The inhabitants of Wartburg at work in Act I of Bayreuth's new Tannhäuser
© Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH/Enrico Nawrath 2011
Bayreuth debutante Nylund as Elisabeth
© Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH/Jörg Schulze 2011
Continuing Bayreuth's longstanding policy of challenging audiences with new interpretations of Richard Wagner's works, the composer's great-granddaughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner entrusted this season's only new production — Tannhäuser — to the innovative yet controversial German stage director Sebastian Baumgarten, who was making his Bayreuth debut. Perhaps more crucially, the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, whose workshop is best known for large installations that cross the borders between art, architecture and design — and whose themes center on politics, power and the utopian community — was assigned the Tannhäuser set design. Unlike Baumgarten, who was Opernwelt's director of the year in 2006, van Lieshout has no experience in opera.
It is highly debatable whether the end result of the Baumgarten–van Lieshout collaboration here (seen Aug. 1) gave Bayreuth audiences any new insight into Tannhäuser. Baumgarten's concept is not uninteresting or without merit: the director views the Wartburg as a severely restricting society, governed by ironclad rules that border on the tyrannical. The Venusberg is not a separate entity but an appendage that exists inside a cage just under the stage's surface, easily accessible to all through a trap door. The cage is populated by animal-like creatures that enter and exit at will, as well as by humans. Venus herself is not much of a sex goddess: visibly pregnant, presumably with Tannhäuser's child, she is more frumpy than erotic. (Her Act I dispute with Tannhäuser registers like the squabble of a married couple.) Not only does everybody in the Wartburg seem to know about the Venusberg; a number of Wartburgers are obviously valued customers. Venus even mingles with the crowd during the singers' competition in Act II, greeting and being greeted in return. The Landgraf is an autocratic ruler, demanding obedience. The Minnesingers are turned into commedia dell'arte-like clowns, with the competition itself staged as a farce. The usually innocent Young Shepherd is omnipresent as a sort of house superintendent — and he is perpetually drunk! An artist such as Tannhäuser, who is searching for ultimate truth, cannot live in the constrained world of the Wartburg, nor can he live in the simplistic world of Venusberg. He also cannot live without these two worlds. Tannhaüser understands this. No one else in the story does.
All of this might have been the basis of a successful production had it not been for the monstrous installation of van Lieshout. Upon the audience's entrance into the Festspielhaus, the curtain was already open. The inhabitants of what was called "Wartburg, Inc." were busy at their individual, pre-determined tasks in a biotopian/utopian closed community conceived for 120 residents. The stage was divided into three levels, the uppermost consisting of bunk beds. On the ground level were several huge tanks — one for biogas, another for alcohol. There is enough alcohol produced (and consumed) to numb the residents into stupor-induced complacence. The cycle of existence begins with peeling and eating celery. This goes its course, being digested, turned into excrement, then being recycled into gas, etc.
When one has an installation onstage — with all its implicit political and social agendas — rather than a set designed to present an opera's story, one has backed oneself into a corner. Van Lieshout has taken nature, so important to Wagner in Tannhäuser, completely out of the picture. He has also forced director Baumgarten to dehumanize the characters. With the exception of Elisabeth, no person onstage emerged even minimally interesting, much less sympathetic. Little if any of the action specified in the libretto actually happened in this production. For example, instead of the Pope's staff turning green, the finale of the opera saw the entire cast (including those characters who had died) assembled to celebrate the birth of Venus's child. Tannhäuser walked around for much of the opera in his underwear. When the Pilgrims returned, their "cleansing" was not spiritual but had turned them into automatons whose only goal was to clean whatever objects they might encounter. And in a moment of supreme miscalculation, Elisabeth's ultimate sacrifice was staged by having her enter a gas tank. Needless to say, any association in Germany with death by gas carries with it the cultural and moral burden of the concentration camps, evoking a questionable parallel not only with Germany's own history but with Bayreuth's unhappy association with the Third Reich. In short, the intransigent installation onstage trumped any conceptual or intellectual innovation the director might have been trying to present. Van Lieshout basically ruined the evening. The Bayreuth audience rewarded the production with thunderous booing that sounded close to unanimous.
It is to the everlasting credit of those responsible for the musical side of this Tannhäuser that an estimable level of excellence was achieved, despite the obstacles of the physical production. Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, also making his Bayreuth debut, gave a marvelous reading of the score. The problems with the Bayreuth acoustics, such a thorn in the side of so many Bayreuth newcomers, did not seem to faze Hengelbrock, who drew a transparent, clear sound from the well-disposed Bayreuth Orchestra, beginning with the first measures of the overture and carrying throughout the work. His tempos were swift without being rushed, yet he was never afraid to slow down a phrase when it was dramatically relevant. Above all, he was at one with his singers at all times.
The Bayreuth Festival Chorus, under the direction of Eberhard Friedrich, once again justified its reputation as unsurpassed. Whether in the plaintive, ultra-soft pilgrims' chorus or the fortissimo of the guests' entrance, this ensemble knows no equal in homogeneity of sound or precision. If goosebumps are the mark of success, the Bayreuth Chorus set a new record in this performance.
Three of the soloists were outstanding. As Landgraf Hermann, bass Günther Groissböck sang with dark-hued assurance and was as close to perfection as is humanly possible: his stage presence and dramatic impulse were consummate. As Elisabeth, Camilla Nylund was the only person onstage that designer Nina von Mechow managed to costume beautifully, and the Finnish soprano carried herself befittingly in her first Bayreuth role. Her voice rang out clearly, soaring over the orchestra. In addition, she was capable of vocal nuances that truly touched the heart. In his Bayreuth debut, baritone Michael Nagy sang a youthful, exquisite-toned Wolfram. Nagy's "O du mein holder Abendstern" — here addressed for whatever reason to the pregnant Venus, rather than to the evening star — was a thing of melting beauty.
Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman, another Bayreuth debutant, sang all of the title character's notes with voice to spare — no mean achievement — but was ultimately not a moving Tannhäuser, earning respect rather than enthusiasm. Stephanie Friede was a somewhat blustery though more than competent Venus, Lothar Odinius a superb Walther von der Vogelweide in every respect. Katja Stuber made a wonderful impression in her solo as the Young Shepherd, even if her staging called for her to be continuously tipsy. Thomas Jesatko was a properly bitter Biterolf, and Arnold Bezuyen (Heinrich der Schreiber) and Martin Snell (Reinmar von Zweter) rounded out the excellent Minnesingers.
JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC
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