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Baltimore's Tantalizing 'Tannhauser'
Werner Herzog Lifts The Veil on Wagner

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2000; Page C01

Just there, under that diaphanous veil, just where you really shouldn't be looking, is the very thing you've been thinking about all afternoon. This is the Negligee Principle, that the body under light wraps is even more exciting than the body naked, and it is the fundamental visual metaphor of Werner Herzog's stunning production of Wagner's "Tannhauser."

Using fans and sturdy but very lightweight gauzy fabric, Herzog's staging of Wagner's meditation on sinful sensuality and pure, chaste love, which opened Thursday evening at the Baltimore Opera, seems as if it were airborne, or set on the windy deck of an idealized ship. Acres of material, as sensual and light as something out of a Victoria's Secret catalogue, billow and blow and float in the air, animating an opera in which most of the action is inside the indecisive hero's head.

"Tannhauser" is, in essence, a metaphysical dialogue about what it means to consummate a passion for another person: Is it something between bodies in the bedroom, or something purely spiritual and subject to the laws of virtue? The story, such as it is, follows the course of a medieval singer-poet from the Venusberg, a legendary underground garden of sensual delight, to the real world, where he seeks salvation. This is a thin story line; to expand it dramatically, Wagner uses his music to focus on the character's inner turmoil, his indecision about whether sex or love shall prevail in his life. Wagner uses frequent repetition, both musically and dramatically, to extend the title character's aching desire to resolve his own ambivalence. Save for its music, "Tannhauser" would be an extraordinarily dull and priggish bit of theater.

Yet Herzog's production seems to defy time, making this music drama feel much shorter than its three-hour expanse. His use of blowing veils creates pretty pictures, which, in turn, linger as almost occult and frozen moments of distended time. It solves the problem of the opera--how to make a philosophical issue dramatically interesting--with unique success, and on every level.

The veil is a potent metaphor, both for memory and for desire. For memory, the veil suggests the final barrier to actually grasping something from our past; we can recall the home we grew up in, but we can never go back. For desire, it suggests something we want to tear away, full knowing that once it's gone, the magical perfection it was hiding will disappear, too.

Herzog has explored the veil metaphor in his cinematic work, and has clearly meditated long and hard on this fundamental metaphor. He brings his understanding of the dialectic between what is covered and what is revealed to his conception of "Tannhauser."

The opera is easily reduced to an absurdity. Indeed, tenor Jon Fredric West, did so in the company's promotional literature for the show, suggesting that this was a very up-to-date story about a horny kid who can't decide between gadding about and settling down. His reduction isn't wrong but is inadequate to the complexity and richness of Wagner's creation; it does, however, underscore the bizarre workings of Wagner's mind: How could he have conceived of an entire opera on this flimsy premise?

Yet Wagner did just that, and in the process, hammered home two of his lifelong obsessions: puritanical sexual ideas and a love for rebellious characters. What action there is--some pilgrims walk by from time to time--is incidental. The composer is more concerned with creating what the German critic Theodor Adorno diagnosed as a vast "phantasmagoria": something deceptively beautiful and distant, a "mirage of eternity" that serves as a kind of veil over the opera's obsessive preoccupation with the notion that sex is kind of icky.

We're all liberated from such Victorian ideas, right? Well, some of us are or like to think we are, and an entire opera on the subject of sin sounds like a long sit. Fortunately, there's no one better equipped than Werner Herzog to rekindle the flames of what some would regard as a philosophical dead letter. He makes one actually feel a tremble at each of Tannhauser's flip-flops on the subject of sex or love.

He does this by taking his material extremely seriously. Even the humor in the show is aimed at serious exploration. Herzog, for instance, costumes his characters in white flowing gowns, except for four incidental women who are in skin-tight white stretch material, with the lines of a skeleton's rib cage painted on them. The message is clear: If you try too hard to "penetrate" beyond the mysteries of both love and sex, you get to the ugly, meaningless truth underneath.

Herzog's production is nothing like the ghastly realist Wagner productions that the Metropolitan Opera in New York has churned out over the past decade and a half. It is spare and free of meaningless busywork. The motion of the fabric becomes a substitute for the naturalistic gestures that dull directors use to keep the audience's attention.

The most difficult theatrical challenge--the magical evaporation of the Venusberg and emergence of the real world--is done with stunning impact. The inflamed red hues of a sex den simply flutter away to reveal the monochromatic world of medieval Germany. And the final scene is perfect Herzogian deadpan overkill: A glass coffin is rolled in, angels ascend to the heavens, and a preternaturally white light glares down on the stage while the full chorus and orchestra declaim on the subject of redemption. You laugh, not at it, or with it, but because it seems so extreme, almost campy. Herzog gets it too right and he out-Wagners Wagner by indulging in the composer's notorious love of theatrical excess.

Conductor Christian Badea led an army of musicians in a sweeping and powerful performance. There were plenty of glitches, tempo disagreements and strange noises from the overtaxed violins in the Venusberg music. But these were irrelevant to the basic success of the evening. Strong performances from Petra Lang as Venus, Hans Sisa as the Landgrave and Eva Johansson as Elizabeth give the music its thrill power. West, as Tannhauser, barks on occasion, but made it through the role creditably. The chorus sang with lusty full tones, and the balances between singers, chorus and orchestra were masterfully controlled by Badea. The production, which runs through March 26, is solid, serious work, and well worth a trip to Baltimore.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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