OPERA NEWS - Tannhäuser
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Wagner: Tannhäuser

DVD Button Nylund, Breedt; Kerl, Eiche, Youn; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Kober. Production: Baumgarten. Opus Arte OA 1177D, 252 mins. (opera), 30 mins. (bonus), subtitled

Three Acts of Resistance.

Few operas so consistently thwart attempts at updating as Wagner’s tale of the debauched song contestant.

Recordings Bayreuth Tannhauser hdl 216
Born to sin: Kerl above pilgrims in Bayreuth
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath
Recordings Tannhauser Cover 216

OF THE TEN CANONICAL Wagner operas, Tannhäuser has always proved the most resistant to an updated production. It proves so again here. This Bayreuth presentation, originally seen in 2011 and filmed during a live telecast in 2014, is billed as a production by Sebastian Baumgarten, but its overwhelming impression comes from the stage design by Joep van Lieshout. The Dutch illustrator, sculptor and architect has filled the stage with an enormous industrial facility of metal tanks, kettles and catwalks. An entire society populates the enclosed facility. Waste materials, including human excreta and several hundred pounds of celery root, are perpetually recycled into the food, alcoholic beverages and, apparently, mind-altering drugs that the populace requires. This, the “Technocrat,” represents Wagner’s Wartburg; more than an hour of stage-setting activity—in which the denizens sleep, eat and maintain the machinery, even through the opera’s intermissions—is included on the DVD. This includes a church service for the workers in which the bio-products are offered as bread and wine, producing the bizarre (if understandable) spectacle of the Bayreuth audience booing a worship service. In the basement, easily accessible, is a barred enclosure resembling a circus tiger cage, representing Wagner’s Venusburg. This is populated by semi-ape people, perhaps factory rejects from above. 

It might seem that Baumgarten has not done much about staging Tannhäuser itself, but anyone who watches the video without the interstitial material, which the DVD menu readily allows, will notice a few touches. Hapless Wolfram, for example, is physically caught between Tannhäuser and Elisabeth in their reunion duet. But on the very rare occasions when Baumgarten engages with the music—characters swaying and bouncing to the beat, a video of a self-replicating sperm cell dividing at the climax of the Act III prelude, in which Tannhäuser arrives at the Vatican—it is to mock it. It is possible to read a lot about the production, notably an essay by Edward and Paula Bortnichak that is in wide circulation, but ultimately there’s no discernible attempt to present the characters who perform Wagner’s opera as having anything to do with the production. 

Conductor Axel Kober seizes upon every lyrical theme. The unusual aspects of his interpretation—the brisk tempos of the Act II and Act III finales—seem to be in response to the staging, in which the chorus members venerate or obsessively clean the machinery. Camilla Nylund, the only one of the original principal cast from the first run and the only one to make an effect, admirably portrays an Elisabeth who is deranged from the start, playing her entrance as Marguerite’s jewel song, repeatedly mutilating her hands at the end of Act II and ultimately committing suicide in a tank of bio gas. It’s all worth watching once, after which it will make an unusual donation to your local public library.  —William R. Braun 

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