. (Really juicy ones were cut after some of the unenlightened in the dress-rehearsal audience had an excessively negative reaction.) Overall, Wagner playing Lamb Chop to Peter Sellars’s Shari Lewis seemed to be the item that caused the most annoyance to the patrons. One would hope that if surtitles must be used, they would contain reasonably accurate translations, free from editorial comment.

Because of the well-orchestrated media circus surrounding Sellars and his “daring” production, the performers have received short shrift. The Lyric Orchestra played excellently for conductor Ferdinand Leitner, with the zest and precision it has shown for him in the past (the 1977 Meistersinger being a fine example). Leitner really got the best out of the orchestra, and he and his companions in the pit reaped well-deserved applause for the execution of this, one of Wagner’s most accessible musical scores. Lyric’s chorus sounded better than it has for at least a couple of seasons, without the blending or pitch problems that have sometimes afflicted performances.

The performances of the principals ranged from superb to pathetic. Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard (best known in this country for his Papageno in Ingmar Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute) was the hit of the show for his performance as Wolfram von Eschenbach. His careful phrasing and clear tones remind you why you go to the theater instead of chucking it and just listening to CDs. The relatively young Hermann, Jan Hendrik Rootering, gave a very pleasing performance, his rich bass-baritone very well cast for this role. He will get even better as his voice darkens in time. Nadine Secunde turned in a solid though not capital Elisabeth. The other minnesingers ranged from the good to the adequate. Marilyn Zschau seemed lacking in the vocal passion and richness that one hopes for in Venus.

Tenor Richard Cassilly, in the title role, could only be called embarrassing. Reportedly, he was the Lyric’s third or fourth choice for the golden-throated Wagnerian protagonist. The absence of the Lyric’s usual work-horse heldentenor William Johns (who, according to Lyric, dropped out of the show–quite uncharacteristically–due to illness) was sadly evident here. Shouting and wobbling his way through a score that he is clearly no longer up to, Cassilly should confine himself to roles such as Herod, which he is due to sing later this season at the Met. Unfortunately, this is a terrible blemish on an otherwise exemplary musical performance. There was virtually no acting, in a dramatic sense, by any of the principals. Perhaps Sellars could have gotten more out of the singers if he had simply known how.

Sellars has been quoted as saying that he wishes to direct only contemporary works or else early works of established composers and dramatists. So take heart, there should be no Sellars Meistersinger or Parsifal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.