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Bayreuth 2012: Tannhäuser is a Gasser

When Sebastian Baumgarten looks for truth in opera, he looks beyond the smooth execution of a stage apparatus, beyond settings that create a more or less creative tension to known and recognizable plots. He seeks out the cracks that allow a view behind the façade, at something more elementary, to the very core of the message he perceives in an opera. At the core of Tannhäuser he has found the conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

You could miss some of that, sitting through his Bayreuth Tannhäuser at the Festspielhaus. Disastrously received when it premiered in 2011, it was the production I expected the least from in this year’s run, deeply suspicious of Joop van Lieshout’s domineering set called “Technocrat”, a self-sufficient eco-fascist community that recycles its own waste and creates its own drug – alcohol – for regulated occasions of being wasted. (We recall Marxism 101: “Religion… the opiate of the masses.”) We are also supposed to think of Wagner’s prophetic, occasionally pathetic warnings against scientific and technological progress.

The Venusberg is the Wartburg’s own dungeon of experimentation, sexual and otherwise, which features strange creatures, some copulating like apes, others variously described as electric rays, amoebas, or dancing spermatozoa. (Hint: It’s the latter, and they go with the strangely transfixing x-ray videos projected at the back of the stage… Good thing I hadn’t put too much money on my electric ray-as-electricity-supply theory.) Because Baumgarten has much to tell, the action on stage starts well before the music, continues through the intermissions, and continues still, after the score says it’s all over. These pre-, post-, and intermezzi provide flavor (including a communal prayer of the Wartburg crew, set to the German anthem’s melody), but are missable. Fortunately: After all, intermissions are better invested in necessary drink, nourishing sausages, and revitalizing water-wading.

The essay “Bayreuth as Bioethics Laboratory: An Appreciation of Baumgarten’s Production of Tannhäuser” in “The Wagner Journal” is a splendid source for digging into the meaningful depths of this production, and gives answers and clues that will escape the roving eye of a one- or two-time concert-goer. For example that the self-inflicted, stigmata-like wounds of Elisabeth are (“possibly”) a result of child abuse by her uncle, Herrmann, Landgrave of Thuringia, or that Tannhäuser’s body is covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KSHV, associated with AIDS) in the third act. There is legitimate dispute as to whether Elisabeth suicidally gases and recycles herself (Wolfram helpfully closes the hatch and pushes her back in, when she briefly changes her mind), or merely leaves the Wartburg society through the workers’ and maintenance entrance of the biogas tank. The above mentioned essay takes the former view, in a newspaper article the production’s dramaturg Carl Hegemann, perhaps to diffuse German outrage, the latter.

On paper much makes sense, and it’s always good to give modern productions the benefit of the doubt for containing more clever thoughts than oneself could ever muster. But it is better still if many of these ideas communicate readily. That’s not the case in the first act, apart from the pregnant Venus (Michelle Breedt), who does make a ton of sense: Firstly Wagner designed her as a compendium-character that included Holle (with overtones of Fricka/Freia), the goddess of birth, death, and reincarnation. Secondly: For Tannhäuser (Torsten Kerl) to leave a pregnant Venus adds plenty, desirable tension to his return to the upper world, and makes Venus’ desperation at his abandonment considerably more poignant.

The second act, meanwhile, works splendidly on its own, even though it had been least changed from the year before. There’s little need for the set(ting) of van Lieshout, as Baumgarten makes splendid points about Tannhäuser through his Personenregie. The Dastardly provocation of Elisabeth, for example, as Tannhäuser dances to his song about free-wheeling love, ever more explicitly, with the pregnant, salaciously lollipop sucking Venus. Or about the moralizing racket of the Wartburg crew, who monopolize religion and righteousness to send people for repenting and rehabilitation to “ROM(E)”—a brainwashing procedure on the Wartburg premises (keep Clockwork Orange or Scientology in the mental background)—and charge good money, collected in trunks labeled “LOOT”,  for it, too. (Luther 101: keywords “Letters of indulgence.”)

The song contest is very neatly and closely tailored to Wagner’s text and his characters, whether the jealous Wolfram (Michael Nagy), the tediously-virtuous Walther (Lothar Odinius), or the irascible, aggressive Biterolf (Thomas Jesatko) with his Dr. Strangelove act. The latter especially throws all his anger at Tannhäuser for having allowed at the moral rebel to make the virtuous Wartburg boys horny with his tales of physical love and gyrating dance. At Tannhäuser’s mention of the Venusberg, the circular lion cage of lust comes out of the floor again, for graphic illustration of his transgressions. Elisabeth, in reaching out from stifling morality to physical sensuality (within measure) is Tannhäuser’s pendant in the opera, not Venus’… Tannhäuser being the one who reaches for structured love from a state of licentiousness. Baumgarten makes the move explicit in that he has Elisabeth briefly visit the den of sin with Tannhäuser, to check it out, but ultimately reject it.

If this production was a success—and it was very well received by the increasingly indiscriminately enthusiastic audience—it had as much to do with more ideas coming through, or clearing out a few distracting elements from the first and third act since 2011, or the audience simply getting used to Baumgarten’s story-telling designs, as it did with the vast musical improvement over 2011. When Thomas Hengelbrock tried to bring his Historical Performance Practice approach and lots of sound ideas to the Green Hill, he was met with indifference, if not hostility by the orchestra, and got as far as the prelude with this approach, after which the music reverted to ‘the usual’, but less inspired. Hengelbrock withdrew, gave up, or was asked to be busy elsewhere—whichever the case, Bayreuth’s new house-conductor Christian Thielemann took over, and delivered at least as ravishing an account as he had in The Flying Dutchman; flexible, sumptuous, and ever supporting, never covering the singers.

The singers, too, had faltered by all 2011 accounts, which cannot be said of this cast, with its new and improved Tannhäuser and Venus. Pronunciation and especially diction was impeccable throughout, from the preachy Reinmar (Martin Snell) to the stoic, strapping, stentorian and mildly sadistic Herrmann (Günther Groissböck). That’s particularly pleasant in Bayreuth which, to the relief of veterans and chagrin of newbies, doesn’t believe in supertitles. Michelle Breedt, unleashed from her 1960’s Brangäne, was a dramatically most compelling, queerly seductive Venus, Michael Nagy a fresh-voiced, agile Wolfram (with room to develop dramatic nuance), and Torsten Kerl a hard working, ultimately very successful Tannhäuser, if dying of AIDS/guilt at opera’s end can be considered very successful. The same for the gas-recycled, clear and even-voiced Camilla Nylund, who sublimated her sexual longings in an ecstatic religious experience and shed, by way of ritually removing the ‘looted’ jewelry she had donned, her associations with the moralizing crooks of the Wartburg society.

With a high musical score, and effective if not always lucid drama, this so maligned Tannhäuser was a most happy surprise, a moving opera experience that effortlessly bested the veteran Tristan and newcomer Dutchman.

Pictures (below) courtesy Bayreuth Festival, © Enrico Nawrath

(Recommended) recordings:

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tannhäuser,
S.Weigler / SO & Chorus Gran Teatre del Liceau
P.Seiffert, P.M.Schnitzer /
B.Uria-Monzon, G.Groissboeck...
Carsen / Steinberg
c major Blu-ray

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tannhäuser,
D.Barenboim / Stakap.Berlin

P.Seiffert / J.Eaglen
W.Meier / R.Pape et al.

Warner - Teldec

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tannhäuser,
H.v.Karajan / Vienna State Opera

H.Beirer, G.Brouwenstijn,
C.Ludwig, G.Frick