Tannhäuser, Bayreuth, July 2011

What fun this was at the end! The production team were booed to the rafters with not a handclap to be heard, and Stephanie Friede as Venus was so roundly booed she didn’t return for her second curtain call. What a relief to cheer the chorus, along with Michael Nagy’s beautifully sung Wolfram, and Günter Groissböck’s powerful voice and presence as Hermann the Landgraf.

All photos Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth is celebrating its 100th festival, delighting the management if not the audience by opening with another extraordinary production, this one by 42-year old Sebastian Baumgarten. His Konzept — and directors’ concepts are of the essence here — is that Tannhäuser is a huge experiment, reflecting the idea that the hero is experimenting with excess and its subsequent rejection. An audience on stage observes everything, and apparently Baumgarten wanted to run it without intervals. Thankfully the caterers objected, so he settled for the stage audience staying in place while the real audience left and the experiment continued. But anyone who thought they could stay to watch was soon ejected because that’s the way they do it in Bayreuth — the auditorium is emptied and the doors locked.

The Venusberg

The Venusberg is a cage with ape-men and various animals, including three giant tadpoles — could these be the three Graces who intervene to halt the ever more frantic proceedings? When it descends below stage we see three huge chemical processing plants in red, green and blue. Bold colours and big designs by Joep van Lieshout, but one gets lost in the details. The Act I shepherd in yellow trousers and white shirt is drunk, and reappears in the same state at the song contest of Act II where scantily dressed girls in knickers and stockings, with holsters on their belts, occasionally enjoy caresses with one another, and the pregnant Venus comes to watch proceedings. After going up to a high gantry and throwing water onto Wolfram and Biterolf as they’re singing, Tannhäuser holds Venus centre stage, and Elisabeth slashes her wrists.

Elisabeth at the Act II Song Contest

Video projections continued throughout, and one of a young woman operating machinery suddenly reminded me of the Nazi period. Perhaps that was my imagination, yet in Act III Wolfram accompanies Elisabeth to the huge BIOGAS cylinder and locks her in. “Kinder schaff’ Neues” (Children do something new) said Wagner, but did he really mean them to alter his dramas in this way? Elisabeth represents a pure type of love, and Wolfram adores her, yet he apparently murders her and sings O du mein holder Abendstern (Oh you my precious evening star) to the pregnant Venus, whose baby is passed round among the chorus ladies at the end.

Stage audience, Tannhäuser, Venus and tadpole in Act I

Yes, this is still Tannhäuser. Words and music remain Wagner’s, and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock gave us thrilling crescendos in the prelude to Act III. Production concepts notwithstanding, Lars Cleveman in his many costumes sang strongly as Tannhäuser, and Camilla Nylund made an attractive Elizabeth, with Michael Nagy and Günther Groissböck as Wolfram and the Landgraf giving the performance real vocal heft.

Ironically there really is a great experiment going on in Europe at present. It’s the Euro, and two of its gods sat a few rows behind us in a box — I refer to Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet. What they made of this I don’t know, but it’s now the Greeks who have been metaphorically in the Venusberg, and are trying to gain redemption. Tannhäuser was denied it in Rome, and it took a miracle from on high, yet he dies in the end.

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