Opera Reviews
6 June 2020
Untitled Document

Anarchy rules OK in this driving and forceful production of Tannhäuser

by Tony Cooper
Wagner: Tannhäuser
Bayreuth Festival
13 August 2019
General scene

As in past years, the great and the good have turned out for the opening of the Bayreuth Festival with Chancellor Angela Merkel heading up the celeb list accompanied by her husband, Joachim Sauer, who very rarely makes a public appearance but Bayreuth is somewhat special. Indeed, so special, that the opening performance of this year’s new production, Tannhäuser, directed by German director, Tobias Kratzer, a Bayreuth first-timer,was broadcast live on national television and also beamed live to around 100 cinemas in German-speaking countries, an idea inaugurated by Katharina Wagner when she took over the artistic reins of Bayreuth 11 years ago.

This new production of Tannhäuser (which received its première in Dresden on 19th October 1845) is only the ninth to be staged at the Bayreuth Festival and, surprisingly, no other work in the Bayreuth canon has received fewer productions.

Following in the footsteps of Sebastian Baumgarten’s controversial production of Tannhäuser which received a chorus of disapproval from traditionally-minded Wagnerites, Mr Kratzer’s offering seemed just as biting but has found more acceptability among the cognoscenti of the Green Hill with a few boos here and there. But that’s to be expected at Bayreuth.

Primarily based on the Pilgrims’ Chorus and partly on the contrasting music of the orgies in the court of Venus, the overture - summarising the theme of the whole story focusing on the struggle between sacred and profane love and redemption through love, a theme running through many of Wagner’s later works - was brilliantly played with Christian Thielemann (replacing at short notice Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev) driving the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra to a stirring conclusion.

Employed by so many theatre directors nowadays, video technology was at the heart of Mr Kratzer’s thinking as much as it was Castorfs. For example, the medieval Wartburg castle in Act I was fleetingly represented by an aerial video sequence conjured up by Manuel Braun whose work, incidentally, will be seen in London next year in a new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Royal Opera House.

When we first meet Venus, goddess of beauty and love, it’s by another aerial video sequence driving a battered-up old Citroën Type-H van (Venusberg on wheels) through the Thuringian valley which strikes a chord with Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring in which he put the underground city of Nibelheim on wheels by employing a silver-plated, Air Stream mobile trailer.

Stuck atop of Venus’ ‘love-van’ was an green-coloured hare attributed to Joseph Beuys who profoundly stated that ‘the open space in the arts is a rabbit hutch’. Well - that’s according to the programme book. Pause for thought! However, in Roman mythology, the hare was closely associated with Venus and by having such an additional ‘passenger’ on board it fitted well, I thought, the overall scenario of Mr Kratzer’s portrayal of this wonder-woman.

Blatantly full of energy and looking trim in a tight-fitting sparkling black leotard, Venus was in tow with an odd-looking bunch comprising a decadent burlesque performer going by the name of Le Gateau Chocolat (the Drag Queen of Brighton) whom I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of years ago in a Spiegeltent performance at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, a drum-playing dwarf summing up the child protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, featured in Günter Grass’ 1959 novel The Tin Drum who challenges the hypocrisy, injustice and so forth of life and a clown echoing the character, Hans Schnier, found in Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel, The Clown, who, in this case, turns out to be Heinrich Tannhäuser, the disgraced, foolish and naïve minnesinger The idea of Mr Kratzer comparing Tannhäuser with Herr Schnier seems quite plausible, I thought, as both characters’ lives lay in tatters collapsing round them.

Roguish and unlawful in every conceivable way, this anarchic and motley crew were on the rampage siphoning off petrol, nicking burgers from Burger King (maybe the branch at the bottom of the Green Hill), driving over and killing a copper when fleeing the garage forecourt and exercising the proverbial habit of their free-wheeling and carefree society of drug-taking. Coke, who drinks it? Revolutionaries to the core!

And with the revolutionary spirit of the opera in mind, Mr Kratzer opted for the score used for the Dresden première of 1845 as opposed to that used in Paris in 1861 citing that the former was more in keeping with Wagner’s political and revolutionary views. And in a nod to Wagner’s revolutionary days, Venus’ gang were found happily littering the German countryside (and, indeed, the façade of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus) with graffiti of a trio of exclamatory phrases actually coined by the Young Revolutionary: Freely Willing! Freely Doing! Freely Enjoying!

Mr Kratzer’s production could well be described as Freely Thinking as it fuelled the mind especially when you find Tannhäuser singing that beautiful ode to Venus against the drabness of an unattractively-designed roadside parking café set in the forest of the green and lush Thuringian valley. It’s here that he comes across a green-energised cyclist (usually seen in the traditional role of the Young Shepherd) who raises his attention to the pilgrims plodding the road to Rome, the part so beautifully and tenderly sung by Katharina Konradi.

But in Mr Kratzer’s scenario the Eternal City is miles away and resurfaces as a detailed model of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus situated in a lofty position at the back of the stage. It reminded me of King Ludwig’s Disney-like castles whilst the pilgrims mirrored well-heeled members of the audience. Confusingly, the same setting was used for the Wartburg song contest and also represented a ‘prison’ where poor old Tannhäuser found himself locked up taking the rap for the copper’s death. I guess it’s not the Holy Father he should have been seeking general absolution from but that of The Godfather. Perhaps, Mr Kratzer had a visionary moment of the Mafia circling in his mind.
Throughout the second act, backstage video clips caught members of the cast preparing themselves before going on stage, the stage crew going about their business and Katharina Wagner putting in a Hitchcock-style appearance urgently calling for the cops from the theatre’s switchboard. When they arrive they flooded the Hall of the Minstrels and with firearms at the ready they took away a distraught Tannhäuser whilst leaving the actual killer, Venus, looking relieved and puzzled by the outcome.

The end of the road for this freewheeling girl? Maybe? But not for Le Gateau Chocolat as the grabbing bitch came up trumps plastered over a large billboard promoting a luxury watch brand but Oskar the dwarf didn’t fare so well and was forced to live in a hand-to-mouth existence in the back of the burnt-out Citroën dumped on a piece of waste ground.

The opera was extremely well cast with the pivotal role of Heinrich Tannhäuser magnificently sung by Bayreuth favourite Stephen Gould, while Venus was energetically and youthfully sung by Elena Zhidkova taking over the role from Ekaterina Gubanova at short notice due to injury. She proved her worth every inch of the way.

Stephen Milling (a mean-looking Hagen in Castorf’s Ring) illuminated the role of Hermann, Elisabeth’s uncle, the Landgrave of Thuringia while the coterie of knights and minnesingers - who added so much to the overall success and pleasure of the production - comprised Daniel Behle (Walther von der Vogelweide), Jorge Rodríguez-Norton (Heinrich der Schreiber), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Reinmar von Zweter) and Kay Stiefermann (Biterolf).

Singing the central role of Elisabeth, Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen - still only in her early thirties and making her Bayreuth début - reached out to an audience who absolutely loved her. She lit up the stage and is being hailed as the next great dramatic soprano of her generation. It’s easy to see why. Harbouring a crystal-clear, wide-ranging and well-controlled voice, she radiantly sang that wonderful aria in Act II ‘Dich, teure Halle’ while Markus Eiche - who’s no stranger to the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach, having sung it in Baumgarten’s production - delivered a fine rendition of the opera’s big number ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ in Act III stating his love for the distracted and forlorn Elisabeth. But her mind was elsewhere worrying and awaiting the safe return of the penitent Tannhäuser from ‘Rome’.

But he doesn’t arrive and in the last act the action boils over when the seemingly not-so-saintly Elisabeth gets knocked off in the back of the Citroën by Wolfram who dresses as a clown to imitate Tannhäuser. Bizarrely, she later dies in the van and when Tannhäuser arrives on the scene, it’s too late. Gently he gathers and cradles her body in his arms dutifully praying for the repose of her soul. An odd ending for sure.

As in many of Wagner’s operas the backbone of the whole show is the chorus and one has to shout out loud their praises and, indeed, the praises of their long-standing chorus-master Eberhard Friedrich while Christian Thielemann in the pit is most definitely the man for me. A Wagnerian conductor of great standing he energised his players with all the necessary fire and power needed to capture the mood and passion of Wagner’s compelling score that made this production of Tannhäuser - one of the composer’s favourite works - one to chalk up. Bravo!

Text © Tony Cooper
Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
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