Cher Public

Tanks a lot, but no tanks

Bayreuth’s most recent production of Tannhäuser was set to be retired. So of course they captured the 2014 performances for posterity and released it on video. The DVD has the typical Bayreuth package—it’s well-filmed, with a fairly steady camera that often pans out to full-stage shots instead of the using the new HD technique of constant close-ups. Good job, Bayreuth film crew.

The production by Sebastian Baumgarten is however the type of regietheater that’s not a rethinking or reconstruction, but just a hot mess. The first clue that the director might have been a little too high on his own ideas is the fact that the pre-curtain time AND intermissions are staged. Yes, that’s right, Baumgarten apparently thought his ideas were such treasures that he expected the audiences to not pee during a five-hour opera. I have no idea how this actually played in the house and whether everyone really stayed put during intermissions but this is how it’s presented in the video.

The pre-curtain time (as you can hear the orchestra tuning up) we see an alcohol distilling factory. Various members of the factory get into their places. There are audience members on the sides of the stage. Were they pre-selected with catheters in their tuxes so they wouldn’t move during the whole evening? The factory unit set is actually well-built—colorful, neat, orderly, almost utopian. After about 10 minutes of this the stage goes black for real and the overture begins.

Venusburg is a sort of underground S&M club in the factory. There’s a big round cage and some tadpoles. Venus (Michelle Breedt) looks like a Vegas whorehouse madam. She’s also heavily pregnant. (This is important.) Tannhäuser has apparently been idling his days away in a black sweatsuit. I suppose this is a getaway from the super structured factory life. So far I’m okay with the production.

Where the director gets weird is the very end of Act Two. Musically, he Act Two finale is actually a rather old-fashioned, almost Verdian concertato. It’s generally staged as a “stand and sing” piece. In this production Elisabeth (a factory worker who inexplicably has a Princess Leia style hairdo and gown) slits her wrists. The curtain falls on Elisabeth flaunting her bloodied wrists to the whole crowd.

Intermission before Act Three is the most staged of all. The factory workers gather to sing the German national anthem. There are audible boos from what I’d imagine is a very pissy (pun intended) audience. The third act dramaturgy is even weirder. First Wolfgram kills Elisabeth by stuffing her in an alcohol distillery tank. Tannhäuser comes back from Rome just in time for Venus to give birth. The opera ends with Venus passing around the baby (a bloody object that resembles Chucky the Doll). Woot.

I suppose if I wanted to I could reach for some metaphor about how Tannhäuser’s actions are a rebellion against industrialization and mass production. Or some stab at Nazi efficiency. But the whole thing is so unpleasant and muddled that I’ll just say that the chorus sang very well. The individual singers kind of affirm the belief that Bayreuth is no longer able to catch truly A-list singers who have all taken their talents to other, higher-paying summer festivals. The women are especially unimpressive. Fleedt sounded pushed and shrill and hectoring. It sort of fit this production’s concept of Venus but it’s not a voice I’d want to hear again. Camilla Nylund (Elisabeth) is a beautiful woman but her soprano is worn and tired sounding, with no radiance whatsoever in her prayer.

Torsten Kerl in the title role can’t handle Tannhäuser’s punishing tessitura and the Rome Narrative sounds strained and hoarse, but Tannhäusers don’t grow on trees. He’s in a black sweatsuit the whole time which doesn’t flatter his body in any way, shape or form. I always thought Wolfram was a foolproof role—sound pretty and walk off with the most beautiful music in the score. But Markus Eiche’s baritone was bland and his presentation was dull. Kwangchul Youn (Landgraf) was the only singer whose voice had what I’d call Wagnerian dimensions—enough majesty and depth to do justice to the music. Conductor Axel Kober led a ponderous account of the score.

  • pasavant

    Excellent review. Sat through this garbage last summer. Truly dreadful. I thought that ALL the singers were lousy including Youn who barked and wobbled his way through the evening.

    • Were people allowed to get up during the staged intermissions?

      • bogda

        Yes, they were. Barely anyone stayed.

      • When I was there in 2014, just as with all the other performances at Bayreuth you weren’t allowed to stay during the breaks. The staged bits were done before each act started (and were 5/10 mins I would have guessed, much less than the 60 minute breaks).

        As I recall there was an article somewhere that mentioned Baumgarten wanted to do it sans-intermissions but the caterers balked at the idea (at least that was the excuse given, one suspects almost no one thought it was a good idea).

        I couldn’t defend this production in the slightest, a “hot mess” seems like a fair description. That said you don’t get great productions (and Bayreuth has several) without taking a few risks…

  • ML

    Surprised about Eiche.

  • Chanterelle

    I saw it in 2012. Outrageous. I have no memory of the singing, except for Wolfram (Michael Nagy), who was excellent. But he won no sympathy when he stuffed Elizabeth into the biogas tank.

    Trust me, audience members did NOT sit reverently through the intermission, but fled for the nearest bar. That was one grim evening.

    • Chanterelle

      Oh, and normally you may not stay in the theater during intermission--the ushers clear the hall and lock the doors.

  • Buster

    The stage designer deserves a mention: visual artist Joep van Lieshout:

    http://www.designboom.com/design/joep-van-lieshout-tannhauser-stage-design-for-bayreuther-festspiele/

    Visual artists and opera, a good combination or not? Only very few of them direct as well as design: there is the Rebecca Horn Elektra, are here more examples?

    • spiderman

      Bill Viola Tristan und Isolde Paris
      Hermann Nitsch Herodiade Vienna

      What about Bard Summerscape who used to have visual artists for their stage design.

      • William Kentridge?

        People liked Hockney’s work, I think.

        • Buster

          Kentridge, thanks NPW! -- missed his Lulu.

      • Buster

        Thanks! I did see a “light” version of the Viola Tristan und Isolde, with the images projected on screens above the orchestra. Not nearly as impressive as the fully staged version. Also saw sets dsigned by Kounellis, Appel, and Hockney. And Anish Kapoor has worked with Audi.

    • Cicciabella

      Read Buster’s link, and if you can understand what Van Lieshout is on about, award yourself a gold star. This production was online for a while and it is, bar none, the most nonsensical I’ve ever seen. Van Lieshout somehow thought he could superimpose his pre-existing excrement-to-biogas-to-food self-sufficient factory onto Tannhäuser, and Baumgarten was deluded enough to think this was a good idea. The result is utter rubbish. Nonplussed by Kerl’s black outfit, Ivy does not mention that Nylund at one point is clad in a crocheted monstrosity which makes her look like a giant loo roll dolly. At no point during the performance could I make out what was supposed to be happening. The recent Guth Fidelio was a dismal affair, but at least you could glean what the very talented director was trying to do, even though he failed this time. Here all Van Lieshout did was enlarge one of his installations without any thought about the opera (biogas-run factory=Wartburg: Hurrah!) and heaven only knows what Baumgarten was doing. Re the Kentrige Lulu: Kentridge’s art is inspired by the Berg’s opus, not plastered all over it, as you will soon be able to see in New York.

  • mercadante

    There’s no such thing as bad regie, just regie you don’t yet understand.

    • RosinaLeckermaul

      Yeah, right!

  • JohninSeattle

    “There are audience members on the sides of the stage. Were they pre-selected with catheters in their tuxes so they wouldn’t move during the whole evening?”

    ROFL. My sentiments -- as always -- about a ‘long sit’. In order to enjoy and apprehend the Great Ideas from the Most Awesome Production Ever, the audience needs to be rested and ready.

    As for the cleaning crew at the Opera House, no one wants to clean up bio waste from parterre box. Just saying.

    Btw, when we worked on the design for McCaw Hall here in Seattle part of the messaging was that we were more than doubling the number restrooms. It was a constant question from patrons to the old house. Nothing worse than a long line and flashing lights and having to choose between the next act (no late seating!) and an empty bladder.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Sad to hear this about Camilla Nylund, who I think has done some great work with a really lovely voice. Most of her repertoire is pretty strenuous though, I suppose wear and tear is inevitable.

  • redbear

    Kwangchul Youn was the bright spot in this year’s Walkure. Botha was mostly marking time.

  • bogda

    Fully agree with review. I was there when the production was recorded and would also add that that was by far the worst production in Bayreuth last year.
    I really enjoy regietheater, but this one I just found to be totally nonsensical. Apparently, the idea was to show a closed dystopian society, living with limited resource and is therefore forced to fully recycles everything and to live in full unison of technology and nature, In this society Tannhauser is used as the foundation myth. So, what we are seeing is a form of “theatre within theatre” where this society is staging “Tannhauser” as a form of initiations rite.
    Anyway this is, in a nutshell ,the interpretation which we got in Bayreuth from production team.
    Whatever it was it was ridiculous and just didn’t work. Apart from that signing and conducting were horrible. However, the “myth” of Bayreuth not getting the best singers is probably not fully true, as they did have very strong casts in other productions, and at least on paper -- Nyllund and Kerl did not sound so bad.
    For me the biggest musical problem of this production was Kober, who also managed to turn one of the last years’ musical highlights, der Fliegende Hollander, with the same cast into a miserable evening this year.

  • gustave of montreal

    Abomination !!

  • parpignol

    I thought it was a recycling plant, didn’t realize it was an alcohol distillery; is that for sure? I thought Elisabeth was being, um, recycled. . .
    and I thought Nylund sounded good last summer (2014),liked the vocal and dramatic diffidence of her Elisabeth, coming in and sitting down in the hall for her entrance aria, rather than racing forward and throwing out her arms grand opera style--
    I did think the production was pretty much a mess, but I was kind of dazzled by the kinky surprise of having Wolfram sing his song to the evening star while waltzing with pregnant Venus (who is, after all, the evening star)

  • Stefan

    I definitely agree with the earlier comment that said “There’s no such thing as bad regie, just regie you don’t yet understand.” I saw this Tannhauser in 2013 and didn’t have a clue as to what the director intended. Does that matter? Well, yes and no. Yes because I paid a great deal of money to see something that proceeded to leave me sitting in total disbelief and confused. But no because there will always be risks that are a grand success and others that will be total failures. That’s important because the risks are taken and if they weren’t we would be seeing the same old museum piece productions again and again and again. Now that is boring. I for one am glad I had the opportunity to see it “live”.

    In all my years, the only production that I REALLY regretted paying for was a terrible Eugene Onegin in Munich that is still used today. It was the so called Brokeback Mountain production with the gender fuck dancers for the polonaise, bare-chested cowboys trying to stare down the audience members before Part 2 started and it was all updated to what appeared to be the 1960’s -- now this was definitely eurotrash of the highest order and a waste of my money!

  • WindyCityOperaman

    Wow. This makes the Peter Sellars production (with a Jimmy Swaggert-type hero and a megachurch Hall of Wartburg) look downright conventional in comparison. Do the Bayreuth audiences still “boo” new productions as they did in the Chereau Ring days?