Bayreuth Festival 2012 [4]: “Diluted” Tannhäuser is Festival Highlight

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor: Christian Thielemann. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 27.8.2012. (JPr)

I must have been given the power of foresight because I ended last year’s review about Sebastian Baumgarten’s revision of Tannhäuser with the following words “if it is allowed to develop in Werkstatt Bayreuth in forthcoming years … it could gain significantly in popularity rather than notoriety.” I believe that has come true – and I wish I could pick Lottery numbers as successfully!

Baumgarten’s Brave New World is a wonderful analysis of that Tannhäuser staging last year, however so ‘diluted’ has the director’s bio-ethical approach been by Werkstatt Bayreuth (as I suggested it might) that the essay in the programme – based on an article by Edward A and Paula M Bortnichak is already redundant. Their abridged essay already includes more words that were in the whole of this year’s Tristan programme, translations included! It apparently originates from The Wagner Journal yet I doubt whether its editor, Barry Millington, ever saw this translation with a plethora of its’, 19’th Century and Diaghram among its(!) several errors. (I first suggested to Bayreuth a few years ago that I could recommend to them a suitable proof-reader but I am yet to be asked about this.)

On the plus side I am grateful to these authors for their concise evaluation of what Baumgarten and his colleagues brought us last year: “… it is a society more technologically ‘advanced’ than our own, but not yet completely controlled by that technology yet. Scientists can create chimeras, but their creations are still experimental and confined to their Venusberg laboratories; organized religion has already perverted into an ‘opiate’ that aides in the control of the citizenry of this evolving ‘brave new world’, and spirituality has been replaced by religious delusional behaviour (e.g. Elizabeth’s [sic] stigmata), just as sexual urges, if not forcibly subverted/sublimated through chemical means [alcohol] (e.g. Wolfram’s need for Elizabeth), are expressed by extreme ‘acting out’ (e.g. Tannhäuser’s hallmark internal struggle).”

For me, it has been less “Brave New World” than “Soylent Green” where in a dystopian future with its pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and global warming much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “Soylent Green” … actually processed human remains. (Presumably the longer version of the Bortnichaks’ article references this otherwise it must be deemed to be incomplete.)


At Bayreuth in 2012 however Baumgarten seems to have acted on last year’s criticism and changed things so much that in Act I only an outline of his original Konzept remains. Now the Overture is played against a darkened stage, the Venusberg ape-men are not so obvious at the moment and Tannhäuser now keeps his trousers on regardless of whether he is upstairs or down below. Joep van Lieshout’s stage-deep installation the “Technocrat” is still ever-present revealing to the audience the self-sufficient world of the future (Wartburg) with its darker excesses in the basement (Venusberg). The giant sperm are still there – I appear to have been one of the “established media” reviewers who called them “tadpoles” even though I gave them a Freudian connotation! Venus is still shown as a pregnant earth mother and always visible are the ever-present onlookers both sides of the stage. What is shown now begins as almost a routine Tannhäuser production with a petulant, over-grown schoolboyish, “eponymous hero” – who to be honest could be Siegfried – shown to be bored with the libidinous Venus and wants to get back to his first love, Elisabeth. We only really become aware of the “Technocrat” when the “action” continues for a few minutes at the end of each act; in the same way it was continuing as people entered the auditorium with its mixture of speech, scrolling texts, slogans and other projections. In the second interval there is even a religious service.

After Act II it came to mind that if one act alone can make a five day visit to Bayreuth worth it on its own this was it! Baumgarten’s 2011 Act II arrived fresh in 2012 as if it had been reimagined by Katharina Wagner – and I mean this as a compliment. The biogas plant now has little relevance to what we see except that the workers running it are now part of putting on a Passion Play for other colleagues, friends and family. To put it more simply, we get a real version of the Tannhäuser story and bioethics has absolutely nothing to do with it. Elisabeth is trying to keep her rampant sexual desires under control through religious zealotry – she craves sex but believes she shouldn’t commit herself. Some of Elisabeth’s confusion may result from her relationship with her uncle, the Landgraf, whose sexuality seems somewhat ambiguous. Elisabeth cries out “Heinrich” just as Tannhäuser’s hand moves up her naked thigh! As well as this this there are very many other good things in this act, from the tipsy Venus to the well-individualised minnesingers entering the Song Contest: Wolfram (Michael Nagy) bores everyone rigid so they turn their backs, Tannhäuser himself makes fun of Walther von der Vogelweide (Lothar Odinius) sprinkling him with alcohol and later when he sings couples immediately pair up romantically.

Tannhäuser eventually causes Venusberg to ascend and is banished. Elisabeth who was originally in red but wore virginal white for the contest pleads on his behalf and shows how fixated she is about this by cutting stigmata into her hands. Baumgarten’s reluctant pilgrims can be none other than Jews unwanted by this society of the future that is seeking perfection. With a cry of “Nach Rom!” Tannhäuser follows the pilgrims as they are ominously crated-up and the onlookers on the sides of the stage – still looking on – applaud the end of Act II.

After this things just get better and better! With Parsifal still to come this has to have been the best sung, best played and conducted, and the most convincingly staged of the four 2012 operas I have seen so far. With all respects to Bayreuth’s music advisor, Christian Thielemann, it is clear where his priorities have been – certainly not with the new Der fliegende Holländer (see my review ) that will wait another year to establish itself. But he has been concerned with rescuing this Tannhäuser from conductor Thomas Hengelbrock and the vagaries of last year’s first performances. Thielemann did allow some grainy shots of the first moments of conception to intrude on a lingeringly evocative – and Parsifal-like – prelude to Act III. The now multi-coloured pilgrims return “cleansed” and seemingly lobotomised. Tannhäuser is not with them and this sends Elisabeth into a tailspin and Camilla Nylund during what must have been one of the performances of her career to date, sings the saddest of all opera’s prayers (“Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen!”) before delivering herself up to be recycled in the large Biogas tank – albeit with some last-minute second thoughts requiring Wolfram to force the door shut. Her image is seen replacing that of the stylised Madonna we have often seen projected. I have never heard ‘O Du, Mein Holder Abendstern’ sung better on stage than by Michael Nagy and both these singers surpassed last year’s already very good performances.

I certainly do not listen to as many CDs as others as I prefer my music live. If I think back to some great evenings at past Bayreuth years from great directors such as Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer with great conductors like Jimmy Levine or Daniel Barenboim, not forgetting the great singers of the past – have I ever been engrossed more here … I am not sure.

Tannhäuser returns having seemingly taken on all the “ills” his pilgrim colleagues have been absolved of and is clearly terminally ill. Torsten Kerl delivers a “Rome Narration” worthy of the fine Otello or Tristan he must be. He has been a revelation for me with the agonies and ecstasies of his part expressed with the dramatic persuasion worthy of a stage actor. Before he dies he summons up Venusberg one last time and now we see more of those chimeras as everyone celebrates the birth of Venus’s child and the opera ends. If this is Tannhäuser’s child it provides hope for the future of “humankind” because it is the perfect union of the Unterwelt with an Überwelt – but who knows? The enactment of what seems to be ‘The Martyrdom of St Elisabeth’ ends and everyone acknowledges those seated at the sides.

With an evening like this it is difficult to single anyone out and the whole ensemble made it work from those horn players calling out on the uppermost gantry in Act II, the rest of the incredible orchestra, the stunning chorus work, Katja Stuber’s dissolute Young Shepherd, all the minnesingers, Michelle Breedt as a fine, though albeit slightly matronly, Venus, to Günther Groissbock’s imperious Landgraf Hermann: Bio-ethics certainly lost … but Tannhäuser surely won!

Jim Pritchard

A review of this year’s Parsifal will follow in a few days.