Friday, Feb. 1, 2008 | Some opera fans groan at the mention of a Wagner opera; too long, they say. Perhaps this is why, on San Diego Opera’s opening night production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” some patrons chose to leave at the second intermission.

But Wagner operas are also regarded with the utmost respect, featuring difficult singing roles and exploring dramatic themes such as salvation and redemption. The supreme artistry of a Wagner opera can best be appreciated with patience. And the beauty in this production of “Tannhäuser” was in the details — the lush scenery, the exemplary singing and the music itself.

The dramatic story of the opera centers on the character of Tannhäuser (Robert Gambill) — a minstrel living in the middle ages who flees from the real world into the arms of Venus (Petra Lang), the Goddess of Love. A willing slave, Tannhäuser languishes in Venusberg amid the bacchanalia and sensual pleasures so taboo in the pious, Christian world he departed. Now, having grown tired of Venusberg, Tannhäuser pleads with Venus to let him go. The story follows Tannhäuser as he returns to his old world, reunites with the chaste woman who loves him, proceeds to fall very far from grace, seeks and is denied redemption and finally finds salvation. Heady stuff, yes. Boring? Never.

Robert Gambill exceeded expectations with his portrayal of the title role; his delivery was crisp, with clear diction, effectively communicating Tannhäuser’s exhilarating highs and demoralizing lows. Gambill’s magnetic stage presence served him well during the song contest scene; his depiction of a cocksure Tannhäuser completely entertained.

Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang’s Venus sizzled with sensuality. Her exquisite, lush tones turned emphatically bright with anger and disbelief upon Tannhäuser’s pleas of freedom.

There was a collective sigh from the audience as the curtain rose on Venus’ realm of Venusberg. A gorgeous pastel palette rendering a large, willowy tree with 3-D effects was just one part of the opera’s lavish sets originally designed by James Mulder. These designs are based on Günther Schneider-Siemssen designed sets for a Metropolitan Opera production.

As Elisabeth, Soprano Camilla Nylund’s deft legato captivated. Nylund’s sweet voice and soft demeanor belied her strength of sound; her voice never got lost in the roar of the orchestra.

Baritone Russell Braun was a fantastic head-turner in his role debut as Wolfram von Eschenbach. Portraying both friend to Tannhäuser and ardent yet unrequited lover of Elisabeth, Braun conveyed understated sensitivity while maintaining robust singing. Eschenbach never outright sings that he loves Elisabeth but it was obvious with Braun’s emotive singing, demeanor and the accompaniment of the music.

Another standout includes Bass Reinhard Hagen, commanding in his presence in the role of Landgraf Hermann. Scott Sikon, Martin Zysset and Laura Fortune impressively rounded out the cast.

Esteemed conductor Gabor Ötvös intimates Wagner’s most sublime impulses in his San Diego Opera debut. And the San Diego Opera chorus proved themselves once again by showcasing Wagner’s chorale/ensemble pieces with perfection. The triumphant entrance scene in the Hall of Song will be etched in my mind forever.

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