A metatheatrical Tannhäuser

The more I see of Tobias Kratzer’s work the more impressed I get.  Here we look at his 2019 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth.  It’s the kind of production that traditionalists get off on hating and there were boos at curtain call though they were absolutely drowned out by a storm of applause and stomping.  Personally, I found it insightful, at times very funny, and deeply, deeply moving.

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Kratzer does several interesting things.  He adds two silent roles to the crew of the Venusberg.  They are a midget called Oskar played by Manni Laudenbach and the British/Nigerian crossdresser Le Gateau Chocolat as themself.  The overture plays over a video of the camper van that serves for Venusberg on a rather dubious road trip.  Tannhäuser is in a clown suit and Venus in a low cut black sparkly sort of overall.  Oskar and LGC are in the back.  The road trip involves syphoning off petrol, doing a runner at a Burger King and running over a security guard.

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Act 1 plays out with various shenanigans at a sort of chalet in the forest with garden gnomes and a poster with Wagner’s “Frei im Wollen, Frei in Thun, Frei im Geniessen” on it.  So we get it.  In Venusberg anything goes.  Nonetheless Tannhäuser sets off back to the Wartburg which turns out to be the Festspielhaus itself with patrons dressed to the nines and the cast out the back for a quick smoke.  It’s clear that Venus, Oskar and LGC have followed Tannhäuser.

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Act 2 opens back stage.  Apparently in the theatre the stage was split between live action and a video screen where the (black and white) back stage footage and other video was projected.  Of course, it’s handled a bit differently on the recording.  The stage becomes the Singers’ Hall where Elisabeth and Tannhäuser meet again.  Meanwhile Venus, Oskar and LGC have broken into the Festspielhaus.  Just before the singing competition begins Venus mugs one of the choristers in the ladies and takes her place.  The stage action plays out in fairly conventional fashion with the knight/minstrels suitably horrified by Tannhäuser, Elisabeth is in despair (we can see she’s been cutting herself) and Venus’ every gesture and look expresses her contempt for everything that’s going on.  Oskar and LGC wander on stage, Venus takes off her medieval wench dress to reveal the sparkly black thing and starts dancing.  Stage management calls the cops who arrive, guns in hand, and arrest Tannhäuser.

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So what’s going on here and why does it work?  I think Kratzer is doing several things.  He’s building a dichotomy between two different, equally imperfect, worlds.  If Venusberg represents sex, hedonism and irresponsibility, then the Wartburg represents hypocrisy, violence and empty piety.  The bridge is Elisabeth who represents a fully human idea of love while also showing its impossibility; at least in the world she lives in.  At the same time Kratzer is riffing off the idea of the Bayreuth Festival being as much about the Bayreuth Festival as it is about Wagner or his operas.  None of this would work without the grandeur of Wagner’s music and terrific performances but we have both here.

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Kratzer’s project becomes even clearer in Act 3.  Venusberg is now the camper van again but run down; rusting, its wheels off.  Le Gateau Chocolat has sold out and now appears in billboards for expensive watches.  There’s a very touching scene where Oskar cooks a meal for Elisabeth.  The pilgrims, more like refugees than returning pilgrims, arrive but there’s no Tannhäuser.  Elisabeth, in despair, makes love to Wolfram, who is now wearing the clown suit, in the back of the van then kills herself.  When Tannhäuser does show up everything has changed except Venus who is still trying to paper over LGC’s watch ad with “Frei im Wollen” posters.  Over the final chorus we see the road trip that should have been; clown Tannhäuser and Elisabeth driving the van off into the sunset.

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It’s all very clever and surprisingly affecting but I don’t think it would work without Wagner’s music and some terrific performances. Lise Davidsen is Elsabeth.  She sings beautifully and acts even better.  This is a deeply sad young woman and Davidsen makes us feel that at every moment.  Stephen Gould sings the title role in a wonderfully full, heroic tenor.  Again with terrific acting.  Markus Eiche is a restrained, often bemused, Wolfram who sings with incredible beauty.  Elena Zhidkova is a terrific Venus.  She’s sexy enough but it’s her wicked mischievousness and her air of complete contempt for the squares of the Wartburg that are really compelling.  If there were a special school for people playing silent roles in opera then Laudenbach would be top of the class.  Ho oozes pathos.  And Le Gateau Chocolat is gorgeous darling.  Valery Gergiev conducts for his first, and one assumes his last, time at Bayreuth.  Sadly he’s very good indeed.  The timing throughout is spot on and the orchestra sounds majestic.

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Michael Beyer directed for video and what a difficult job that must have been.  His solution is to cut between video and live as seems best with just occasional sections where he split screens.  I think it’s probably the right approach.  I watched this on DVD but it’s also available on Blu-ray.  There are enough murky scenes here to make the higher definition format a clear preference.  It’s perfectly watchable though and both stereo and surround sound tracks are excellent.  There are no extras but the booklet includes a really good interview with Kratzer and designer Rainer Sellmaier as well as a synopsis and track listing.  Subtitle options are German, English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

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There are only a handful of modern video recordings of Tannhäuser and they are all, to some extent, concept productions.  This one worked for me and I don’t think anybody would knock the musical aspects.

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Catalogue number: DG DVD 00440 073 5757

2 thoughts on “A metatheatrical Tannhäuser

  1. Sounds like a complete jumble but on the strength of your review I am interested in giving it a look in. Will report back once I have managed to get a hold of a copy of the DVD to see the production.

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