Jim Davis’s Garfield once said “if you want to look thinner, hang around people fatter than you”. Now I understand Katharina Wagner’s smirk while being booed after yesterday’s performance of her production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This evening, deafened by the thunderous Boo-fest reserved to Sebastian Baumgarten for his production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, I could not help thinking that you can go far worse than Miss Wagner. At least, she had a couple of insights about the libretto and staged them. Well, she did not stage it very well – but she tried. Baumgarten believes he has had an insight too. Let’s read it: “The question we are faced with on a daily basis is: how are we to reconcile our pre-subjective drives and impulses, the asocial, with our subjective plans and dreams (in social and communicative contexts)? And time after time the answer is: quite simply we can’t. That is because this antithesis lies at the very heart of life. Only in art and especially in music is this antithesis abolished*. Is it only me or this is the most obvious observation one could make about Tannhäuser’s libretto?! But there is also set designer Joep van Lieshout’s take on the story “The battle of Tannhäuser is about choosing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the end Tannhäuser is not able to find either of them.
If you are not dazzled by the profoundness of this analysis, you will probably be curious about how these platitudes have been staged. Here is my serious but not very enthusiastic attempt of making sense of what I have just seen: the concept of sublimation lies in the core of this staging, understood as the struggle for converting bodily impulses into nobler/spiritual values. This is macrocosmically represented by an installation called “The Technocrat”, an industrial plant that transforms human excrement into fuel gas and (most surprisingly, if my Chemistry classes are still valid) spirit (i.e., alcohol). In the social level, this is shown as an Orwellian group of workers who are cued by an invisible administration through motivational slogans. From the spiritual (i.e., mental) point-of-view, this takes place through channeling erotic impulse into art. During the overture, a film is shown in which one can see sonograms and x-rays depicting a rib-cage, a heart, a stomach superposed with images of machines. Tannhäuser is held in a cage with ape-like creatures, someone in a leopard-costume and two rays (as in stingray). Venus is a pregnant hag without any allure. Tannhäuser gets sick of all that and presses a button: the cage named Venusberg slides into the floor and he then finds a drunk young man (the shepherd) and some people in red robes. He is delighted, especially when a bunch of guys dressed as members of a Scottish Glam rock band show up (the Landgraf and the other singer knights).
In act II, we see Elisabeth in a red robe excited about Tannhäuser’s imminent arrival while trying ugly jewelry. Wolfram is jealous, but understands that two is company and, once alone with her, Tannhaüser gives her a brief incursion into the Venusberg (remember: it is just one floor down). She is flushed, he disappears. Then the Landgraf invites the people with robes, some girls with swimsuits and swords and a bunch of women in bridesmaids’ frocks and a priest to the little singing competition in the facilities. Venus takes the ladder to the gathering place and joins the group, although the priest does not seem happy to see her. Everybody sings, but Tannhäuser sings and pour water on his rivals from the second floor. Then he grabs Venus from the audience and sings her hymn to her. The very colourful group of factory workers who convert feces into biogas is shocked and try to kill him with some knives that happened to be hanging nearby. Elisabeth threatens to kill herself and they let her have her way. But she is not convinced of the effect and gets some red paint and makes her little scene a little bit bloodier. She assures Tannhäuser that Heaven will forgive him, but he seems either too stupid to understand or unwilling to do so, but it is too late to change thngs and he goes inside a container with the words “Rome 4501”.
Provided you forget that there is an industrial plant etc etc, act III is actually quite conventional almost until the very end. Elisabeth is sad – check; Wolfram is melancholic – check; Elisabeth dies away (here with a little help from Wolfram); Tannhäuser gets out of the container bald and beardless and explains how the Pope was mean to him (if you really believed the whole gas plant thing, you probably asked yourself ‘Pope?!” at this moment); Venus (who was basically there all the time) appears and then disappears – check; Elisabeth is shown as a saint – check. Then Venusberg is lifted to the ground, the ape-like figures bounce a lot, the rays contort themselves and….ah, Venus has her baby. Curtains.
Yes, I’ve got that Baumgarten probably wanted to show that, although basic instincts are considered vile and spiritual values noble, the only miracle of everyday life – birth – is produced by the body and its impulses: no spirit produces flesh, but flesh does produce spirit. You will find many passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses about the classic discussion of transcendence/immanence, especially related to the body and Catholic values. But there is a big difference there: Joyce is a genius, while Baumgarten doesn’t go beyond Friedrichshain’s Weltanschauung: The Werkstatt Bayreuth should not therefore content itself with simply serving up Tannhäuser as a refined entertainment for festival audiences or We wanted to make one very dense continuous peformance of two and a half hour instead of the traditional one but the caterer forced us to keep the pauses… I really wonder if Mr. Baumgarten does have the moral stature out of his heavily subsidized professional activity to sneer at people like me who have to work to pay for expensive festival tickets. When he chooses, for example, to engage in a social project of integration for children of foreign descent in working-class neighborhoods of Berlin instead of collecting his fee for making poor stagings of an art form he himself considers decadent, maybe he would be able to start pointing fingers around him. Until then, he should study a bit more and give up trying to shock people with extras dressed in costumes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats for his view of Venusberg. We read newspapers, we watch CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera – we are well-informed about the REALLY shocking things in the world. Only a very ignorant person would try to enlighten anyone well-informed (as the audience of Wagner operas tend to be) with subpar, pseudo-intellectual stagings.
But there is always Wagner’s music. Tannhäuser is something of an uncompleted opera, in the sense that the composer never found a final edition for it. This evening, the usually called Dresden version was used, even if I have the impression that something different happened between the end of the overture and Venus’s first line, but I cannot really say it. There might have been some unusual cuts in the closing scenes of act II, but I would need a score to say something more precise about that. Maestro Thomas Hengelbrock would have liked to follow some cuts made by Wagner himself after the premiere in Dresden, but it seems that the Festival did not subscribe to the idea. In any case, Hengelbrock can be counted as the responsible for the interest of this evening’s performance. Some might find his Tannhäuser too unconventional in its fast pace, clean-cut phrasing and taste for orchestral effects (with the occasional sudden accelerando or ritardando), but the fact is that it sheds a new light on the score. He is a conductor new to the Festival pit and could be found wanting in sound (especially when the chorus was singing) and I am sure that, in a regular opera house, with an orchestra as good as this one, he could have been even more eloquent. Although singers sometimes found it hard to follow his beat, ensembles were generally clear and consequent – and the orchestra never failed in clarity and played with animation.
Camilla Nylund was a reliable Elisabeth in her warm, round and homogeneous soprano. She sang with good taste and sensitivity, but lacks the necessary radiance to pierce through thick orchestration in roles like this. Stephanie Friede has the elements of an important dramatic soprano voice in her – but they are so chaotically handled that the results are generally disappointing, especially in what regards intonation. I know I have been spoiled by Stephen Gould’s and Johan Botha’s Tannhäusers and I had to remind myself that generally the tenor in the title role sings like Lars Cleveman. As it is, the part lies very close to his limits and he pushes a lot in order to get through. As a consequence, there is not really much legato to speak of. Forcing high notes and beefing-up the tone rarely work for long and the result is that the effort became more and more evident as the opera goes on. By the third act, he was exhausted and just trying to survive. Michael Nagy could be a very good Wolfram – he knows exactly what kind of singing this role requires, but his voice is too often on the verge of throatiness for comfort. Günther Groissböck was a very positive Landgraf, singing firmly and incisively. Considering the general shortcomings, it wouldn’t be correct to call him “the best in the cast”, for he was far superior from his colleagues this evening. Katja Stuber deserves mention for her cleanly sung Shepherd too. Last but not least, the Festival should be praised by a strong group of singers for the competitors at the Wartburg.
*Hegemann, Carl. A fearful misdeed has been committed. Notes on the Bayreuth Tannhäuser 2011. In: 100. Bayreuther Festspiele (187202911): Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Program to the performance of the opera.