A team of young creators headed by a director sporting a baseball cap; a black performer in drag; extensive use of video: the new production of Tannhäuser in Bayreuth this summer had enough advance buzz to generate pre-opening jitters for another regietheater production expected to provoke and shock the audience. Happily, the director Tobias Kratzer, a winner of the Faust Award for Excellence in German Theater for his brilliant Götterdämmerung in Karlsruhe, gives us a fresh and captivating take on the story of a singer who strays from society for sensual pleasure, only to be punished for his sin, then redeemed by the sacrifice of a woman. I was fortunate to attend two performances, on July 28 and August 13, the latter conducted by Christian Thielemann in place of Valery Gergiev. This afforded me an opportunity to savor the details of the production, which could become a classic.
The production team provides a helpful discussion of their concept in the written program. They view the opera Tannhäuser as a journey experienced by Wagner during his turbulent time in Dresden, of “disillusionment and expectations.” As the overture begins, the curtain opens to a full video screen with an arial view of the Wartburg Castle, which is the setting of Act II of the opera. A van travels through the forest; the scenery gradually changes to a contemporary urban setting. The van’s occupants are an eccentric mix: Tannhäuser in a clown outfit, Venus in glittering form-fitting pantsuit, a dwarf in the image of Oskar in Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, and a drag queen named Le Gateau Chocolat. They steal gasoline and their Burger King dinner, using a fake credit card with Wagner’s 1849 invocation “Frei im Wollen, Frei im Thun, Frei im Geniessen” (free in willing, free in doing, free in enjoying). Venus runs over a policeman, whereupon Tannhäuser comes to his senses and throws himself off the van, to awaken in the vicinity of the Bayreuth Festival House. The pilgrims, formally dressed, line up at the lamppost as they approach the “Mecca.”
Act II features the storming of the Bayreuth Festival House by Venus, Oskar, and Chocolat and their confrontation with the police. The stage shows a “traditional” enactment in the interior of the Wartburg Castle, and a screen above depicts “the back story”: Elisabeth, Tannhäuser, and other performers getting ready for their entrance. Venus and her two companions, whose van crashed into the barrier of the Festival House at the end of Act I, gain access to the House from the balcony, and the disparate worlds of static opera and real life performance collide. Venus sneaks onto the stage disguised as one of the singers. The physical presence of Venus in Act II makes her a more interesting character, contrasting the two women who vie for Tannhäuser’s attention. Elena Zhidkova, who was a late replacement for Ekaterina Gubanova after the latter’s injury during the rehearsal period, was perfect for the physical demands of the role, moving with athletic energy and ease.
The invasion by the outsiders is brought under control as Katharina Wagner summons the police (shown on screen) and several police men and women storm onto the stage. Tannhäuser is arrested as he sings of “Rome.” Elisabeth, by no means a simple saintly figure, was shown earlier as a troubled wrist-cutter and almost steps out of her rarefied surroundings into the world of Tannhäuser at the end of Act II but returns to her society.
Act III takes place in a desolate area with the broken van and other metal scraps and the pilgrims as homeless vagrants. Elisabeth appears and shares a meal with Oskar. She has sex with Wolfram, who disguises himself as Tannhäuser by donning the clown outfit, and then commits suicide by slitting her wrist. As Tannhäuser cradles her body, we see on the above screen the happy pair embarking on a road trip in the van, this time with Tannhäuser (and not Venus) in the driver’s seat. The last scene, with its swelling and dramatic music, ends as the pair rides off into the sunset, in Tannhäuser’s imagination. This was one of the most moving and hopeful endings of the opera I have experienced.
On August 13, with Thielemann at the helm, the orchestra was in top form. Stephen Gould showed again, with his stamina and powerful but nuanced singing, that he is the reigning Tannhäuser. The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, hailed by many as the next great Wagnerian soprano, impressed with her huge and brilliant voice that became creamy in soft singing. Markus Eiche was a sympathetic and warm-voiced Wolfram. Stephen Milling headed a strong ensemble of singing knights.
The success of this production rests on the meticulous care taken to develop the four main characters in a modern interpretation. Unlike the Castorf Ring, it did not distract me from enjoying the music, because the director, who had a good understanding of the opera, giving precedence to the music. A delightful bonus of an outdoor performance by Tannhäuser’s companions during the first intermission attracted not only the festival-goers but also the local audience who were not attending the performance. A splendid integration of theater with real life.
© Wagner Notes, September 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.