Bayreuth’s Tannh‰user: Recycled Trash

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 Tannh‰user 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 Tannh‰user. Say,
remember Tannh‰user? 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 G¸nther Groissbˆck 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

here for audio clips

here for a photo gallery of this production

image_description=Scene from Tannh‰user [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of]
product_title=Richard Wagner: Tannh‰user
product_by=Harmann, Landgraf von Th¸ringen: G¸nther Groissbˆck/Kwangchul Youn; Tannh‰user: 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.
product_id=Above: Scene from Tannh‰user [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of]