GELFAND’S WORLD - I told the publisher of CityWatch that I wouldn't be doing a column for Thursday because I was going to the LA Opera to hear Wagner's Tannhauser, and it wouldn't be over until 11:30 at night. So unless Tannhauser was that good, you wouldn't be hearing from me.
It was that good.
And even then there are a few things to say that don't fit into a usual column of drama criticism. I'll start with a comment by one of the cast members in a conversation a few minutes after the end of the performance. "We were surprised at the amount of the applause."
At this performance, there was a roaring, standing ovation that went on for about 10 minutes. Everybody got applauded, even the small ballet company. Los Angeles audiences are known for being exuberantly supportive, but this audience on this night were up near the record for appreciation.
Let me tell you a little about the part that resonated so strongly with this audience, leading to that ovation.
I won't go into the plot outline, which is one of those medieval legends which includes men's interactions with the spirit world, in this case Venus, the incarnation of all that is evil if you are a modest, chaste Christian culture. Venus represents the carnal and the un-Christian. She is a goddess who predates Christianity, but has continued in her underground lair known as Venusberg. This is another Wagnerian trope, the battle between still-surviving pre-Christian deities and the modern era.
Venus has been entertaining Heinrich, our central character, in her lair. A more modern version of the myth might have her peddling terrorism or white supremacy instead of sex. In any case, what she does is considered to be bad, and consorting with Venus is abhorrent to the human community who live nearby.
That's all you really have to know. Heinrich is getting bored of living in this fairy kingdom and wants to return to earth, even with all its pains and sorrows. He would like to see trees and leaves and streams and all that. Maybe he would also like to see regular, normal people.
And there is a girl that he never mentions, but is somehow important to him, if only he would admit it to himself.
So he extricates himself from Venusberg and he finds himself back home. It's Thuringia, a kingdom in Germany (because this is Wagner) and Heinrich meets up with knights that he formerly hung with and then (in his arrogance and wanderlust) left them.
A Wagnerian turn
It turns out that this kingdom prides itself not only on the martial prowess of its knights, but also in their artistic accomplishments, namely singing. This is also a prototypically Wagnerian plot element -- the singing contest. And this was the point on Wednesday night that really got to the audience.
You see Act II includes a singing contest in a great hall. We begin by meeting Elizabeth, the beautiful niece of the reigning nobleman, and obviously the unrequited love of every knight and singer. She was depressed after Heinrich left and stopped attending the singing contests. But now he is back, and so she is back. She's not entirely sure why, being adolescent and innocent and the very epitome of womanly virtue, at least for the year 1300.
And now came the moment that set this audience back on its heels. The nobles and ladies enter the hall in a rather march-like tempo, and they are singing their greetings to the hall itself. The tune itself is so infectious that it is sometimes played as a separate piece for orchestra. Perhaps it was the words that got to us as they were translated in the supertitles, because the nobles are singing their greetings to the hall itself. They are greeting their return to live performance, to performance of live art, to performance of music in that hall.
And somehow the audience recognized that just as these legendary characters were celebrating a return to normalcy, the story of Tannhauser was our own story in that place on that night.
Yes, it has been a long time -- something like a year and a half since that last performance of Roberto Deveraux back in 2020 -- and those who love true art at its highest level have been waiting. For a small but significant group, the music drama of Richard Wagner is amongst the highest form of art, deploying -- as it does -- every facet of the artist's pallet ranging from orchestral harmony to character development to emotional catharsis.
That's what we have been waiting for, and in this strange juxtaposition, the performance was telling us that we should celebrate the reopening of this hall and these performances in our own place and time.
It was, in some sense, a coincidence, but Wagner clearly understood the need for beauty through art and, on this one night, his message was received with shocking intensity, leading to the audience desperately wanting to let loose with its applause.
A note regarding opera performance practice: It is traditional in Italian opera that the performance will pause while the audience applauds after each aria. This is not the case for Wagnerian opera as generally performed. I can remember the program in one opera house reminding us, "The audience is respectfully but urgently requested not to interrupt the performance with applause." (You are allowed to applaud, but only when the act is over.)
That's generally adhered to, but there was actually an exception in last night's performance.
You see, the Act II entrance into the hall and the remainder of the choral parts was of such quality and emotion that at the end of the singing, the audience spontaneously gave a round of applause. To me, that applause sounded like, "We get that you are back in the hall in Thuringia in the story, and we are also back in this hall for real and experiencing real art."
I won't go into any more of the standard review, because the professional critics have already done so. Besides, there is only one more performance, on November 6. Still, if you have never experienced this -- among the highest forms of art -- then it would be worth a try.
The second act introduces us to Elizabeth, Heinrich's real love and of course beloved of all the rest of the men, some in a fatherly way and some not quite so fatherly. The part was played by Sara Jakubiak who is originally from Bay City, Michigan. She pretty much stole the show, at least to this audience member, in that she has a terrific voice that can be heard in the far reaches of the room. It doesn't hurt that in this role of the ingenue, she is slim and attractive, and sells the vision of the innocent but determined young woman. (Her biography points out that she was a softball player who was on two national championship teams.)
It turns out that Jakubiak has been doing star roles in some of the more impressive opera houses of Europe, including Deutsche Oper Berlin and (soon to be) the Vienna State Opera.
Lucas Meachem played the part of Wolfram, Heinrich's old friend and confidante. He will be at the Metropolitan Opera next week, doing one of the lead roles in La Boheme. I was impressed by his acting -- understated but convincing in his despair over Elizabeth and even worse despair over Heinrich. He comes from North Carolina.
It's interesting that most of the lead roles in this all-too-German of operas were played by native born Americans, even if they've done some seasoning in European opera houses. Tannhauser (Heinrich) was sung by Issachah Savage, from the Philadelphia area. Morris Robinson, from Atlanta, played Hermann and was kind enough to chat with fans after the performance. (Robinson was an All-American offensive lineman at the Citadel.)
In passing, I pulled up Mark Swed's October 25 review from the L.A. Times, cited above. It's interesting how I, as a run of the mill audience member, felt the same way about various elements of the performance -- how conductor James Conlon started slowly and quietly and built to the climax (3 acts and 4 hours later, by the way), how Sara Jakubiak dominated the performance starting in the second act, and so on.
The only thing I would say differently is that as a sometime opera-goer, the full effect of Wagnerian opera is really something powerful for me, partly because it's been a while since I saw the real thing at this level. It's kind of like going to the minor league ball park for a season, and then going to a major league baseball game. Just like you appreciate the ability of the infielders to play defense after not seeing it for a season, it's possible to recognize the magnitude of the achievement after being away so long. For me, it was a night where it was hard to be blase about any part of the performance.
I suspect that when you don't see an opera performed very often (meaning over a lifetime), the effect of seeing it again is additive. A performance of Tannhauser becomes part of the whole effect of seeing it twice before, once on television in the 1980s, and again in 2007 at the LA Opera. It's long enough between performances that I'm not bored by repetition, but it's short enough that I remember the characters and maintain some of the emotional attachment from the previous times. I don't know if people have the same response when it comes to other artforms (Deadheads, maybe?) but in this genre it certainly works. It wasn't just one performance of Tannhauser, it was all the performances of a lifetime.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)