Be sure that that hopeful smile on my face disappeared very quickly after being subjected to the concluding acts of Sebastian Baumgarten's travesty on Richard Wagner's romantic opera The production is not a mindless romp, nor is it what many would consider a desecration of holy writ: it's just plain bad! We are in a unit set where the Venusberg and the Wartburg are one. Possibly, the one interesting aspect of the production. The realm of Venus with its caged subhumans, is right out of the film Planet of the Apes, Venus is pregnant, presumably with Tannhäuser's child, and The Wartburg is a biogas factory. When we enter the theater we see a curtainless stage where actors are already at work. The focal point of the set is a giant red tank, an "alcoholator" with the days of the week printed on it. It seems that this is the worker's manna, and by the actions of the chorus they love their manna. The workers are often seen embracing the contraption as if it's mother's milk.
Baumgarten has also added material to the performance that does not come from Wagner. It is the custom at the Festspielhaus for audiences to exit the theater during intermission and to enjoy the grounds, the restaurant, and the refreshing air of the Grünen Hügel. However, if you walk out you miss scenes that Baumgarten has added that shows the daily lives of the workers. For example, after the conclusion of Act two a group of workers build a makeshift altar where a priest conducts a new-wave mass complete with a litany that exalts the goodness of an industrial age. It is performance art as filler showing that the story goes on even after the curtain comes down, which is unnecessary.
This Brechtian approach to Wagner, with plenty of projection of German words, leaves me at a loss how it reflects back to Wagner's original story. For instance, in Act three the pilgrims do not come back from Rome, but from a deprogramming room where their minds have been altered so they can be more productive. The wonderful Festspielhaus chorus comes back singing Wagner's powerful music, but they are all cleaning each other, and everything in sight, not praising God and the Pope for having forgiven them. It is a visually interesting moment, but it puts us very far from Wagner's original intention.
At the conclusion of the opera Venus gives birth, and holds up her child as the last chords of the score intones. Mr. Baumgarten's job is to serve the composer, but it seems that for the most part he is serving himself and his misbegotten view of Wagner's work.