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.
The Salzburg Festival rarely does operetta but in 2019 they decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Offenbach’s birth with a new production of Orphée aux enfers by Barrie Kosky. With Kosky and comedy one sort of knows what to expect but there’s always something very original. Here, in order to get the (German) dialogue as crisp as possible he takes it away from the singers and gives it to a new character; John Styx, played by actor Max Hopp, who not only speaks all the dialogue in an amazingly wide range of voices but also produces all the sound effects. The only other character who speaks is Anne Sofie von Otter as L’Opinion publique and even she is doubled by Hopp. Not that the singers have nothing to do during the dialogues. They pantomime their words, often in quite an exaggerated fashion and to great effect.
I’m never quite sure what I really think about an operetta like Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. I quite like the music, even if it can be a bit cheesey but I’m put off by the casual cultural appropriation (though it’s not nearly as bad as Puccini!). I’m not sure what the best directorial approach is either. Does one play it for froth? Does one try and mine some deeper meaning? Interestingly Andreas Homoki’s approach for his Zürich production filmed in 2017 is to play it straight and let whatever is there appear or not. It works rather well. It;s a typically lavish Zürich production with lots of colour and movement and he creates some spectacular visual effects. But he also allows for a sinister element to appear in the Chinese scenes. It may be over-interpreting but I think one can see shades of proto-Fascism here. It’s reinforced by the score that really has some rather sinister elements that I hadn’t noticed before. I think there’s even a nod to Siegfried’s Funeral March. All in all, quite interesting without being wildly unconventional.
Wagner’s Parsifal has been served rather well on Blu-ray and DVD in the last few years. The 2016 Bayreuth recording is another interesting addition to the list. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production is not exactly traditional but it’s not “in your face” conceptual either. The setting is contemporary and various visual clues locate it where Europe meets Asia; perhaps the Southern Caucasus. The grail temple is run down. There are soldiers and refugees and tourists, as well as the Grail knights. There’s plenty of Christian symbolism around. The “swan scene” is played straight. The “communion scene” uses Amfortas as the source of the communion blood; an idea which seems common enough. Here he’s wearing a crown of thorns (and not much else) and there’s lots of blood.
Wozzeck is a tricky piece for a director. There seem to be two possible approaches. One can find a character for Wozzeck himself that resonates with contemporary audiences and treat the piece more or less realistically. That’s the approach taken by both Bieito and Tcherniakov. Alternatively one can run with the overtly expressionist aspects of the piece and present it in a more abstract way as Peter Mussbach did. Andreas Homoki’s 2015 Zürich production takes the second route. The piece is presented as if the characters are puppets in a puppet theatre in a sort of ultra-grim version of Punch and Judy. It’s visually quite arresting and there are some very well composed scenes. To give just one example, immediately after Wozzeck has decapitated Marie the chorus appear as nightmarish Maries while Wozzeck sits nursing the severed head. That said, the concept does pall and maybe hasn’t really got the legs, absent any other real directorial ideas, to carry the piece for two hours.
Katharina Wagner’s take on Tristan und Isolde recorded at Bayreuth in 2015 is hard to unpack. There are some hints in a short essay in the booklet accompanying the disk and a few more in the interview with conductor Christian Thielemann included as an extra but it still leaves the viewer with a lot to do. It’s essentially unromantic and quite abstract. A lot of stuff that happens in a traditional interpretation just doesn’t happen but there’s not really anything much to replace it. What’s left is the story of two people who fall in love in a situation where that is bound to end badly and where, despite the best efforts of pretty much everyone else, it does. It’s actually quite nihilistic. Tristan, and maybe Isolde, seek a kind of transcendence in love/death but there is none. At the end Isolde doesn’t die but something in her does. It had me thinking of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (but then so much in life does).
Fidelio is an interesting piece. The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot. There are no convoluted subplots here. But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down. Is it necessary? Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah. It works remarkably well. The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene. Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location. It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.
Christoph Marthaler’s 2009 Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde is set in a sort of Stalinist brutalist aesthetic populated with stock figures from the 1950s. Passion is at a minimum and the characters all seem to be trying as hard as possible to be conventional representatives of their roles. The only one who shows any real human engagement is Kurwenal who comes across almost as a commentator on the action, or even a director. There’s also some fairly stylized gesturing in a sort of pseudo-Sellars manner. It’s epitomised by the costumes in Act 2 where Isolde and Brangäne look like dolls dressed as Hausfraus and Tristan wears a hideous blue blazer. This is all rather reinforced by Michael Beyer’s video direction which uses a lot of close ups but also has a curious stillness about it that seems to amplify the emotional void; if indeed one can amplify a void. Oddly though, in places this approach really works in that the distance, coupled with very precise blocking, gives space for the music’s essential intensity to come through. Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the emotional crux of the piece, is very moving and the So stürben wir, um ungetrennt is quite impressive.
I guess Lohengrin is one of those operas that’s so loaded up with symbols it just begs directors to deconstruct it. Well that’s what Hans Neuenfels’ Bayreuth production, recorded in 2011, does and then some. There is so much going on in this production that I think it would take many viewings to really get inside it. The bit most critics have fastened on is the costuming of the chorus as rats or, on occasion, half rat, half human. It’s visually interesting and since there are also ‘handlers’ in Hazmat suits it’s clear that some sort of experiment is being alluded to. Add in bonus rat videos at key points and there’s a lot to think about. One thing this does do is solve the Teutonic war song problem. A chorus of rather timid looking rats singing with martial ardour is a good deal less Nurembergesque than a similar chorus in armour or military uniforms. Rats aside the story is really told in a quite straightforward and linear way while providing all sorts of moments that one might want to interrogate further,