Cher Public

Sacred and Propane

Fertilization; birth; growth; decay. Eating; digestion; defecation; fermentation; biogas recovery; food production. Wagner’s Tannhäuser is a meditation on the relentless, repetition of cycles that define our existence and man’s insistence on the possibility salvation despite all the biochemical evidence to the contrary.

If salvation exists, it’s in the form of evolution; the possibility that we might create a life form that has a less a punishing existence than ours. Or so director Sebastian Baumgarten incoherently argued in his not-so-hot mess of a new production of Tannhäuser for Bayreuth.

The set is a new version of a massive installation by artist Joep van Lieshout entitled “The Technocrat.”  Spread out over three levels, it shows a fully self-contained factory/community where the excrement of the workers is harvested to make biogas, which is then used to make their food and all-important alcohol. This huge factory is run by Wartburg industries. The program notes point out that this setting “parallels the traditional setting of Tannhäuser” as it is a place of power, society, systems and conventions…[that] stands quite opposite the Venus mountain where individual hedonistic freedom rules.“ In the front are two areas for spectators, whose purpose, I suppose, is to let the audience know that we, too are plugged into the Matrix, part of the Technocrat system.

The Venusberg is a round cage that rises from the floor with a few tall rocky structures inside to suggest a cave. Garish lights constantly change color while cavemen do aerobics and creatures that are either tadpoles or sperms recreate the choreography for “The Madison” number in Hairspray. Venus, who is pregnant, is done up as a low-budget evil sci-fi queen while Tannhäuser dances in his grungy underwear and T-shirt. All in all, it looks like a really sad theme night at Area.

When Tannhäuser returns to earth, he is greeted by the shepherd, here a perpetually sozzled, tiresome functionary in the Technocrat hierarchy. The upper echelons of the Wartburg hierarchy are clad in similarly ugly jodhpur-sleeveless vest combos, while the pilgrims have to make do with sack-like ponchos. The pilgrims are the lowest caste of workers in the factory, lured from location to location by the promise of salvation. Rome was just the latrine where their waste was harvested to make Soylent Wartburg.

In Act II, Elisabeth, clad in a garish red dress and high heels embraced the alcohol production tank and ran frantically up and down the set until she was sufficiently winded to begin “Dich, teure Halle”. The aria itself was inexplicably staged as the “Jewel Song” from Faust, complete with casket. The singing contest might have been mistaken for a singing contest but Tannhäuser poured water on the other contestants to keep things lively. The purpose of the singing contest in this vision of the work was not clear.

In Act III, the pilgrims returned in the form of newly promoted factory workers, their sacks upgraded to pants and athletic shirts. They showed their gratitude by frenetically dusting and cleaning the machinery. In another nod to the actual plot of the work, Elisabeth scanned the pilgrims for Tannhäuser. Wolfram then sang his ode and forced Elizabeth into the Biogas tank, killing her. Tannhäuser returned without a staff and sang an anguished Rome narration and then rejected Venus before collapsing.

Then, with no motivation at all, the Venusberg rose from the floor with the sirens from the first act rejoicing. The Pope showed up, the sperm-poles did a happy dance, Elisabeth emerged unharmed from her time in the swamp gas isolation tank and Venus joined the fun holding her newborn baby, indicating the possibility of a better world, or that, at least, the cycle would get the fresh meat it would need to continue.

There was, an interesting idea at the heart of the production as it tried to explore the nature of salvation. However, the actual execution was incoherent and self-indulgent as the primary interest of the director was the Technocrat installation rather than presenting the opera. I also believe that an audience should be able to appreciate the milieu and intent of the staging without having either thoroughly read the program notes or a chemical engineering degree.

As an indication of the director’s attitude towards the work, he wrote in the program notes that he wanted to present the work without intermission so the audience would not leave the realm of the installation. He then claimed that the caterer wouldn’t allow. I had always assumed that, given the powerful Bratwurst lobby in Franconia, key artistic decisions at Bayreuth were made by the caterers.

Thomas Hengelbrock opted for the so-called Dresden version of the opera, which is the opera as it was first published. He wanted to do an earlier version that would more closely resemble work as it was first performed in Dresden in 1845, but the Festival didn’t allow it, probably because this would not be one of The Master’s sanctioned versions of this oft tinkered with work. His conducting showed a propensity for perversely slow tempos at strategic moments. Even so, we were spared what would have been an insufferable ballet and more music for Venus, which was sung quite hideously by Stephanie Friede, who has a car alarm of a voice and no compensating distinction in stage deportment.

Otherwise the cast was reasonably strong. Lars Cleveman was a compelling Tannhäuser, capable of projecting his character’s anguish. Neither the vicissitudes of the Rome Narrative nor the staging posed him any obvious difficulties. Michael Nagy gave us a warm lyrical Wolfram van Eschenbach and his Ode to the BioReactor was one of the evening’s highlights. Camilla Nylund’s Elisabeth sounded rather generic vocally lacking the heft and sheen that more compelling singers have brought to the part. Gunther Groissbock was indisposed, so he acted the part of the Landgrave while Kwangchul Youn sang the part from a music stand at the side of the stage with reasonable degree of authoritativeness.

Do they really not have covers in Bayreuth, even for new productions? I assume not because we had a last minute substitution for Walther von Stolzing in Meistersinger the night before. Stefan Vinke had apparently arrived quite late on the evening before the performance and had managed to learn the staging and do a quick refresher on the music in a matter of hours. He did quite well, barely looking at the prompter and only needing an occasional gentle push from Eva. Someone should have told him after the first act that he didn’t need to scream as much as he did. Even so, he had sufficient reserves to muscle his way through the evening, only lightly damaging the music in the process.

The performance I saw of Die Meistersinger is supposedly the last for Katharina Wagner’s production. She took a bow at the end with designer Tilo Steffens and was vociferously booed. There was also extended booing after Act II. The production remains largely as seen on the DVD of the production I reviewed (and for which La Cieca provided a detailed exegesis in the comments). She did add some business for the Meistersingers where they took the Eucharist by consuming pages of a specially chosen book.

On second viewing, I admired the fierce relentlessness with which she pursued her argument, and the cogency with which she argues her thesis. However, her view of the work allows no room for any humanity for any of the characters. Watching it anew was akin to reading an autopsy report. Even so, the second half of the last act is such great theater that one forgives the very big chill that precedes it.

Musically, this was not at a festival level. Sebastian Weigle conducted like a bored guide on a bus tour, desultorily pointed out the landmarks. Adrian Eröd as Beckmesser gave the only truly memorable performance, fully realizing the director’s multi-faceted vision of his character. The chorus did perform at an exalted level and executed the complex staging flawlessly.

Photos: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Meet and Greet: Lars Cleveman:

    More Sweeds in germination:
    [img] svartvit.jpg[/img]

    • Quanto Painy Fakor


  • grimoaldo

    All in all, it looks like a really sad theme night at Area.

    Ha ha that’s a good one!

    Nice report of what sounds like a rather depressing experience, more for the low levels of singing and music-making than the productions.

    I feel myself becoming more and more the sort of opera queen I always despised when I was younger, one of the “they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to, you should have seen so-and-so years ago” brigade.

    Sort of sad.

    • oedipe

      Well, no! In this case it’s not a matter of “they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to”, it’s just that the Bayreuth model doesn’t seem to be working very well any more.

      I am REALLY looking forward to the upcoming Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera, with Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch, Chris Ventris, Stéphane Degout. The Robert Carsen production is not “dernier cri”, but it’s a very satisfying one, IMO.

      • Camille

        When is this Tannhaeuser happening, please, oedipe? Soon?

        Merci beaucoup.

        • manou
          • Camille

            Grand merci autrefois, madame manou!

          • oedipe

            Sorry, Camille, about not seeing your question earlier, my Manhattan internet connection has been quite variable since the storm (disclaimer: I am not in NY for the hurricane). As usual, manou has been more reliable than me and my internet connection.

            I would think that the Tannhäuser will be, if not filmed, at least broadcast by France Musique.

          • Camille

            Pas de problemes, oedipe!

            Does anyone know of or remember a song recorded by la princesse Stephanie de Monaco, “Ouragan”? Recorded in the ’80’s, I do believe, as a part of her ascent into rock stardom? One wonders what was in her noggin’.

          • MontyNostry

            Probably a considerable deposit of white powder, it being the 80s and all.

          • oedipe

            The Picture of Doriana Gray?


  • derschatzgabber

    Thanks for the detailed review Dawn Fatale. I suspect that I got more pleasure from reading your review than I would have had watching this production. I have two chemical engineering degrees, and I really doubt that they would have helped me figure out the production you described in such interesting detail. It would probably be great fun to read the program notes as translated into English by google.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    It’s a pity that whenever I read a review of a Bayreuth performance, whether here, in the national press or specialist publications, they nearly all express disappointment with the musical performance, whatever has gone on with the staging. It just doesn’t sound like it is true any longer that they present Wagner’s works to the same standard that other important houses do. Ironic for many reasons, but significantly because I’d have thought they’d have an easier time casting given the helpful and glorious acoustic they have, all other things being equal (which I realise they are not- long rehearsal periods for one thing, don’t know how the fees compare).

    • CarlottaBorromeo

      Fees are notoriously low in Bayreuth and while at one time artists were prepared to accept that because of the working conditions, in recent years (according to a number of singers I know who have worked there) the artistic satisfaction factor has declined significantly making the poor financial rewards a more powerful negative… Rehearsal schedules have often been eccentric if not downright chaotic and there’s been felt to be little seriousness of purpose in many artistic matters…

    • luvtennis


      There has never been a direct correlation between Bayreuth and performance standards.

      FOr vast stretches of its past, Bayreuth was NOT the home of the greatest Wagnerian singers and conductors.

      Gadski, Flagstad, Melchior, Schnorr -- I think it fair to say that prior to the 50s, most great Wagnerian music performance was happening elsewhere. Most at the Met and Covent Garden. From the 50s to the early 70s, Bayreuth regained its cache -- most due to Wieland and the fine conductors in the house at the time. The quality of performances has been on the slow, inconsistent decline ever since.

      • Batty Masetto

        Luvtennis, I’m not sure you’re right there, at least as far as singers are concerned. Melchior was a regular at Bayreuth from 1924 to 1931. (Then Max Lorenz took over as Siegfried in 1933 and continued into 1942.) Friedrich Schorr (I assume that’s who you mean) sang at Bayreuth from 1925 to 1933, including Wotan/Wanderer for several years.

        Other regulars included Frida Leider (Brünnhilde 1933-1938), Maria Müller, Margarete Klose, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Herbert Janssen and Alexander Kipnis. Helge Roswaenge and Paul Schöffler also sang for more than one season.

        And those are only the names that were familiar to me as a non-aficionado of vintage singers!

        Among the conductors, Toscanini was there, but only 1930-31. Richard Strauss conducted in 1933-34. Furtwängler of course was a regular.

        There’s a great list of everybody who did practically anything at Bayreuth, right down to the Squires in Parsifal, at

        Standards undoubtedly went up and down some, just as they do at any house. What little I’ve heard of Jaro Prohaska leaves me unimpressed, for example. But I’d say most these people would have lived up to some pretty high expectations.

        As for dramatic and production standards, it’s well nigh impossible to tell. Bayreuth was famously calcified in some ways, but all the stories we hear about misbehavior by Melchior et al. at the Met hardly suggest a consistent commitment to values here either. Bayreuth at least aimed for a high level of dramatic discipline.

        • Batty: What a valuable list. Thanks for sharing the link.

        • Batty -- not to mention the great (yes, definitely great) 1950s Bayreuth ‘ensemble’ -- which comprised, among others, Hotter, Windgassen, Varnay, the ultra great Neidlinger, Modl, Vinay, Weber and Greindl, among many others. This was, arguably, the best Wagnerian ensemble of the 1950s.

  • phoenix

    Not only do we all hear with different ears, but we also come to these performances with a different set of expectations. Having only heard the broadcast of this Bayreuth 2011 Tannhäuser, I have to rely on observations form others for the visual aspects.

    But there is one audial performing aspect I haven’t seen mentioned on these pages that particuarly seems to apply to the present-day virtual Bayreuth regie style. Could it be singers are deliberately selected for their flaws as much as for their assets in order to ensure that the production’s vocal as well as dramatic intentions are simultaneously achieved? Such casting would explain the non-heroic (morally-weak?) Tannhäuser as well as the ‘car alarm’ (non-human) sounds emitting from the immortal goddess Venus.

    Is it possible that Kundry in the Bayreuth 2011 production, suffering from dropout (no depth?) in her lower register, inability to reach the high notes (powerlessness?) in the upper reaches, successfully re-emphasizes the isolated frustration and failure of her character in the Bayreuth 2011 Parsifal production?

    But again each of us hears something else in these singer’s voices. La Friede’s ‘car alarm’, despite her intonation problems and lack of legato, is the closest thing I’ve heard to a true dramatic soprano all season at Bayreuth. I hear great experessiveness and shades of beauty in Camilla Nylund’s emotionally exposed Elisabeth. Lars Cleveman, strained or not, has a very appealing tone. And on and on… this Tannhauser is unique, unlike any other, and it has enough assets for me to treasture.

  • papopera

    Re Tannhauser = as an opera lover I’m scandalized by that Bayreuth drek.

    • phoenix

      Papsy, you would have loved the first Tannhauser I ever saw (War Memorial SF 1966); it was also the first time I encountered Régine Crespin (pictured below). Just looking at it again after all these years, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the Papsy of days goneby.

      [img] Opera Crespin as Elisabeth.JPG[/img]

      • Camille

        Do tell us about our beloved Regine and how she fared as Elisabeth in this outing, phoenix, please!

        • MontyNostry

          Liebe Kamillentee, have you read Regine’s splendid autobiography? It includes quite a lot about her time at Bayreuth -- even how she finally chose to have an abortion rather than miss a season there quite early in her international career. The things Wagner does to people …

          • Camille

            Haha! Kamille does love her tee, preferably if una bella camomila alla romana. Actually I prefer linden, tiglio, tilleul the most! It has such a lovely fragrance and lulls one into a feeling of leise, leise unter den Linden.

            Oh, mais OUI! Of course I have Our Beloved Regine’s autobio, personally inscribed with a dedication to us, no less. I find hers one of the few truly intelligent such works ever written as they are generally such nauseating dreck. Regine’s depth of intelligence and frankness are a welcome relief in the world of star sopranos’ jottings about their lives. I suppose I should try to track it down en francais, as well, as it would probably be considerably different.

            If I recall correctly, there was a teeny tiny suspicion as to the paternity, of said pregnancy and that, complicated by the opportunity she could not turn down, was part and parcel of her decision. I’m reasonably certain that perhaps her own troubled relationship with her mother could have some bearing, but then, I am only conjecturing.

            Monsieur Monty, I’ve had a very bad conscience about those lines from Elektra I was speaking to you of (a few days back), and in midst of the hurricane I’ve looked it up and found I was close, but no cigar: the cut begins at midpoint of 166a and follows to 170a with these words:

            “Diese suessen Schauder hab ich dem Vater opfern muessen.
            Meinst du, wenn ich an meinem Leib freute, drangen seine Seufzer, drang nicht sein Stoehnen an mein Bette? Eifersuechtig sind die Toten, und er schickte mir den Hass, den hohl aeugigen Hass als Braeutigam”.
            Sometimes also the following “So bin ich eine Prophetin immerfort gewesen, und habe nichts hervorgebraucht aus mir und meinem Leib als Flueche und Verzweiflung”. Or so, I note, was cut at the Met in one of their outings.

            It’s not a big cut but an important one as it finally reveals a great deal of the why and how of Elektra’s psychologically stressful state. Again, I’ve always felt she should be a pathetic, tragic figure--maybe as Inge Borkh portrayed her--rather than the ugly shreiking mastodons I’ve encountered on more than one unhappy occasion. No names, as you all can well imagine the usual suspects.

            Now I will return to sipping my Kamillentee.

          • MontyNostry

            You needn’t have felt guilty about your Elektra-Schnitt, Kamillchen. But that quote does show what a poor, f**ked up little thing Elektra is.

      • papopera

        Saw her as Elizabeth at the Opéra de Paris, think it was 1963 or 64. Don’t remember the rest of the cast. The production was sumptuous.

  • Camille

    And speaking of historical Bayreuth singers and performance practisen et al., I would like very much to point out to those interested a very important documentation of very early Bayreuth, “100 Jahre Bayreuth auf Schallplatte--The Early Festival Singers 1876-1906”, a stupendous compendium of 10 discs, issued by Gephardt. The recordings were originally from 1900 -- 1930 and include the ‘legendary’ G&T recordings of Bayreuth 1904. It dates from 2004, see for more details.

    I believe I found this at the San Francisco Opera Shop on the mezzanine, if I recall at all correctly. As yet, I still haven’t slogged through to the end of it. Singers include:Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Marianne Brandt,Emmy Destinn, Olive Fremstad, Johanna Gadski, Frieda Hempel, Lilli Lehmann, Lillian Nordica, Richard Mayr, Anton van Rooy, Hermann Winkelmann, and on and on and on….

    There exists a recording of Tannhaeuser on Naxos (Tannhaeuser auf Naxos, bitte?) That I very much enjoy, recorded in 1930, at Bayreuth, barely a month or so after the demise of Siegfried Wagner. Originally planned to be conducted by Toscanini. There are some cuts, if I recall correctly, in the Saengerfest. The Tannhaeuser is an appropriately whiney sounding Hungarian fellow, whose name is not familiar and which escapes me momentarily. Maria Mueller, whose name lives in semi-infamy for her fascist associations, I do remember for her lovely Elisabeth. I do like this recording a lot as the atmosphere of the Bayreuth of those days, so soon after Siegfried and Cosima’s deaths,seemingly permeates this performance, or, at least, in my happy imaginings.

    • luvtennis

      Oh Camille (my little pepperdew)

      I have this recording. It provides wonderful insight into the evolution in Wagnerian performance practice.

      What is very clear is the powerful (I feel negative) impact Cosima Wagner’s tastes had on singing at the Festival.


      I agree that the festival has had its good periods from the standpoint of great singing and conducting. Indeed, the conducting, especially in the pre-WWII era, was typically first-rate even when Toscanini, Furtwangler and the other important Wagner conductors were plying their wares elsewhere.

      The singing is a different story. Yes, most of the greatest Wagnerians have visited the festival, but usually only in early career and even often only briefly (pace the Wieland troop of the 50s and 60s). But stacked against, oh say the singing standards at Salzburg, Bayreuth falls WAY short, especially on the consistency meter.

      • Camille

        Luvtennis, Esq.: just a while ago while perusing the “100 Jahre Bayreuth auf Schallplatte” thing, I chanced across this passage regarding Frau Cosima,

        “When Cosima Wagner ceded the festival in 1906 to her son, Siegfried, she had established and consolidated this institution through her energy. Wagner’s oevre had been established, a style of production had been created that now only required further development. ‘Here there is nothing to invent, only fidelity and a constantly improved technical perfection’ was her conclusion. On her 92nd birthday she summed up her work to her daughter: ‘once the style has been created, the battle has been won. The individual talents will make their way. It was my prime endeavor to create a style’.”. Das zweite Leben, p. 765.

        Wondering if gnaedige Frau Cosima makes a nightly visitation to her great granddaughter, Katharina, hectoring and lecturing her on these precepts!!

        Lilli Lehmann had a major hand in creating the Salzburg Festival…if the singing is somewhat better there, could it be tribute to Frau Lilli’s legacy, she of the formidable will in shaping both herself and other singers as well?

  • Camille

    Would that I might say this to Madame Dawn Fatale: your review of the Lucrezia Borgia in Carnegie Hall with Queler&Cie from ten years ago STILL lives in my memory. I am reviewing it once more, ere I leave for the ‘Frisco Borgia, hoping against hope this time it will not devolve into ‘orgia’.

    As for this Tannhaeuser, I am so glad you saw it and had the Bayreuth experience, and thank you for the time and trouble of your astute review. Better you than me, my dear, better you than me, as I wouldn’t have shown the tolerance you have.

  • phoenix

    Camille, I enjoyed Dawn’s Tannhauser review too. I agree with the Fatale description of it as it coincides with what I heard on the broadcast. The only difference is I enjoyed listening to it, I am not sure if Dawn did or not.
    — About the 1966 Tannhauser at War Memorial, due to being poorly educated (no college degree) and having substandard english grammar, spelling and typing, I have retired from writing reviews, critiques and such, so I refuse to go into too much detail about anything. But since you are the iconic diva you are, I offer a sentence or so about another truly grand diva from the past… a take from a purely subjective 22 year old’s experience at his first Tannhauser. I found the first act (particularly the Venusurg part at the beginning of the act) adequate but not really exciting, however Act 1 got better musically after Tannhauser left the Venusburg.
    — I was not prepared for Crespin’s Elisabeth. I had never heard her before. The curtain went up and there she was standing on top of what looked like a birthday cake, dressed up like a nun with a huge crown on her head (see picture above). Startling and bizarre! Then I heard that voice. The high B at the climax of the Dich, teure halle hit me like a javelin, although in retrospect that was the only way she could leap such a wide an interval at that rapid tempi. Albeit that one high note was probably a bit of a stretch for her, the volume and breadth of her tone, with its gleaming brassy sheen was like walking into the Cathedral at Quito and seeing the great golden frieze for the first time. Everything she sang after was absolute heaven, particularly notable were her 1) crescendos and decrescendos on one note as well as on legato phrases; and 2) her well-supported sustained pianissimos. I’m not sure about charisma, but she had magic:


    • Camille

      I’m very deeply gratified by your account and thank you so very much. You see, I never had an opportunity to hear her. Something which I regret as much as not having had the chance of hearing either Tebaldi or Callas.

      I do not believe these singers can be judged fairly and accurately by recording. That ‘javelin’ from the Hall of Song may only be experienced, truly, in a hall of song.

      Crespin always seems to me to have been so much more than a great singer: she was a great human being, flaws and all.

      Your kindness has lifted me up, phoenix. Thank you again, so very kindly and so very much for your memories.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Turns out Domingo isn’t a fan of this Tannhauser either, or Regie in general:

    • Clita del Toro

      As far as I am concerned Domingo can go F himself! His opinion on any subject means nothing to me.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Well, that’s nice and clear.

  • Clita del Toro

    CK lol

  • I think it’s because they want to turn everything into a gesamtkunstwerk. Germans and Autrians are terrible…

    I’m very curious about these dancing tadpoles though.

  • Great review, Dawn. As I was reading it, I thought to myself how much of the meanings of this staging concept I would be able to understand if I were a member of the audience who has not read the program notes. It seems to me that this is one of those stagings that needs to be explained to the audience. I’m still undecided about how I feel that.

    On the one hand, I appreciate the argument that if a program note is needed to explain the staging, then the director hasn’t done his/her job.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that having to read a few lines in the program (though brevity is key) is such a bad thing if it will help the director take on a more daring approach and allow the audience to go along for the ride.