All In One Place
Of all the things to lament in the lamentable new Graham Vick production of Tannhäuser that opened at the San Francisco Opera this week — the ham-fisted treatment of sex in Wagner's second-most-erotic opera, the crawling zombies infesting the Song Contest, the doltish pilgrims with their illegible red sin tattoos — the one that keeps chafing at me, oddly enough, is designer Paul Brown's unit set.
It's inside, it's outside; it's a hall, it's a field, it's a road, it's a forest. It makes no damn sense at all, and it tells us nothing about the drama being played out upon it.
And by an obvious contrast, it put me in mind of one of the most sleekly revelatory staging decisions I've seen in recent years, which also uses a single location in a Wagner opera — except this time, to brilliant effect.
It comes at the beginning of the second act of Die Walküre in director Stephen Wadsworth's pretty-darn-swell Ring for the Seattle Opera. The curtain goes up, and there's Wotan and Brünnhilde, not on a mountaintop, but in front of Hunding's hut. Everything is just the way we left it at the end of Act 1 — including, most notably, the housewares that Siegmund and Sieglinde left scattered behind in their mad rush to passion — and for a moment it's as though the intermission had never happened. But something is different: the light. It's not just that it's now daytime instead of night; the atmosphere looks thinner somehow, as though the mountain peaks of Valhalla had descended to Hunding's forest.
At that moment, the audience instantly apprehends a number of noteworthy things very clearly. We understand that the world of the gods and that of men and women are not distinct places on the map, but two spheres that somehow occupy the same physical location; they're interwoven, or overlaid on each other like plastic transparencies, and so we feel how closely the fates of these characters are bound up with one another.
We understand, too, with a new force, how similar godly matrimony is to its mortal counterpart; we get a brisk, intuitive sense of the psychological rhymes that join these two disparate marriages, and of the emotional and sexual imperatives that dominate both races. And later, when Fricka makes her entrance, there's a magisterial moment in which she surveys the broken crockery and (as portrayed by the great Stephanie Blythe) grasps in an instant everything that has happened in Act 1 — because, you know, she's a married woman herself.
All of this, as I say, is conveyed in a flash, with the potency of an elemental truth. There's no bizarre imagery, no elaborately coded system that can be forced to give up its meaning if you read the director's apologia in the program book after you get home; just a simple, clear revelation that changes how you understand the drama. And that, secondo me, is how it's done.