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.