A Night at LA Opera or: The Sheer Lunacy and Imbecility of Religious Fanaticism

Tannhauser opera:  Creative Commons image via Wikimedia Commons

As Tannhäuser’s lovely, rolling overture is unveiled, the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion becomes visible, as if being revealed in a cinematic fade in. The set is bathed in ethereal scarlet and blue lights designed by Connecticut’s Marcus Doshi, as about six dancers cavort onstage in what composer and librettist Richard Wagner described as “the whirlings of a fearsomely voluptuous dance.” A bacchanalian orgy is taking place, with nymphs performing Kama Sutra-like positions and moves choreographed by Canadian Aszure Barton. In Opera 101 author Fred Plotkin notes “some modern productions have included nude dancers” in Tannhäuser’s stunning curtain lifter, but although nudity has appeared in other LA Opera offerings, alas, this less adventurous show’s sexy sprites are appareled in flimsy androgynous outfits.

The insatiable satyrs sing their siren song, writhing in pleasure in Venusberg, a sort of otherworldly Playboy Mansion on steroids that is the mythic realm of Venus (played by Russian mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina, who has also portrayed another sensuous lead in Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah). The pagan goddess of love is joined in her grotto of romance by the title character, Tannhäuser (Philadelphia tenor Issachah Savage), who is a minnesinger (knightly minstrel). Sexually spellbound by the enticing, libidinous lair, Tannhäuser joins the libertines in their garden of unearthly delights as Venus’ lover. The onstage sextravaganza seems more like something out of the experimental Living Theatre than a night at the opera.

But as Rosalind asks Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “can one desire too much of a good thing?” Weary and leery of Venusberg’s perpetual bliss, Tannhäuser turns his back on sextopia and Venus’ prophetic warnings to seek what he believes is the redemptive, spiritual love of the virginal Elisabeth (Michigander soprano Sara Jakubuak) back on Earth. Leaving Venusberg, he encounters Elisabeth – who had previously been smitten with Tannhäuser before his erotic romps and revels with Nirvana’s nymphs – at the famed castle of Wartburg in the German free state of Thuringia, sometime in the Middle Ages.

There, Hermann (bass Morris Robinson of Atlanta), who is Thuringia’s landgrave (count or prince) and Elisabeth’s uncle, arranges a Sängerkrieg in the Hall of Minstrels in Wartburg castle, which Austrian scenery designer Gottfried Pilz sumptuously renders in a breathtaking tableau. The Sängerkrieg is a sort of song-off, a contest wherein the most beautifully sung words shall woo and win the fair Elisabeth’s hand in marriage. But when Tannhäuser, who is still under the sway of Venus’ free loving ways, combines soulful love with lust, let’s just say, all hell breaks loose as the Sängerkrieg almost becomes a blitzkrieg.

I can’t speak for #MeToo and #TimesUp, but I don’t think that the lyrics Tannhäuser sings to Elisabeth and his embrace or caress of her would cause those movements much, if any, alarm. Of course, I also can’t project myself into the minds of 13th century Germans or of operagoers in Dresden where Tannhäuser premiered in 1845, but from the perch of a 21st century American individual, the response to Tannhäuser’s ditty seems like a gross overreaction. Indeed, the mob’s blood lust combined with the opera’s underlining cult-like religious fanaticism, seems like a foreshadowing of what would befall Germany centuries later under the Nazis, who attempted to coopt Wagner (50 years after his death).

I won’t disclose many more plot points in this approximately four-and-a-half-hour Wagnerian marathon directed by Rhode Islander Louisa Muller. Suffice it to say that Wagner and his opera grapple with themes of sexual repression, original sin and religious zealotry. Tannhäuser exposes the madness of the medieval mentality, that juxtaposes the Apollonian against the Dionysian, the spiritual versus the sensuous, redemptive love opposed to libertinism. More recently we’d call this psychosexual wrestling match the “Madonna-whore complex.” In any case, Tannhäuser dramatizes inner conflicts, the divided self and guilt over sexuality, with predictably dire consequences.

Conducted by New Yorker James Conlon, Wagner’s music is often glorious, ranging from celestial harps to thunderous horns, along with Californian Grant Gershon’s direction of the LA Opera Chorus’ mellifluous musings. From my balcony perch I had the added delight of being able to observe the maestro wave his magic wand and see the musicians make their magic happen. The costumes by Pilz and Virginian Misty Ayres are a mélange of the medieval and modern dress, while the dress-like garments adorning Venusberg’s merrymakers had a gender bender vibe in LA Opera’s mounting of the original production by Englishman Ian Judge.

[Plot spoiler alert:] Wagner slyly turns the convention that the sexually liberated woman (especially one who – shudders! – has the nerve to actually enjoy sex) must suffer for her “sins”, an endlessly recurring motif from the Bible’s Jezebel to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction and beyond. But in Tannhäuser, it is the “virtuous” female who pays the ultimate price, while Venus, that life force, survives to make love another day (and night). When the court’s cohorts turn on Tannhäuser and want to kill him, it is none other than the woman whom he has supposedly offended by addressing his lusty song to and daring to touch, who saves him. I suspect this was Wagner’s way of saying that despite her enforced chastity, Elisabeth spares Tannhäuser’s life because she’s flattered by his advances and secretly yearns and burns to have sex with the minstrel knight.

During the opera Venusberg is foolishly referred to as “hellish.” In fact, judging by objective criteria and especially in comparison with the repressed fanaticism of Thuringia’s deluded brainwashed residents, Venusberg was quite heavenly. In retrospect, as Venus the eternal pleasure seeker warned him, Tannhäuser was mistaken to leave that sexual Shangri La. The pagan goddess is far more forgiving than the pope. An interesting observation Wagner also seems to make is that in world history, Europeans brought Christianity to the Third World to civilize the heathens. But in Tannhäuser the pagan religion is of European origin, as Venus was an ancient Roman goddess, while over the centuries Christianity was actually imported from the Middle East to the West. And that deity of desire knew what in life was best.

Tannhäuser is being presented until 2:00 p.m., Oct. 24; 7:30 p.m., Oct. 27; 2:00 p.m., Oct. 31; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3 and Nov. 6 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: Tannhäuser | LA Opera; (213)972-8001.