mon 01/06/2020

Tannhäuser, Bayreuth Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Tannhäuser, Bayreuth Festival

Tannhäuser, Bayreuth Festival

Song contest meets recycling plant, Jesus meets Cupid, in early Wagner

In 1981, when I last came to Bayreuth, the festival still seemed to be a battleground between the German Left and Right, between the blame faction and the guilt faction, between the commie East and the fat-cat West. Plus ça change. Without quite openly taking sides, Sebastian Baumgarten’s new staging of Tannhäuser rings some cracked old political bells while, apparently with Bayreuth’s connivance, candidly parodying most of the thinking that underpins this admittedly somewhat raw, yet for Wagner absolutely crucial early work.

Baumgarten is the latest scion of the Felsenstein school, a pupil of Ruth Berghaus in Berlin, and intellectual heir to Götz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer and others from the Komische Oper and its purlieus who have sadistically raised the all-too-sensitive hackles of the Bayreuth audience in the past. Baumgarten could hardly be expected to resist the same temptation.


His Tannhäuser accordingly replaces Wagner’s 13th-century troubadour castle on the Wartburg with an AVL biogas plant, based on the Slave City concept of Joep van Lieshout, who designed this production. An AVL installation is completely self-sufficient, only uses resources it has produced itself, and relies on more or less constant input, in the broadest possible sense of the term, from its inhabitants. As an image of the materialist society in its purest, most futile form (as represented, needless to say, by the Bayreuth audience) it could hardly be bettered, to say nothing of the inevitable resonances of gas chambers, extermination camps and other scientific enterprises not yet expunged from local memory.

Exactly how all this relates to the Wartburg, which produced more or less pointless poetry until Tannhäuser arrived from the Venusberg, is not entirely clear, though it certainly might relate to the opera, which, as has often been pointed out, contains most of Wagner’s subsequent ideas in embryo.

Or it did before Baumgarten. The only embryo in his staging is, unexpectedly but logically enough, in Venus, who struts around, rather more often than Wagner decreed, looking fat and pregnant until the final scene, when she reappears with a baby in the guise – I’m sorry to have to report – of the Christ-child. Since the fair Elisabeth appears at this moment on a back projection as the Virgin Mary, the point is double-underlined that pure and venereal love are essentially the same thing. This is perhaps not quite like saying that Venus and Elisabeth stand for the complementary elements in Tannhäuser’s (and everyone else’s) make-up. But as a reductio ad absurdum it will do.


Reducing everything to absurdity is a Komische Oper fingerprint of this production, and it duly called forth the well-known Bayreuth boos and catcalls on the second night, when the director did not appear (what it was like on the first night, when he presumably did, can only be imagined). Venus is, you will have gathered, no love-queen but a suburban housewife with whom Tannhäuser bickers but to whom he returns, not out of lust presumably, but perhaps from boredom with Elisabeth, or even, dare one suggest, the first stirrings of paternity. The Venusberg is a cage which rises up from the stage at every possible (and the odd impossible) moment like a cinema organ, inhabited entirely by hairy primitives who sodomise one another from time to time.

So much for the sensual allure of Wagner’s “Naht euch dem Strande” (Baumgarten, who projects a great many slogans on an array of screens, calls this “Laichzeit” – spawning time). The pilgrims returning from Rome washed clean (I suppose) spend the time rubbing spots off each other. What on earth pilgrims are doing in a self-sufficient biogas plant is hard to say. But by this time all dramaturgical links with Wagner, the apostle of integrated music drama, have long since vanished into the recycling unit.

The well-produced and rather honest programme-book throws up plenty of evidence of tensions in the development of this staging. Baumgarten and Van Lieshout (whose factory designs are horrible but brilliantly executed) wanted to perform the work in a single act, but were not allowed to – for fairly obvious reasons – so got their revenge by having the plant workers continue shovelling shit and barrowing fuel throughout the hour-long Bayreuth intervals (Van Lieshout, who evidently knows nothing about singing, blames the caterers). The conductor, Thomas Hengelbrock, wanted to produce his own composite edition from Wagner’s various reworkings of the early Dresden version, but this too was verboten, so instead he conducted the almost pure first version from a lithographed copy in the composer’s hand, made in 1845 (the year of the first performance) with a view to publication.

'Hengelbrock is the unquestioned star, making no concessions to the bizarre and often tedious goings-on'


Hengelbrock, for me, is the unquestioned star of this production, conducting a beautifully paced, exquisitely played performance that makes no concessions whatsoever to the bizarre, satirical and often rather tedious goings-on on stage. I must admit to a preference for the Paris/Vienna version because of the beauties of the extended Venusberg music. But this would have been torture in Baumgarten’s hands, so one has to be thankful for small mercies. Hengelbrock also draws forth superb choral singing; out of the mouths of weirdly clad slave citizens, recyclers and assorted knight-workers and happy pilgrims cometh strength. They were rightly cheered to the high rafters of this wonderful theatre, which has endured so much in the battle for the soul of Germany that is still, in this 100th festival, being fought out over the works of the Master.











Pictured above, from left: Lars Cleveman’s Tannhäuser, Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth, Stephanie Friede's Venus

The soloists, by and large, are adequate, sometimes more. The Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund stands out as an Elisabeth of (no doubt) fine morals if sometimes teenage manners, and sings the part with warmth and presence, while clapping Tannhäuser’s pro-Venus sallies, giggling at the censorious Biterolf (Thomas Jesatko), and boxing Wolfram’s ears: quite simply, things look up, for the music at least, when she is on stage.

Lars Cleveman’s Tannhäuser, a likely lad who exchanges muddy Venusberg shorts for clean, bright-yellow Wartburg jeans, is musically workaday, good in the "Rome Narration" especially, but needs a stronger low register against Wagner’s rich orchestration.

Of several fine basses Günther Groissböck makes the best impression as a youthful, vibrant Landgrave. The Wolfram, Michael Nagy, has a lovely voice but suffers agonies from the production: knocked about by the pure Elisabeth, he then has to sing his "Evening Star" to Venus, if you please (well, she is the evening star, but not I think in Wolfram’s mind).

As for Venus herself, Stephanie Friede is the production’s real fall guy, and her singing alas shows it. Who can blame her? Wagner’s 1845 eroticism was at best a well-corseted affair, and Baumgarten makes sure it stays that way, adding more than a soupçon of vulgarity of his own. And the baby? Jesus meets Cupid – a message for our times.

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