An opera classic gets born again. At Chicago's Lyric, Wagner meets Jimmy Swaggart

The most talked-about opera of the season isn't a brand new work like last year's ``Nixon in China.'' It's Wagner's hoary ``Tannh"auser'' - updated to the present, with a fallen televangelist at its center. Lyric Opera of Chicago took a calculated gamble by becoming the first major company to invite young American director Peter Sellars to mount one of his contemporized stagings of a classic. And the gamble has paid off handsomely for Lyric general director Ardis Krainik, with a provocative production that's attracting international attention.

Though considered a fundamentally conservative company, the Lyric has had a surprisingly inventive record. The company was built on the concept of using strong singers in the standard classics, including just about every tenor of renown of the past three decades. It was the first company in several decades to commission and present a new work from a major composer - Penderecki's ``Paradise Lost'' in honor of the bicentennial of the United States. It was also the first among our top three companies to present a Philip Glass opera (``Satyagraha'').

In addition to its carefully chosen innovations, the Lyric continues to offer the regular repertoire for traditionalists, as seen in the current production of ``La Traviata.''

Mr. Sellars's now-familiar contention that operas must be made relevant to today's audiences finds its most potent - and in many ways, consistent - argument in this ``Tannh"auser.'' Wagner used the work to explore the theme of salvation through a woman's love by depicting Tannh"auser's relationships with the voluptuous love goddess Venus and the chaste mortal Elisabeth. Sellars has taken the recent Jimmy Swaggart affair as a modern model.

Thus, the ``hero'' is a televangelist; Venus, a cheap tart; the Venusberg, a tawdry motel. The competition hall in Wurtburg is transformed into the Crystal Cathedral (slyly suggested by George Tsypin's sets), with the long-suffering Elisabeth a prim and matronly Midwesterner. The pilgrims returning from Rome are awaited at an airport.

On one level, this treatment fits comfortably, at least for the first two acts. An evangelist who preaches his rigid, unforgiving version of Christianity while also wantonly indulging the senses can only be on the horns of a profound moral dilemma. And after letting his secret slip out during the ``song'' contest (staged here more as a sermon contest) in front of the devoted, the hypocrite is banished by his brotherhood and forced onto a pilgrim's path toward repentance.

Sellars has not solved several fundamental problems associated with imposing this modern concept on the work, however. Would Swaggart-type Christians really send one of their own to seek absolution from the Pope? Would these Protestants ever worship the Virgin Mary, as Wagner has both his Tannh"auser and Elisabeth do at the peaks of their most desperate crises?

Sellars glosses over some of this by the use of some peculiar supertitles - in red, white, or blue - which ignore or rewrite a good deal of Wagner's religious and philosophical imagery and allusions. The rewrites - clearly Sellars-inspired, and, I would venture, Sellars-written - attempt to shock in exactly the way Wagner's own ripe text must have shocked its first audiences. Yet the crudeness of some of them is not so much jolting as merely tasteless. And, deplorably, the supertitles turn the audience's attention from the stage.

The staging seemed, to me, engrossing. Yet it trivializes Wagner, because the televangelist's various plights are treated with comic cynicism rather than as part of a tragic human dilemma. The Lyric audience's laughter at several serious junctures only confirms this analysis. Nevertheless, people were actually discussing the opera at intermission, an unusual occurrence these days. So Sellars has succeeded in forcing thoughtful operagoers to reconsider what the art form is really about - again a rare occurrence.

Of the singers, Hakan Hagegard is emphatically the best - a strong, imposing Wolfram in the grand tradition. Jan Hendrik Rootering makes a forceful Landgrave (an overtly fascist ruler here). Marilyn Zschau's Venus is vocally edgy but histrionically effective within the eccentric, mono-dimensional nature of the staging. Nadine Secunde's singing of Elisabeth is vocally unwieldy, lacking genuine diminuendos or accuracy on the high pitches. John Duykers (Chairman Mao in the Sellars production of ``Nixon in China'') was the impressively acted, though vocally problematic, replacement for Richard Cassilly as Tannh"auser in the performance I saw. In the pit, Ferdinand Leitner offered a substantial, old-school reading of the earlier Dresden version of the opera, and the orchestra played for him with remarkable energy and tonal richness.

As for the ``Traviata,'' it has a handsomely old-fashioned setting and staging. Designer Pier Luigi Pizzi gives each act the look of a comfortable room, well lived-in. Giulio Chazalettes's action is simple and to the point. Bruno Bartoletti's conducting is imbued with a love of Verdi and a love of singing and singers. Juan Pons is a richly satisfying Germont in every respect, and Neil Rosenshein a forceful and ardent Alfredo, whose tenor is sounding very well this season.

But the opera belongs to Violetta, and Anna Tomowa-Sintow brings a grand-scaled Verdian mastery to the role. She combines a scrupulous musicianship with a rich dramatic sensibility. The voice is capable of every dynamic, from silvery yet full-toned pianissimos to glistening fortissimos, and all are used to potent dramatic effect. Her handsome stage presence and nuanced acting make for a complete account of this challenging work.

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