A long post… Jump through the post if you want to skip ahead…
We are just back from a delightful driving holiday around Germany, the intended culmination of which was to be our first visit to the hallowed Green Hill for a performance – we had previously been for a day trip to the town. Our opera of choice was Tannhäuser, because it coincided with my partner’s birthday. We took advantage of the new policy for a select number of performances to go on sale for internet booking, a policy which was, as far as I can tell, forced upon the Festival organisers by the German Government, fed up with Bayreuth’s fabled inaccessibility in return for its federal and state subsidies. This was to join a select group of performances (mostly otherwise Glyndebourne) for which we paid, by quite some margin, more than we would normally. However, at €160 a ticket, we know we were going to a unique place, to experience something for which the magic derived from the location, the building and the history, as much as the performance itself.
Which is just as well – but we’ll come to that shortly. The first impressions, having arrived from the stunning city of Bamberg on the morning of the performance and having checked into our hotel, were to remind us that the town goes completely Wagner-doolally during Festival season. The hotel (the Ramada Residenzschloss: recommended) was entirely geared up to cater for Wagner-goers: free glass of sekt whilst you wait for the laid-on free bus transfer; meals available before the opera, or after, or packed up for you to take to enjoy during the hour-long intervals; Wagner busts, pictures, posters and statues aplenty. This continues into town, where no pharmacist, bookshop or outfitters can seemingly resist a Wagner-themed window display. You wouldn’t have thought there were enough knick-knacks to go around. For nine months of the year, this is evidently a town whose attics all heave with carefully bubble-wrapped Wagneralia.
And to the Festspielhaus, its famous façade standing proud at the top of the Festspielhügel, with its lawn peopled by comic little fibreglass Wagners in demonstrative conducting pose (and, natürlich, available to buy at €350 a pop). A neat, but commendably utilitarian, tent arrangement to one side of the theatre building contains most of the drink and food provision: bratwurst in a bread roll, or a pretzel, seemed to be the standard fayre (none of your frou-frou salmon sandwiches cut into triangles here, à la ROH). Coffee, sekt, and very nice wine from Baden-Wurttemburg are dispensed at generally reasonable prices for such a high-class social setting. On the other side, a couple of knick-knack stalls sell bits and pieces, recordings and t-shirts, alongside a branch of the Deutsche Post that will sell you postcards with Festspiele-themed briefmarken, and then postmark them with a special Festspiele-themed stamp (alas, Lohengrin not Tannhäuser). All very festive. At the start, everyone is wandering around in best bib-and-tucker, clutching in one hand their glass of sekt, and in the other awkwardly gripping both their programme and a cushion. The seats weren’t as uncomfortable as had been advertised, I found, but do need some additional padding so that a cushion is de rigeur to prevent a nasty dose of back-and-bum-ache. Mercifully, Tannhäuser is split into reasonable hour-or-so chunks; I feel for those watching Rheingold or the first slog of Götterdämmerung.
Entering the theatre, before the excitement of setting foot in that special auditorium, it was striking how the entire wooden construction of the place makes it feel slightly temporary. We were in seats to the rear corner, so had to climb some steps that put me in mind of a century-older version of the auditorium at Holland Park. So we find our seats, and stand for a while: a matter of practicality whilst waiting for everyone in the row to arrive, but given that the whole auditorium was standing it had an odd feel of waiting for the monarch to enter. Everyone was standing around, looking about the place, savouring the atmosphere, and taking photographs of the famous interior.
On this latter point, the Bayreuth Festival appears not to have learned from Cnut’s demonstration of the inadvisability of attempting to turn back a tide. The ushers on the doors made regular humourless bids to prevent photography in the auditorium, despite the fact the you only enter from either side, so they were powerless to do anything to stop people who were more than about ten seats in (about 85% of the audience). This absurd, sour ritual continued incessantly, including at the end when they extended their intervention to preventing what is fast becoming a standard way of capturing the excitement that follows a performance, the taking of curtain call photos. Even in the public circulating areas of the Festspielhaus, they would stop anyone trying to take photographs, such as of the ornate stone tablet that records the cast of the inaugural Ring in 1876.
I wouldn’t impugn the Festival management by suggesting that a photography ban is about preventing loss of revenue from selling images, posters, books, etc. to adoring fans; I suspect it is more about attempts to preserve a ‘hallowed’ space such as The Master himself might have ordained for us. Unfortunately, this weathers badly in the second decade of the twenty-first century: photography, like it or not, is a key medium through which people interact with important and meaningful spaces and personal moments. The joyous crowd – as is evident in one of the photos I did take, right – chatting, photographing, and generally soaking in the special ambience, are markedly at odds with Festspielhaus management.
(And, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about the taking of photographs during a performance, which can never be justified at any opera house or concert hall, anywhere, any time.)
Not that there would have been very much to take photos of had one attempted it. Sebastian Baumgarten’s production continues to attract boos, including on this evening, even when he isn’t there to receive them; it was reported as an avalanche of opprobrium when he was. Cue sanctimonious condemnation of the booers from some quarters, and equally angry responses back from those who support the disapprovers. For what it’s worth, I am firmly on the side of the booers, having sat through this tacky, steaming pile of crap.
But I’m jumping ahead again. We obviously already knew that the production was controversial, but had hoped reasonably that there would be merit in it over the course of the evening. The overriding experience was to be the fabled acoustic, driven by the recessed orchestra and the wooden construction of the theatre auditorium. The lights lower (not initially to full darkness during the overture, as it happened) and then, without the ceremony of initial applause (as none of us can see the appearance of the conductor) those first chords of clarinet, horn and basson waft up from under the stage. In a purely orchestral passage, the sound is blended to a partial detriment of orchestral detail. When a singer steps onto the stage, however, impressions are sharply refocused. The vocal sound is warm with a lovely bloom to it, but detailed and clear – the immense effort of Wagner singing does genuinely seem to be stepped down a couple of notches, as the balance between voice and orchestral underpinning is tilted in favour of the singers. With such a focus on what is happening on the stage, my partner and I (both usually great fans of Wagnerian orchestral detail) realised that there were long stretches where we almost hadn’t noticed the orchestra, so effective (in these terms) was the acoustic effect. Chewing over the performance afterwards, however, we both couldn’t help feeling that there was a drawback to this: to quote Richard Strauss, the work was robbed of the “many … inexhaustible riches of the score”. In short, what you gain in vocal and dramatic emphasis, you lose in the ability to focus on orchestral detail. Of course, in Wagner’s theatrical philosophy this is precisely the point – you shouldn’t be focusing on there being an orchestra doing all this work with themes and details, you should just be savouring the drama, borne on a bed of subconsciously shifting harmonies. But, witnessed live and in the flesh, the end result wasn’t at all as clear cut as I had imagined it would be.
Of course, this could have something to do with what we were watching. Now I can chip in my tuppence-ha’penny on Baumgarten’s dismal gathering of ‘stuff’ to the tune of Tannhäuser. I had read beforehand a very informative review by Mark Berry on wagneropera.net, and a further article in the Wagner Journal by Edward and Paula Bortnichak, which drew on some of the themes in Wagner’s own writings to illuminate Baumgarten’s concept, but the more it said, the less it became Tannhäuser. To quote their conclusion:
The end brings no comforting closure, as the Wartburg and the Venusberg are still physically distinct spaces within the Technocrat installation, with Elisabeth’s spirit ascending to the upper level of the set as Tannhäuser’s remains are consigned to the lower floor. Hope and promise, though, are signified by new life, as the pregnant Venus has delivered her baby and now presents it to us. The ultimate question, for her child and for all of future mankind, will be the quality and meaning of that life. It is the essential question for us all, and it remains before us to ponder as the curtain closes on this remarkable theatrical journey into what might well be our tomorrow if we do not heed the warnings of today.
That helpfully explained why Elisabeth appeared on the upper gantry at the end, with a collection of other characters. Sort of. It doesn’t really explain – nor could I really understand from that essay or from watching it play out – why Venus was pregnant. I guess that’s a bullet she’s been dodging for nigh-on 170 years, but still. In the Venusberg, seemingly, beings were born, which were then sent into some smoke-filled shipping crate (this was the pilgrimage, which we knew because it had ‘Rom’ stamped on the side); the purpose of this was to turn them into automata to power the machine, which was laid out before us as the set, all bright colours and clever writing on things (‘Alkoholator’?) Everyone was kept drunk as a comment on the world of proletarian work, or something, but it was a state I increasingly wished I had also been in. The returning pilgrims were now brainwashed into OCD cleaners with comedy robot-style walks. When Wolfram sang O du, mein holder Abendstern, he waltzed around with the pregnant Venus – after all, perish the thought that a moment of genuine pathos might go by without some cynical intervention. Elisabeth was, however, allowed her prayer in relative peace. During the argument with Tannhäuser that opens the work, Venus winked – comedy-style – at the audience. A bunch of people sat watching this in rows at the side of the stage, occasionally making little rum-te-tum gestures to each other to demonstrate they knew a big tune was coming up. At the end, Tannhäuser – inconveniently following the libretto – angrily sang some stuff about the Pope, which didn’t quite fit. I cannot resist calling on Anna Russell at this point, but Mark Berry beat me to it: I am, indeed, not making this up.
So, this concept I could work with. I could accept a vision of utopia on the brink of collapse, of hyper-technological, de-humanising influences as the basis for a production – even a production of a nineteenth century music drama about a medieval song contest – within which a battle is fought out between sexual decadence and steadfast love. There were moments when tiny glimpses were permitted of what could have been: Elisabeth emerged as a powerful controlling figure in the community, as she sang the close of Act 2 in some sort of mystical trance, and this did much to add extra depth to her usual one-dimensional piety. Wolfram’s angry jealousy was well-drawn. In the Venusberg the line between pleasurable, sexual abandon and repetitious, obsessional depravity was explored. What irks, what completely sets my teeth on edge, frankly, is to take this already tenuous concept – one that would need careful, serious, thoughtful treatment to bring it off as a successful 4-hour music drama – and overlay it with the stupid tics and tricks of a stage director’s oh-so-clever cynicism. The Venus wink as a prime example; as is the on-stage audience reacting visibly to the purely operatic elements of the performance so as to undercut the Bayreuth stage illusion; the stupid comedy walks of the obsessive cleaners that return from Rome; the utterly ridiculous dancing people in sponge tadpole outfits: they all seem calculated to take the piss out of the audience who have come from far and wide for the Bayreuth ‘immersive dramatic’ experience. Look at you, and your foolish and comedic devotion to the Wagner canon, it seems to say. And people wonder why the audience boos?
A stage director that requires a significant level of research to understand the ‘concept’ before going into the auditorium is one that doesn’t wish to engage with the art form. It is a music drama. It powers along, at a roughly pre-determined pace, with no opportunity to pause and ask questions, to top up your research or just to reflect. Most likely, you see it just once, and four hours later, it’s over. It has to have some level of immediacy for it to function, being overlaid on a transitory musical fabric. Baumgarten failed, in my opinion, to distil his concept into something that could be comprehended and felt during the frame of experience that starts with the overture and ends with closing chorus of Act 3. One quote, to my mind utterly damning, from the dramaturg Carl Hegemann in the programme runs as follows:
What the Dutch ‘total work artist’ Joep van Lieshout has placed on the stage of the Festspielhaus, is not strictly speaking a stage design, but instead a work of art developed independently from Tannhäuser, “The Technocrat”, a factory-like facility that focuses in an uncomplicated and perhaps even frightening manner on a “human metabolism with nature”.
If it isn’t a stage design, and it is developed independently of Tannhäuser, then – forgive my overly simplistic question – what the hell is it doing on the stage of the Festspielhaus Bayreuth? Rent it its own gallery space – one of those trendy former warehouse buildings in the docks of a city like Rotterdam, Hamburg or Liverpool should do it – and let people in to wander around it. They won’t be frightened. They may well find it ‘uncomplicated’. What an opera producing theatre is doing thinking that anyone can say they can develop the set independently of the opera it’s supposed to frame, to be honest, beggars belief. Woodworm eaten your old sets for Traviata? Don’t worry, chuck The Technocrat on stage for Violetta’s party. Bored of the old La Bohème? Simple, just have the artisans freezing their balls off next to the Alkoholator; you can push it to one side for the Momus scene, have the wooden packing crate as the Barrière d’Enfer in Act 3, and then back to the start for Mimì’s death. Am sure it will go down a storm in Stuttgart.
It was hard to evaluate the orchestra – I feel like I would need to be more ‘practised’ at the acoustic. Alex Kober’s spacing came across as relatively straightforward, almost matter of fact, and I would have liked more inflection and nuance, but maybe that’s the recessed pit again. Chorus were very well drilled, growing in power as the evening progressed. As Elisabeth, Camilla Nylund had a nicely pure tone, and statuesque dramatic presence: she achieved a wonderful stillness and purity of tone for her prayer. Michelle Breedt threw herself into what the production required of Venus, and sang well although I would have liked a warmer, perhaps more voluptuous tone – but that might not have fitted the concept. Torsten Kerl kept his stamina for the role of Tannhäuser, with flexible and attractive tone. Marcus Eiche, underneath the flim-flam of the production, was a wonderful Wolfram, with the right dose of plangency for Abendstern and, as noted above, an ability to carry off the jealousy over Elisabeth’s affections. Katja Stuber was clear-toned as the Young Shepherd, with a nice line in acting drunk that should work wonderfully in a different opera. Kwangchoul Youn was dependable as the Landgraf.
At the start of the performance, according to famous ritual, the doors of the Festspielhaus auditorium are each locked. By the end of this Tannhäuser, it felt less like an opera than a hostage situation. Still, nice place to be trapped I guess.
Forgot to mention: at the start of the performance, a bat was wheeling around the auditorium. Quite fun. Can now say I saw Die Fledermaus on the Festspielhaus stage. Will probably be easier than explaining what I actually saw.