Given Richard Wagner’s obsessions with matters of love, sex, religion and politics, and his convictions that his music dramas were the embodiments of these matters above all, it befalls today’s producers to either express the whole shebang in a contemporary staging or concentrate on the great music and play it straight. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the producers of the L.A. Opera’s inaugural encounter with “Tannhauser” opted for the first option, throwing in a few kitchen sinks in the bargain.
Gottfried Pilz is the designer of set and costume (the two somehow interlinked). He has his troubled hero emerge from a swirl of celebrants possibly nude (the lighting makes this unclear — drat!), gathered in homage at the Mount of Venus (which you can take any way you choose) on a stage consisting of two giant, rumbling turntables. Tannhauser, dressed in a more-or-less contemporary dark suit and red smoking jacket, makes his way to a grand piano, from which he sings his serenade to the Goddess, properly accompanied, as in Wagner’s score, by a harp.
The production’s a muddle of old and new, symbol and substance. Venus dismisses her quondam lover, and the hapless hero finds himself extruded back onto earth in a snowstorm while a nearby shepherd sings of the balmy breezes of May. The second-act “Hall of Song,” whose grandeur Elisabeth salutes in her famous if interminable aria, is a cramped hotel lobby. The last act is set in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse through which Pilgrims trudge, lit in a steady, electronic green neon.
Against this ongoing insult to the visual senses is a halfway decent musical exposition of Wagner’s early and sometimes naïve musical designs, under the firm musical direction of James Conlon, with Peter Seiffert a somewhat reedy-voiced Tannhauser, Petra Maria Schnitzer a melting Elisabeth and Franz Josef Selig a commanding figure among the pure-hearted knights on the Wartburg.