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Scene from Tannhäuser [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of]
30 Aug 2011

Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser: Recycled Trash

Newsflash: Wartburg is a world-wide recycling company, at one with the universe, wherein everything and everyone exists in a perfectly sustainable environment.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Harmann, Landgraf von Thüringen: Günther Groissböck/Kwangchul Youn; Tannhäuser: Lars Cleveman; Wolfram von Eschenbach: Michael Nagy; Walther von der Vogelweide: Lothar Odinius; Biterolf: Thomas Jesatko; Heinrich der Schreiber: Arnold Bezuyen; Reinmar von Zweter: Martin Snell; Elisabeth: Camilla Nylund; Venus: Stephanie Friede; A Young Shepherd: Katja Stuber. Bayreuther Festspiele. Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock; Director: Sebastian Baumgarten; Set Design: Joep van Lieshout; Costumes: Nina von Mechow; Lighting: Franck Evin; Video: Christopher Kondek; Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich.

Above: Scene from Tannhäuser [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of]


Oh, didn’t you know? Well don’t rush out to buy stock in it (although currently you might not do any worse than with a Fortune 500 investment). No, this hulking, huge, honking processing plant is what passes for Joep van Lieshout’s Tannhäuser scene design, and strives to be the summer’s must-have instigator of audience displeasure at the annual Wagner Festspiel. The massive wooden courtyard has two tiers of wrap-around balconies, two catwalks adjoining them, enough stairs to accommodate seven or eight Busby Berkley extravaganzas, and many large storage drums (think Esso) to contain the gas product generated from (among other things) human feces.

This is not all that director Sebastian Baumgarten is recycling. Think of any shabby little shocker idea from German Regie-theater from the last twenty years, and there is likely a pale, played-out copy of it in his muddled, slack direction. Let’s see…hero in underpants, tee shirt and work boots, legs smeared with (one presumes) excrement? That would be our leading tenor. Check. Embarrassed (if energetic) extras jumping around in cave man and animal suits? Check. Heroines inexplicably cutting their wrists and smearing stage blood on unlucky co-stars? Check. Okay, okay there were no bare-breasted nuns doing Linda Blair business with their crucifixes…and dammit…why not? The point being that anything and everything was acceptable because (as we have learned through years of sitting through “Konzepts”) it is not only about ignoring the work being manhandled, it is also about novelty at all costs.

Well, you know what, Bayreuth? You have failed. ‘Cause what Baumgarten has done done is not even pointed enough to be needling. And he was not alone in his failure to provoke us, oh no. He had invaluable support from the grab-bag of costumes by Nina von Mechow. I mean, really Nina, are giant tadpoles your full arsenal of shock-and-awe? Wal-Mart warehouse-worker-chic your boldest thought? “Redeemed” chorus girls in Satanic red gowns your most rankling effect? Put some effort in, gur-rul! (Although you do get points for having made Venus — The Eternal Feminine — look like a pregnant Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show in an unscripted Act II walk-on.)

And how about those omni-present video creations from Christopher Kondek? Endless looping promotions of the recycling business’s great success, shots of the CEO, lots of bacteria and amoebas doing what (I guess) they do, a very comprehensive cartoon about the digestive process, and even a naked woman (cliche Nummer zweitausendeins) writhing erotically along the Big. Long. Red. Tank. Stroooooooooooking spigots. Maaaaaaaaaaaarveling at hoses. And finally (lest we still have missed it) sitting on the pot to fill us in (as it were) on just what the primary substance was that was being recycled. Think of the dullest Power Point briefing you ever sat through. Are you picturing it? This was duller.

All this invention does not come cheap. This environment was solidly constructed and very detailed. Loading doors opened with rotating lights, hoisting hooks rose and fell from the ceiling, and a huge round circus cage (the Venusberg) rose and fell from the floor, often and effortlessly. But there was not anything of visual appeal or interest on display. Herr Baumgarten even put real audience members on chairs on stage far right and left, as spectators to…what? The factory tour? It sure wasn’t to see Tannhäuser. Say, remember Tannhäuser? Richard Wagner’s opera? By odd coincidence it was there, too! And it was musically quite fine, indeed.

In the title role, Lars Cleveman put his bright, reliable tenor to good use, offered much pleasurable full-throated singing, and negotiated the more lyrical stretches with insight and admirable technique. It is not his fault that he lacks the final measure of heroic stature in his instrument. Mr. Cleveman nevertheless presents a well considered portrayal of the tortured protagonist. Camilla Nylund was a nigh-perfect Elisabeth characterized by her substantial glowing soprano; rock-steady tone; and superior breath control. “Dich Teure Halle” was, of course, a giddy, heady high point, but a great Elisabeth is judged by the lean-and-mean control required for “Allmacht’ge Jungfrau” and she voiced it flawlessly. That Ms. Nylund is also prom queen attractive completed the winning theatrical package.

Young Michael Nagy is already to be numbered among the finest Wolframs I have experienced, and he will only get better with age. His mellifluous, honeyed baritone is sizable enough to ring out in the house, and nuanced enough to create a musically diverse portrayal. And he is highly persuasive as an actor, remaining sympathetic even as the director has Wolfram kill Elisabeth (whom he loves) by stuffing her through a door into a gas tank, and then proceeding to sing a ravishing “Ode to the Evening Star”…to a pregnant Venus. Yes, somehow we still manage to love him, Michael is that good.

I have the suspicion that Stephanie Friede has had better nights in her successful career than she delivered here as Venus. Although there were some potent phrases in the chest range as well as above the staff, the vocal production seemed a little loosely knit overall, making for some scrappy transitions through the middle. She was not helped by unattractive costuming and extra-Wagnerian dramatic interpolations. (Venus comes back more than Jason in Murder on Elm Street, appearing at the final chorus to present her swaddled baby to the masses who hoist it around as though in a mosh pit.)

The excellent bass Günther Groissböck was to have sung the key role of Hermann, but he was announced as indisposed with a bad cold. He agreed to act it while Kwangchul Youn sang it, magnificently, from the side. Mr. Yuon is currently singing Amfortas on The Hill, and his rolling, world-class bass is one of the glories of the Festspiel. Lothar Odinius made an especially strong impression as Walther von der Vogelweide, his vibrant tenor soaring through all of his featured passages. Katja Stuber’s drunken (why?), shirt-tie-and-suspenders (why?) Shepherd was brightly sung with an accomplished, slender soprano. Thomas Jesatko, who numbers Wotan among his roles, was a bit of luxury casting as Biterolf, and his booming bass was a welcome addition to the musical texture of the ensembles. As Heinrich and Reinmar, Arnold Bezuyen and Martin Snell made strong contributions.

Thomas Hengelbrock’s reading of the score was notably successful during the expansive, magisterial segments, and no less so when commanding the vibrant and vivacious writing for the Venusberg. In these, the Maestro drew beautifully detailed playing from the reliable Bayreuth pit. In more conversational stretches, notably the Rome Narrative, Mr. Hengelbrock’s pacing could stand to have more starch and be more dramatically responsive. Too, he allowed a rubato in “O Du Mein Holdern Abendstern” that undermined the easy flow of the opera’s best tune. But there is no doubt that he exerted a firm control over the proceedings and the finale was one musical high point of many, thanks too to Eberhard Friedrich’s thrilling chorus.

But enough about Wagner. And music. For I must now put pen to paper and jot a customer comment card to Wartburg Corporation. I want to recount to them where they might discover a huge unwanted pile of theatrical feces that is ripe for recycling.

James Sohre

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