Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser is an opera that’s never sure what it wants to say—but says it stunningly.

Pitting chivalric love against erotic pleasure, the libretto (by Wagner) follows the medieval knight Tannhauser from Venus’ lair in the underworld to his Bible-thumping hometown. He’s sick of sex-sex-sex-for-all-eternity, you see, and longs for the smell of grass, the change of seasons, the pain of living. He also longs for Elisabeth, a career virgin living in a castle surrounded by an insufferably priggish band of knights. Tannhauser abandoned her for his jaunt with the Goddess of Love, but he has returned to compete for her hand against the other knights in a song contest. (Elisabeth was always a sucker for his voice.)

He mocks all the chaster-than-thou songs his competitors are singing and admits that he’s found out firsthand just how much women are from Venus. This upsets Liz; and then, in one of those lightning transformations that happen only in opera, Tannhauser does a 180. He admits he’s a miserable sinner and follows a mixed chorus of pilgrims to Rome to get the papal treatment. The pope tells him to forget about salvation, and the cursed knight returns home once again, ready to take out a mortgage in the Venusberg. Even his uptight pal Wolfram can’t lure him back to Jesus. But all’s not lost: Elisabeth (who’s literally died waiting for Tannhauser to get back home) never lost faith in her boyfriend, and her prayers ensure that, as he dies, during the final pages of the score, Tannhauser will indeed go to heaven.

Christian and pagan, ascetic and hedonistic, revolutionary and reactionary: The more you try to pin down Tannhauser, the more muddled and self-contradictory it becomes. But that’s no surprise considering its protean (read: slippery) creator. Renowned as an opportunist, womanizer, voluptuary, proto-fascist, and all-around bad boy, Wagner was perpetually indulging his appetites and just as actively chasing after spiritual transcendence. And he had that messianic thing going—a determination to reinvent the artistic world in his image—and looked to Woman as his muse, his Shangri-la, his salvation. (Just about every Wagnerian opus involves some hero screwing up and being saved by the self-annihilating sacrifice of a loving woman. Feminists have rightly had a field day with this.) You can hear his contentious first marriage playing out in the opening scene with Venus, and throughout the Act 2 song contest, Tannhauser is every inch the angry young man, the provocateur, the misunderstood heir apparent to Germany’s musical heritage that Wagner fancied himself to be. And if the finale’s weepy transformation feels uncomfortably naive, even confessional, that theme of eleventh-hour reclamation from the Bonds of Lust only got bigger and more uncomfortable by the time Wagner penned his final opera, Parsifal.

Wagner, of course, was such a good composer that he managed to spin all this Christo-pagan claptrap into gold. Venus moves to a narcotic haze of orchestration that’s part sweaty desire, part loopy tintinnabulation. (Wagner juiced up the Venusberg scene into a full erotic ballet, complete with post-Tristan chromatic harmonies, for his late-career, Paris Opera retooling of Tannhauser.) The knights, upon discovering Tannhauser shortly after his return, sing a gorgeous bel canto ensemble, one of the most memorably tuneful creations in the composer’s canon. Ditto the love duet with Elisabeth, with melody tumbling on melody. (Why hasn’t this lovely piece had the independent life that the love duets from Dutchman and Lohengrin have had?) And by the time you’ve been through the sublime choruses of Acts 2 and 3, you’re ready to receive the spirit. Wagner’s music humanizes and draws you to even the least sympathetic of his characters—and did I mention that everyone has at least one terrific aria? Tannhauser may be trashy as theology, but it’s damn audience-friendly.

So why haven’t we seen it at Washington Opera, even as that company has begun tackling the most punishingly difficult of Wagner’s works? These days, Tannhauser’s certainly castable, as Baltimore Opera’s new production makes handsomely clear. In fact, BaltOp gets so much right musically onstage and in the pit that it would behoove anyone with even a fleeting interest in the composer to get him- or herself to Charm City pronto: Wagner’s operas don’t find their way into our neighborhood as regularly as they should.

Now, BaltOp’s cast may not be as starry as the ones the Met or Bayreuth or Salzburg could field, but it’s nearly up to those companies’ standards—an astonishing achievement for any company outside the big opera capitals—and there’s no weak link. Tenor Jon Fredric West has been banging around his voice like a Tonka truck for some years now, but, with the exception of some nasality and a few sledgehammered high notes, he possesses the burnished baritonal weight, immense volume, and sheer stamina this unforgiving role demands. His Elisabeth, Eva Johansson, has a soprano with the requisite punch and gleam for the role. There’s too much acid in the voice at full volume, but her keening tone in quieter moments has a haunting beauty. Better still is Petra Lang, an outstanding Wagner mezzo who devours the role of Venus in one big bite. So secure is her upper register, Lang might just be destined for the Wagner soprano repertoire somewhere down the road.

The knights are a strong lot. James Johnson’s Wolfram pines persuasively for Elisabeth—Wolfram’s the one she “just wants to be friends” with, though considering the platonic vibe going around the castle, what the hell difference does it make?—and his velvety, noble baritone should be more widely heard. So should Hans Sisa’s pitch-dark bass, which he rolls out to mellifluous effect as the Landgrave (head honcho of this particular men’s club). Only a handful of moments where his intonation goes inexplicably haywire suggest a problem in need of attention. And special note should also be made of Pierre Lefebvre’s Walther. A true character tenor in the old tradition, Lefebvre is reminiscent in places of Gerhard Stolze, who made this role so oddly memorable back in the ’60s.

Christian Badea conducts with sensitivity and full command of the score. If his orchestra is not the equal of its Kennedy Center counterpart—let alone that ideal Wagner orchestra James Levine has developed at the Met—it responds to his baton with abandon. The scurrying violins in the famous overture are a bit scrappy, and the brass trip over their shoelaces from time to time. But overall, the string timbre is darkly satisfying, the all-important winds are bold and eloquent, and the lower-lying instruments have an almost visceral impact. The chorus, too, sounds larger than life—a tribute as much to the Lyric Opera House’s thrillingly immediate acoustics as to considerable collective talent. (Let’s hope that the Kennedy Center Opera House’s upcoming face-lift will include enough acoustic beefing up to match the big-bang effect of the Lyric.)

So what about the much-ballyhooed staging by German film director—and bad boy in his own right—Werner Herzog? Well, the good news is that much of it is very interesting. The not-so-good news is that much of what’s interesting is interesting for the wrong reasons. Putting nearly everyone in white, diaphanous costumes (by designer Franz Blumauer), for example, makes the obvious point about the state of their souls, but the abstracted medievalism of the costume silhouettes conjures up everything from boll weevils to hazmat workers to the Saturday Night Live coneheads. (And while we’re on the subject of costuming, who approved those knights’ helmets, which make the male chorus look like dime-novel space aliens at a Klan rally?) The banks of electric fans designed to keep the stage pictures kinetic are another promising notion, but they’re inconsistently effective, and the special effects they generate evoke budget limitations as often as they evoke dream states.

Fortunately, there are enough instances in which Herzog knows how to take the audience’s collective breath away in a single stroke: the whisking away of the Venusberg’s gargantuan, billowing red curtains (which designer Maurizio Balo has sculpted to look like three-story-tall, pulsating labia), taking us from Venus’ lair to a gray, wooden, real world; the pilgrims, half-seen behind a scrim, their white robes looking almost transparent, as if they’d already entered the spirit world; the angels drifting heavenward at opera’s end (a daffy piece of Victoriana that somehow suits the emotional charge of that final chorus).

But away from his more comprehensively satisfying work in cinema, Herzog isn’t what you’d call an actor’s director. (Remember WashOp’s Il Guarany?) Take away his impassioned singing, and West’s Tannhauser barely registers as a character. Principal singers crisscross the stage with no rhyme or reason, stand at the footlights to belt out their arias, and avoid anything resembling personal contact with each other. The knights remain resolutely expressionless throughout the opera, and I’m assuming that their catatonia is not the result of bad acting grown to epidemic proportions, but rather a directorial imperative from a man who once shot a film (Heart of Glass) with his entire cast under hypnosis.

For all its silliness, though, the BaltOp production says one thing loud and clear: Herzog loathes the sanctimonious Christians in the piece. No one watching this show is going to leave the opera house feeling warm and fuzzy toward the knights—and even Elisabeth comes off as petulant, repressed, flaky, and escapist by turns. Herzog might have drawn more complexity from the libretto had he fought to make all the characters sympathetic to a point or brought the story forward into our own more morally ambiguous times. (I’m still kicking myself for missing Peter Sellars’ televangelical update set in a place resembling the Crystal Cathedral, with its multiple surtitles elucidating character subtext and cross-referencing mid-19th-century literature and philosophy.) But if Herzog has done one thing well, he’s created a believable world of crushingly doctrinaire intolerance. Somehow, he’s been able to take Wagner’s have-it-both-ways tale and give it something resembling a point of view. CP

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