Some Tremendous Singing and Playing in Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser
Bayreuth Festival 2013  Wagner, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg: soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor: Axel Kober. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 7.8.2013. (JPr)
Director: Sebastian Baumgarten
Sets: Joep van Lieshout
Costume: Nina von Mechow
Lighting: Franck Evin
Video: Christopher Kondek
Landgraf Hermann: Günther Groissböck
Tannhäuser: Torsten Kerl
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Michael Nagy
Walther von der Vogelweide: Lothar Odinius
Biterolf: Thomas Jesatko
Heinrich der Schreiber: Stefan Heibach
Reinmar von Zweter: Martin Snell
Elisabeth: Camilla Nylund
Venus: Michelle Breedt
Young Shepherd: Katja Stuber
This production apparently needs life-support and might get only one more outing on the Green Hill before it is discarded. When they were taking it more seriously last year, I wrote a review that was well-received that got – I believe – as close to the ‘truth’ behind Sebastian Baumgarten’s 2011 Tannhäuser production as it may be possible to get without writing a PhD thesis about it. Now the tone seems to have lightened further and much of Act I suggested it is now being performed with ‘tongues firmly in cheek’. Like Neuenfels’s ‘rats’ in Lohengrin there is little left that is threatening in Joep van Lieshout’s single set waste recycling plant which we see producing its biogas, biofuel, food or the alcohol that will help the workaholics ‘take the edge off’ at the end of the day and blot out the misery of their lives. The pilgrims are disgruntled employees or anyone else unable to do their jobs properly, and the only disturbing image of Act I is when they are put into crates seemingly bound for Rome.
We are supposed to recognise the Venusberg (that raises up from below) for what it is: a haven of licentiousness, debauchery and rampant sexual activity, the antithesis of the world above that is repressed and regimented. So far … so Wagner! I don’t remember most of the workers having numbers on their T-shirts and the four cavorting ‘tadpoles’ cause plenty of laughter especially with Tannhäuser servicing a heavily pregnant Venus in the background! This pregnancy also causes more laughs as at a climatic high note she clutches her abdomen as if to prevent herself going prematurely into labour! Torsten Kerl also seemed to be repeating a ‘drunken hero’ performance that – for me – worked so well for him as Siegfried recently in Paris. His Tannhäuser is irrepressible, someone who wants everything on his own terms and who – satiated of everything the Venusberg has to offer – longs for Elisabeth. Along with the Landgrave and the other minnesingers he rushes back to her and they all turn to give us – the audience – ‘thumbs up’ from the back of the stage as if letting us in on a big joke!
As Act II continues I am certain we are watching a religious pageant for some of the community connected to the factory who are at the sides watching: a dramatization of the martyrdom of St Elisabeth! The Landgrave’s niece comes in for ‘Dich, teure Halle’ emoting like some silent movie siren. She later responds to Tannhäuser’s touch with a melting ‘Heinrich’ before realising exactly where the hand on her leg may be going and she scolds him when she says his first name a second time. Elisabeth is clearly totally neurotic with conflicting sexual longings and religious fervour. The latter causes her to have the martyr complex that results in Elisabeth carving into her hands with a dagger the stigmata that she will brandish to everyone showing how willing she is to suffer. The song contest has a hint of a public X Factoraudition about it with all the knights singing to the gallery. However, the closing moments after Tannhäuser sings of his love for Venus (who is watching) shows the power of Wagner’s storytelling and music to overcome anything a director can throw at it. Elisabeth protects him and Tannhäuser is allowed to join the pilgrims bound for Rome.
Again a haunting image remains in the memory from this act because of Baumgarten’s treatment of the pilgrims: these dregs of society are chillingly stripped of their jewellery and consigned to large crates. The hint of gas we see – as well as Tannhäuser’s evident horror when he looks into one of them – suggests these consignments may never get to their destination. (As someone with a Jewish mother who fled the Anschluss in 1938 I feel I can comment here briefly that Bayreuth should stop flagellating itself over Wagner’s anti-Semitism and any of its supposed consequences. This matter must not be pushed under the carpet but it should not be the focus of attention it now is in Bayreuth and with Wagner’s descendants. Wagner was not Hitler’s political advisor nor his music director – if you did not know he died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born. I mentioned before in an earlier review in this series about Wagner’s dubious private morals and opinions and these would be of no concern to us in 2013 if he had not written everything down at such great length: if he had not revealed himself as an anti-Semite musicologists would never be looking for it in his operas.)
A feature of this production is that the action doesn’t stop when the music does and the ‘Eucharist’ is now at the end of the second interval (instead of at the beginning) and the Bayreuth audience experiences the whole service as they return to their seats for Act III. This allows a small section to give voice to their dissatisfaction with what they are seeing and they shout out or boo vociferously: though – thanks to a wonderfully performed final act by all concerned – little further dissent is heard at the end of the opera. I know many may dispute this statement but what Baumgarten now gives us is relatively ‘gimmick free’ and just tells the story. Okay, so the crates do open and the ‘pilgrims’ return seemingly lobotomised and acting like the robots in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper – everyone gets polished and everything is being swept up as they have been made fit to work! So what if Elisabeth seems to recycle herself by entering the biogas digester? This time she is actually more willing to do this than in previous years, even then she seems to survive by reappearing near the end of the act because this is possibly only ‘a play-within-a-play’. After a suitably anguished Rome Narration from Torsten Kerl as a proto -Tristan, the two disparate worlds are united and although the Pope’s staff has not burst out in ‘frischem Grün’ everyone from above and below is brought together by the birth of Venus and Tannhäuser’s child that is passed around as the opera ends.
Axel Kober (music director of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf /Duisburg) replaced Christian Thielemann this year and conducted a nuanced, dynamic and dramatically-compelling account of the score. The first twenty-five minutes played against a darkened stage were some of the most vivid, powerful and expressive musical moments of all my years coming to the Bayreuth Festival. As well as Torsten Kerl’s robust Tannhäuser most of the principals repeated their fine performances from previous years; Camilla Nylund excels as an intense, empathic, Elisabeth, Michael Nagy’s Wolfram appears genuinely obsessed with her and brought a Lieder-like intimacy to his stunning ‘O Du, Mein Holder Abendstern’. The superb chorus deserved the ovation they got and the remaining singers did their best though do not get anything substantial to do: all the minnesingers, Katja Stuber’s delightfully inebriated Young Shepherd, Michelle Breedt’s well-portrayed Venus who is more blowsy than seductive, and Günther Groissbock’s resonant and authoritative Landgrave.
On this site are other reviews from the 2013 Bayreuth Festival.
For more about the Bayreuth Festival visit http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de/.