OPERA REVIEW : Wagner According to Sellars in Chicago

Times Music Critic

It would be easy to dismiss Peter Sellars’ provocative new production of Wagner’s stodgy old “Tannhauser” at the Lyric Opera as a gimmicky camping trip. So easy.

Too easy.

Sellars, you may recall, is a young stage director--31, to be precise--who hates to leave unwell enough alone. He thinks traditional opera has become a meaningless, uninvolving ritual for modern audiences.

That is why he looks for socio-political significance in unlikely places. He has played “The Mikado” in the Japan that cranks out dastardly Datsuns while computers crank out little hit-lists. He has celebrated the “Marriage of Figaro” within the class-conscious confines of Trump Tower and savored “Cosi fan Tutte” in a diner frequented by Vietnam veterans. Relevance is his thing.


Trendiness isn’t.

Lots of disbelievers came to Chicago to scoff at Sellars’ perversion of the mythical contest of the minnesingers on the Wartburg. After all, the original time and place were to be moved ridiculously far forward. The early 13th Century was to become the present. That is too close for anyone’s comfort.

Not really.

Tannhauser, the disgraced Heldentenoral minstrel torn between fleshly delight and spiritual love, was to be modeled on the defrocked Jimmy Swaggart. Very funny.

The joke wasn’t on Sellars.

Venus was to be a sleazy senior hooker who lounges around a cheap motel room in her underwear, abetted by a cheerful quintet of naked co-workers. The erstwhile goddess of love and of related activities was to return, two acts later, in the convenient guise of the all-American dream girl. Tannhauser, the epitomal drunken traveler, would fantasize ripping off his stewardess’ uniform. Silly.

Not necessarily.

The hall of song, the saintly Elisabeth’s “theure Halle,” would look suspiciously like the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Seeking salvation, the errant televangelist would fly to Rome via American Airlines (not incidentally, the official airline of the Chicago Opera).

How’s that? A Protestant fundamentalist seeking penance from the Pope? Well, only a pedant would look for logical religious parallels everywhere.

Sellars is no pedant.

Wolfram, the anti-hero’s sympathetic fellow-preacher, would apostrophize the glowing evening star through a waiting-room window at Los Angeles International Airport. That had to be just too much.

It wasn’t.

Sellars has a secret. In fact, he has several.

He is very serious, and very intelligent. He listens to the music--really listens. He understands the subtleties of form and tone, respects the dictates of dynamics. He is eager to reinforce the spirit of a work, even when he is willing--and eminently able--to ignore the letter of the librettist’s law.

He violates the style, to be sure. But he respects the content.

Other directorial Wunderkinder break the rules just for the fun of it, and they don’t seem to know the score. They stage “Macbeth” as a mock-Kabuki ceremonial and insult both Verdi and Shakespeare in the process. They trivialize the heroism of Senta and the Flying Dutchman by reducing the central tragedy to a little sailor’s wet dream. They approach the works at hand disdainfully, from a distance. They come bearing foreign ideas.

Not Sellars. At least not Sellars in “Tannhauser.”

He may not invariably isolate eternal verities as he leaves no dramatic turn unstoned. But he does make a valiant, daring, imaginative effort to shed fresh light on decaying conventions.

He wants to challenge and stimulate a potentially placid audience, and doesn’t mind taking chances in the process. He would rather shock than pacify. Alienation may not be inevitable, he thinks, but it is always preferable to boredom.

He’s right.

The Chicago “Tannhauser” is his first major effort involving a standard 19th-Century opera and a commercial opera company. He says it will be his last. From now on, he insists that he will concentrate on new works and on ensembles over which he has more direct control.

One hopes he is wrong.

His “Tannhauser,” Chicago’s first in 25 years, cannot please everyone. It certainly represents no final solution to any Wagner problem. It does offer more insights and fewer longueurs , however, than any “Tannhauser” in at least one middle-aged Wagnerite’s memory.

Sellars even takes that most infernal of newfangled operatic contraptions, the supertitle, and uses it to his own theatrical advantage. Although he says he would prefer to use no titles at all, he has made an fascinating virtue here of potential adversity. He has actually integrated the textual projections into the action scheme.

Enlisting John E. Woods, a bona fide literary expert, he has given us no less than three alternating sets of supertitles, in three colors. White ones merely convey the basic words of Wagner’s ponderous and naive text. Red ones provide vernacular illumination and, where appropriate, a subjective subtext. (Venus, for instance, talks pop lingo, some of it raunchy.) Blue ones, which sometimes accompany orchestral passages, invoke the poetic moods and lofty sentiments of such German romantics as Tieck, Goethe, Schiller and Buchner. The verbal mishmash shouldn’t work.

It works.

George Tsypin, Sellars’ regular scenic collaborator, has decorated and reinforced the dramatic concept with an inspired combination of linear cartoons and Expressionistic symbols. One may miss the medieval grandeur of the original, but the mordant wit, the affectionate whimsy and, in the finale, the cool modern beauty of Tsypin’s designs are compelling.

Dunya Ramicova provides costumes for the evangelical crowd that look like fastidious reproductions of Bible Belt polyester finery. She also dresses, and undresses, the resident floozies with aplomb.

If, ultimately, this “Tannhauser” is more memorable dramatically than musically, the competence and dedication of the team assembled by Ardis Krainik should not be disparaged. Ferdinand Leitner conducts with the lucidity and sensitivity of an old German pro--which he is--though he slights some of the rhetorical passion that presumably fragments the Crystal Cathedral. The cast, for the most part, is strong.

Nadine Secunde introduces a radiant, intense, somewhat unsteady Elisabeth. Hakan Hagegard as Wolfram looks like a sanctimonious Midwestern soul-saver and sounds like Fischer-Dieskau. Jan Hendrik Rootering oozes plastic piety as well as basso bonhomie in the platitudes of the Landgrave. Marilyn Zschau is a bold and blowzy Venus, in sight and in sound.

The virtually impossible title role was initially intended for William Johns, who begged off--reportedly because of indisposition--at the outset of rehearsals. His place was eventually taken by that all-American veteran of many Germanic wars, Richard Cassilly. On Friday, however, Cassilly fell victim to indisposition, and his valiant cover, John Duykers, took over at short notice.

Best known in California for his performances of modern music and elsewhere for his impersonation of Chairman Mao in “Nixon in China,” Duykers was attempting this challenge for the first time. He may lack the ringing top notes, the sheer power and stamina of an ideal Tannhauser, but he paces himself cannily, sings with astonishing lyrical fervor and, most important, depicts the agonies of Sellars’ fallen angel with brooding intensity and vital authority.

Although a few guardians of romantic virtue booed the producer, most of Chicago applauded wildly. The local press applauded politely. The New York Times demurred, complaining that Sellars’ “jokes served chiefly to distract attention from the deep issues.”

What jokes?