A pregnant Venus, a Wartburg transformed into a biogas plant breaking down organic matter, a Venusberg filled with caged subhumans right out of the original Planet of the Apes, and Wolfram von Eschenbach singing the well-known "Song to the Evening Star" while taking a dump sitting on a toilet. What does this have to do with Richard Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser? Nothing! As expected, the audience shook the very foundations of the Festspielhaus with their booing after the performance. The verdict? This new production by Sebastian Baumgarten scored another Bayreuth opening night triumph!
When Festspielchief Katharina Wagner staged her revisionist, controversial production of Die Meistersinger in 2007 she opened the Regietheater floodgates at the Green Hill, assuring the world, as she inherited the helm of the festival from her father Wolfgang Wagner, that Bayreuth would remain a place of outrageous experimentation in the staging of her great-grandfather's works. Four years earlier avant-garde artist Christoph Schlingensief had already set down the template for what was to come with his notorious production of Parsifal that set the action in Africa and featured film footage of a decomposing rabbit. When Katharina's turn came up to stage Meistersinger critics and puzzled audiences questioned what a shower of sneakers and masturbating statues of famous Germans had to do with Wagner's only comedy. But the die was already cast. It became clear that the principal aim of these productions was to provoke. As music critic Alex Ross wrote in his insightful review of the Schlingensief Parsifal "The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it ... you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you." In other words, they want you to hate it, they want you to boo, and if you do, then they have a triumph on their hands.
This opening night saw Thomas Hengelbrock conduct the Dresden version of Tannhäuser with a professional swift hand. The orchestra and especially the chorus received the biggest hand of the evening, and they deserved it. The chorus was particularly focused, achieving a smooth, pure sound that suddenly reminded everyone that the Bayreuth sound is quite special when things are done correctly. Unfortunately, Lars Cleveman, in the title role received only a lukewarm reception from the audience, and Stephanie Friede, as Venus, was booed. Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth sang with an assured tone. Both Günther Groissböck (Landgraf Herrmann) and Michael Nagy (Wolfram von Eschenbach) received the biggest applause of the evening. Needless to say, Sebastian Baumgarten and the rest of the production team were booed very loudly.
Hopefully, this production will remain at the Festspielhaus for only a few years. No doubt it will be replaced, in the near future, with another more indignant exercise in provocation. This is what Bayreuth is all about these days.