LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles Opera is definitely, defiantly back in business this fall after a long pandemic-induced hiatus, broken only by a single concert performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in June. Indeed, after opening its season with Verdi’s Il trovatore in September, the company has taken a giant step toward normalcy by taking on Wagner’s Tannhäuser, from Oct. 16 through Nov. 6. It was the company’s first production of anything by Wagner in eight and a half years.
But it was not a business-as-usual kind of business in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 16. Not in COVID world.
With Los Angeles County health directives in mind, all patrons were asked to provide a photo ID and proof of vaccination before being allowed to enter the building. Masks were required at all times. Even James Conlon, the company’s indefatigable music director, conducted with a mask on, and delivered his usual pre-performance lectures in prerecorded form on a big screen outdoors on the plaza.
Because performances of Trovatore revealed some spoilsports removing their masks as soon as the hall went dark, LA Opera pushed harder this time. Ushers carried paddle boards with the admonition “Mask Up” spelled out in huge letters. Folding cards were placed on every seat, reminding people to keep their protective face gear on lest the anxiety of sitting next to a maskless scofflaw scare them away from future performances. These tactics seemed to work: I didn’t see anyone on the ground floor without a mask.
Still, putting on a Wagner music drama, no small undertaking even in the best of times, made a statement — that life and art go on, that one can attempt great things even under adverse conditions. The production, a rerun of a 2007 homegrown, Ian Judge-directed Tannhäuser now inherited by Louisa Muller, looked and sounded like the work of a major opera company cruising in midseason form without major compromises.
The tug-of-war between spiritual and sensual love within Tannhäuser came at us from the start. A silent grand piano on the left side of the stage suggested that music itself represents the spiritual side of life — a nice thought. (Interesting that the piano’s pedal or lyre box was in the shape of an actual lyre, Tannhäuser’s instrument.) During the Prelude, Tannhäuser sat in reverence before the keyboard before being lured off to Venusberg. Later during the singing contest, each of the Minnesängers formally took his place next to the instrument as if giving a Lieder recital.
The Gottfried Pilz sets are a series of doors and panels revolving on two turntables as the scenes change. Choreographer Aszure Barton’s coupling and uncoupling routines in the orgiastic Venusberg scene, as displayed under crimson lighting, looked less erotic than those I recall from the 2007 performance, which caused a stir at the time. Incongruous, though, was the contrast between the austere, white-robed pilgrims and the updated tuxes and suits that the cast wore in Act II during what looked like an upper-class champagne reception.
In a program note, Conlon wrote that rather than having to choose between the original Dresden version of the score, with its formal ABA-structured Prelude, and the 1861 Paris version, which has the extended Venusberg music and more advanced chromatic writing cropping up elsewhere, he would have it both ways. This performance used a 1961-vintage Bayreuth compromise — Paris up until the close of the Venusberg music at the beginning of Act I and Dresden the rest of the way. That worked just fine, with no stylistic swerves to disrupt the unity of the three acts.
Conlon pulled the score together fervently, always keeping things moving along with a few organically timed tappings of the brakes to launch stirring passages, such as the pilgrims’ procession in the Prelude. The 72-member orchestra played splendidly, augmented by seven offstage brass players sounding the fanfares of Act II. If the orchestra’s playing seemed to fall just a bit short of maximum impact, it could have been due to some muffling of the sound in the Pavilion pit — or perhaps the location of my seat. But at least there was hardly any danger of drowning out the singers, a worthy collection of known, veteran, and rising Wagnerians.
Issachah Savage was not so much a classic, ringing, heldentenor Tannhäuser as he was a subtle, nuanced, patiently musical one. His Act II praise to Venus during the singing contest sounded almost improvisatory in its freedom within the lines. Baritone Lucas Meachem could barely contain the passion underneath the formal veneer of Wolfram, and his solid rendition of the hit aria “Evening Star” was seconded by gorgeous playing from the cellos.
In a pair of LA Opera debuts, Michigan-born soprano Sara Jakubiak was a marvelous, at times overwhelmingly eloquent Elisabeth in tone (though I could not make out the majority of her words), while Russian mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina made a powerful, first-rate vocal impression of Venus in Act I and a somewhat wilder one in Act III. As the Landgrave Hermann, basso profundo Morris Robinson boomed as imposingly as he has in virtually every role he has taken on. Philip Cokorinos was an effectively crotchety Biterolf, and tenor Robert Stahley offered a respectably gritty Walther von der Vogelweide.
If you want to know the honest truth, sitting through a Wagner opera with a VN95 mask on for four-and-a-quarter hours — albeit with two intermission breaks — did push my pandemic-depleted energy supply to the point of exhaustion before the performance let out at 11:50 p.m. But it was definitely worth the effort.
Tannhäuser continues at Los Angeles Opera through Nov. 6. For information and tickets, go here.