There are many ways in which one can complain about the new production of Tannhäuser at the San Francisco Opera. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman appeared to want to corner the market on all of them:
Unfortunately, these musical riches had to contend with an unsightly and almost aggressively foolish new production by director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown, one that seemed determined at nearly every step to undercut the opera's admittedly treacherous dramatic flow.
Kosman has taken this approach to Wagner productions in the past, usually leading up to some punch line to the effect that one is better off closing one's eyes and enjoying the music. Certainly, the music was splendid. Donald Runnicles brought his usual keen understanding of pace to the Wagnerian scale; and orchestra, chorus, and soloists all followed that pace to deliver a performance worthy of recording for posterity. However, in taking the staging to task, Kosman seemed to have overlooked the fact that Wagner had as much of a hand in the libretto for Tannhäuser as he had for the music. Granting that his literary skills never approached the level of his musical talent, we still have to recognize that, by taking responsibility for the words, Wagner was acknowledging that the music could not say everything; and, even when the text offers some pretty specific language about staging, we should recognize that the words provide room for interpretation just as the music does. Therefore, I would suggest that digging into the text provides a good way to come up with evidence that the Chronicle may have given Vick a bad rap.
Before doing that, however, I should put a few of my own cards on the table. I basically learned my Tannhäuser from a Metropolitan Opera production that had experimented with casting a single soprano in the roles of both Venus and Elizabeth. This was at a time long before I had gotten into teasing out subtleties through text interpretation, so I was neither offended nor won over by this particular approach. However, since the very question of identity recurs in so many of Wagner's operas, I had to credit the Met for taking a challenging approach to this question.
The other piece of context that I brought with me to yesterday's performance of Tannhäuser was my past studies of Zen. More specifically, this dual relationship of Venus and Elizabeth reminded me of the Zen parable of the monk who dreamed he was a butterfly; upon awakening, the monk asked himself, "Am I am man who dreamt that I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?" This seems like the best way to introduce Tannhäuser's first words:
Zu viel! Zu viel!
Oh, daß ich nun erwachte!
Too much! Too much!
Oh, that I now might awake!
[translation from Solti recording]
The world of Venusberg is a dream-world of the Wartburg; but the Wartburg is also a dream-world to Venusberg. With his preference for Schopenhauer over Hegel, Wagner did not seem to have much concern for dialectical synthesis; so this dual relationship of dream-worlds pretty much precludes the possibility of there being any middle way. Just as one can only see either a duck or a rabbit in that classical optical illusion, but never both at the same time, one can never reside in both Venusberg and the Wartburg; and where one chooses to reside is a question of that will that shapes the world.
This now brings us to the question of how Vick and Brown decided to conceive of their production of Tannhäuser; and I came away with a clear sense that, at the end of the day, it was all about this duality and choice. The duality is best revealed through the unit set, which has the walls and ceiling of an enclosed (but still very large) space but a "floor" which is the earth itself in which a tree is rooted. This tree is an important element, since it reflects the two perspectives of the two worlds.
To understand this reflection, it is necessary to turn again to the text. On the Wartburg the very mention of Venus is basically heretical, since it reflects an anti-Christian belief. In Venusberg, however, Tannhäuser never mentions the Warburg specifically, let along its Christian foundation; nor does he ever say anything about Elizabeth. He talks about freedom, which is basically freedom of choice. However, it is when he tries to explain to Venus why he wants this freedom of choice that things get interesting:
Mein Sehnen drängt zum Kampfe,
nicht such ich Wonn Lust!
Ach, mögest du es fassen, Göttin!
Hin zum Tode, den ich suche,
zum Tode drängt es mich!
My longing urges me to combat;
I do not seek pleasure and rapture!
Oh, if you could understand it, goddess!
Hence, to the death I seek!
I am drawn to death!
The choice that Tannhäuser wants to make is that of death (through combat) over the eternal "pleasure and rapture" of the sexual indulgences of Venusberg. He would reject eternal bliss in favor of mortality. The choice between Venusberg and the Wartburg is a choice between life and death.
We are immediately aware of this after the "passage" (for which the tree assumes the symbolic role of portal) between the two world in Act I. We know we have left Venusberg because the music has changed. What we hear are the horns of a hunting party. What we see are the results of the hunt. On that same ground where, half an hour previously, Tannhäuser had been singing his praises of Venus, dead animals are now piled in a heap. The image is as striking and provocative as the images of the ritualized Venusberg orgy, and we are all confronted with the choice in its starkest terms.
This theme continues in the "passage" from Act I to Act II. In Act I the tree is rich with green foliage. In Act II all the branches are still there, but the leaves are gone along with any other evidence of fertility. Indeed, all that remains is an opportunity for a striking visual cue. When Elizabeth intercedes on Tannhäuser's behalf after he has dared to invoke Venus and her world of carnal love, the play of light casts a shadow of the tree as an image of the Cross. I doubt that this was an accident, particularly since all of the women at the song contest assumed the identical appearance of the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth, then, through her act of intercession becomes the ultimate embodiment of the Virgin.
In Act III very few branches remain on the tree. All the time of the journey of pilgrimage has elapsed, and the tree has only decayed. The Wartburg is still the realm of decay and death. Even Elizabeth succumbs to death in order to intercede for Tannhäuser a second time, this time before the Heavenly Throne, to override the judgment of the Pope himself (right at the time in the narrative when Tannhäuser is ready to cash in his Wartburg chips and find the way back to Venusberg). Ironically, Elizabeth's intercession also bring life to the Wartburg. Leaves return to the tree; and, with a symbolism that is bizarrely literal, the earth yields a "crop" of children. This final gesture drove Kosman crazy, since he chose to read the symbolism as "a gang of half-clad children crawling out of holes in the ground like God's own Gopher Scouts."
Still, this gesture leaves us hanging on a nagging metaphysical question. During the song contest, Tannhäuser rejects Wolfram's song of love scornfully:
O Wolfram, der du also sangest,
du has die Liebe arg enstellt!
Wenn du in solchem Schmachten bangest,
versiegte wahrlich wohl die Welt.
Oh Wolfram, you who have sung thus,
have woefully misrepresented love!
If you languish so fearfully,
the world would come to an end, forsooth!
The reason "the world would come to an end," of course, is that the love that Wolfram extols is so pure that is does not allow for sexual intercourse; and no sex means no children. Thus, when, at the end of Act III, life comes to the Wartburg, it is not through that "middle way" that places religious purity beside carnal knowledge but by a divine intervention that offers up a new generation of "Wartburgians!"
Needless to say, I am happy to accept anyone who wishes to challenge this as an empty intellectual exercise. However, I feel it important to point out that, for me at least, this was a production that really benefited from the projection of the English text. This is one of those cases when the text says so much more than the synopsis and then provides the platform upon which one can make sense of how the production was conceived and implemented; and, at the end of the day, is it not that act of sense-making that makes a live performance so enjoyable?