Having gone back to see Tannhäuser for a second time at the San Francisco Opera, I realized that for all my deep-ending into matters of the text and the score to puzzle out my thoughts about the staging, I had written very little about any of the performers other than conductor Donald Runnicles. Much has been written both others more professional than I about the strength of Peter Seiffert's command of the leading role; and I am not much for saying little more than "me, too," where such matters are concerned. What I realized, however, is that, for those most part, those "others" offered little more than a role call of the other performers; and, while I did not feel there was a weak voice in the entire production, I felt that the performance deserved a less perfunctory view. In response I would like to focus in on one specific performer (other than Seiffert), soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer, who sang Elizabeth.
The thing about Wagner operas is that they tend to be viewed as endurance trials; and, since Seiffert spent the most time on stage, he does deserve the most attention. However, the reason that endurance is such a problem is that the dramatic motivation behind them is, except for much of the third act, stentorian, to say the least. Tannhäuser, himself, is forceful about pretty much every thing he does, including setting off on his pilgrimage, which offers us a significant clue as to why his mission will be a failure. The Wartburg is a community of rough-and-tumble knights (including Wolfram) presided over by a non-nonsense Landgraf. Even Venus is a commanding presence, as well she should be, given her divinity.
This leaves us with Elizabeth; and, when we start examining the music that Wagner composed for her, we quickly recognize that hers was the one truly human character in a narrative in which every other character is a symbol of some sort or another. This comes out in dynamics that are modulated with a subtlety that is missing in all the other voices, with the possible exception of when Tannhäuser joins her in a duet and has to come down to her level. (This is not to dismiss the level of sensitivity in Wolfram's part but to recognize that, even in the Abendstern aria, his worldview is more abstract that heart-felt.) I have to believe that Schnitzer's performance of Elizabeth was a result of her working hand-in-glove with Runnicles to allow the subtlety of her vocal line to serve as a stabilizing force above all the other symbolic abstractions and Sturm und Drang.
This was particularly evident in the second act, where she is as much a dominant force as is Tannhäuser himself. First we have her anticipation (childlike, in her own words) of seeing him again after all the years of his disappearance. Then we have their actual encounter, where we detect the mixed emotions of the purity of her chastity and at least a tacit acknowledgment that love eventually leads to the carnal relationship that will bring forth that next generation of Wartburgians, about which I previously wrote. Next we have the song contest, which pits the sterility of Wolfram's love against Tannhäuser's Venus-inspired passion. Everyone recoils in horror from this confrontation, particular all the women who have been costumed as clones of the Virgin Mary; but Elizabeth intercedes in the name of humanity. She becomes the pivot of the entire plot; and Schnitzer elevated this to a moment of believability, rather than some cheesy intercession-of-the-Virgin Sunday school tale. Indeed, without this moment, the crux of the third act, in which she intercedes yet again, this time before "the highest authority," would be little more than a silly plot device.
I suppose one can view Elizabeth as a more mature version of Senta, a product of Wagner-the-librettist having more experience upon which to reflect on real life. Senta sacrifices herself for a fairy tale. The result is transcendent, but it does not go anywhere beyond two souls united in heaven. Elizabeth, on the other hand, embodies the distinction that Harold Bloom has posited between Yahweh and Jesus. In the name of humanity itself, she rejects the strict injunctions of the punishing Yaweh in favor of that God-who-so-loved-the-world. She intercedes for Tannhäuser, not just through love for him (which she even admits is still at the schoolgirl-crush level), but for that higher sense of love that is the very foundation of her faith. Schnitzer performed this role as if she intuitively grasped that concept of humanity, leaving me fascinated by her performance and curious as to what she could bring to other operatic roles.