Dan and I went to see San Francisco Opera’sTannhäuser last night. What wonderful, wonderful, music. It really is beyond words. I thought the singers were excellent. I was particularly thrilled with their Wolfram, James Rutherford. Maybe it’s that I love the baritone voice. I dunno. Venus? She kind of bugged me. Her voice grated on my nerves just a bit, but mostly it was her acting, and I’m sorry to say I did look at the large screen they provide for the balcony crowd even while I tried so hard not to (more on that later). She can’t act. She tries, but she can’t. Ah well. She can sing, it’s just that her voice didn’t quite make it for me. I thought Petra Maria Schnitzer, as Elisabeth, was lovely. Peter Seiffert, singing Tannhäuser, was great, although he seemed to be bothered by his hair (again, the darn screen pointed that out), frequently brushing it from his face.

But what was with the staging? What was supposed to look sexual was just ugly. (Granted, sex doesn’t really look like the movies make it look, eh?) But really, it could have been done so much better. The ballet at the beginning seemed like a cross between cartoonish, Martha Graham, Rite of Spring, and who knows what. It didn’t work for me (but I’ve written before about my not “getting” dance). The writhing and all was over the top. (Sure, Wagner is over the top, but I think it’s better to let the music be over the top and go easy on everything else.) The writing on the men’s torso and, later, on the boy’s was corny. I don’t need to see sins written out on bodies, nor would I had I not been drawn once again to the darn screen. I don’t need to see “peace” and “love” and other virtues written on the boys. Just give me the music. Please.

How Elisabeth’s death occurs was a surprise to me, and reading more I see that this was added by the director as well. It worked, but I don’t like “death” walking away with her and, later, Tannhäuser.

And what was with the harp? Is it the tie between the sensual and the spiritual? Whatever. I found it distracting. Call me silly.

Clearly the director is into fire for this opera too. There was a fire ring in the first act. In the second the tree branches are on fire. In the last there is a little campfire-like thing going on. I kept thinking, “How do they do that?” I’m not sure it’s good to have the audience thinking that … seems to me we could focus on the music.

Okay … but enough about the staging, which I clearly didn’t like.

The music. The music. The music. Amazing. Incredible. Very beautifully sung. (I honestly wonder if my hesitation about Venus was more about how she looked … couldn’t she wear something better than a sheet? … and not about her singing. I’m not a voice expert!) The orchestra was wonderful. I thought the new oboist, Shea Scruggs, played quite well and proved himself capable of the gig. Jerry Simas, subbing this year on principal clarinet, was superb. The brass … well, of course this is such a brass opera .. they were great. (I’m sorry. I’m low on adjectives.) I loved both the adult and children’s chorus. (Why do we write “adult” and then “children’s”, I wonder … the library does that too with “adult books” and “children’s books”. Hmmm. What’s with the diff?) The offstage English horn was beautiful. I had been told it would be onstage … did I miss something? Or was it changed?

So musically—and isn’t that what opera is really about?—I was enraptured. So I can try and ignore the rest.

Oh … but I did like the mist at the end. And the lighting worked for me. So I guess the visual wasn’t all bad. Whew.

Okay … a brief word on the large screen …
I think opera was meant to be seen at a distance. I really do. I think it was meant to be seen as “all of it”. The screen changes things. I have to look at whatever the camera folk think I should look at. Sometimes they even superimpose two things on the screen. I found it distracting rather than enhancing. I’m guessing I’m in the minority with this one, but who knows? I just think that next year we’ll spend a bit more and move down one level, so we are a bit closer and don’t have the screen to distract us.


  1. Bottom line is that it’s all about the music, isn’t it?? The music sounds heavenly.

    You’re not the first to not be blown away by the staging. It sounds very… avant garde.

  2. Yes, it is definitely about the music, and it really was heavenly.

    The staging might be considered avant garde to some. To me it just felt … I dunno … juvenile. It didn’t appear, to this little person, to be daring or radical. But I’m not perfect so maybe it’s wonderful to some folks. I wonder.