Theatrical genius, Tannhauser, Bayreuth Festival

How can it be that your preconceptions of a production based on just seeing some performance photography can get it all so, so wrong?

Theoretically, this production of Tannhauser for Wagner’s Festspielhaus should have been just what I loathe in contemporary stagings: merging actual performance with live video and pre-recordings, waving wokism in your face, taking massive liberties with the work including creating completely new and seemingly irrelevant characters.
But I was totally wrong. Director Tobias Kratzer has created a theatrical tour de force that just has you gobbling up everything thrown at you and somehow making me laugh out loud yet still leave the (sweltering) auditorium with a tear in my eye.

Having taken my opera partner to Wartburg a few days before, where Wagner based his opera on the medieval legend of the singing competition at this most important of German castles, I just dreaded what was going to unfold.
Yet, as the just heavenly overture played a huge screen showed that magnificent castle on its rocky escarpment, swooped over the Thuringian forest to show a vintage Citroen van (with a rabbit on its top) and inside Tannhauser as the troupe’s clown, with a shiny one piece leotard wearing shapely Venus and her companions, the drumming banging dwarf Oskar (think Tin Drum) and drag star performer Le Gateaux Chocolat, up to no good cheating and stealing their way through the world. But when they run over a Burger King security guard Tannhauser lurches back to reality and rejects their pleasure-filled Venusberg world – and a passing cyclist tells him to go to Rome.
In the first (hour long) interval the three players performed a hilarious cabaret on the lake on the green hill sloping up to the opera house with Le Gateaux Chocolat singing such big hitters as Old Man River, Madonna’s Vogue and the Spice Girls Wannabe and I Am What I Am. Le Gateaux Chocolat finished by unfurling a rainbow flag as Venus belts out a few numbers and bounds around the lake finally painting white words on a huge poster. All irrelevant? Well…
Cue Act Two. We are at the Wartburg and the singing is about to begin. ut we aren’t really – we are at the Festspuelhausen fir a performance of Tannhauser!

A video shows first the smart opera-goers arriving at the theatre and it is apparent Tannhauser is returning to this xorld to perform the role.

However, Venus has other plans. The trio comes to his rescue. The stage is split horizontally in two halves. Below a traditional real action performance is happening on the stage. Above the top half is all video of what is happening backstage as the players walk on to that actual stage – but then we see Venus and her gang arriving, finding a ladder, and climbing on to the opera house front balcony, unfurling that banner and then finding their way round backstage. The banner reads: “FREELY WILLING. FREELY DOING. FREELY ENJOYING.” Venus ambushes a singer and with her costume and shocking wig walks on to the live action. She grimaces at Elisabeth, is jostled around to perform the courtly aid’s ceremonial duties and generally through body language ridicules it all. The results are truly hilarious but, vitally, work well with the story.

Le Gateaux Chocolat and Oskar are also scurrying around backstage (in the video) but then find themselves walking across the actual stage. Security calls the Bayreuth police whose police cars screech up the hill to the opera house and they then also appear on stage to arrest Tannhauser and take hm away. Le Gateaux Chocolat has meanwhile draped a rainbow flag over the harp. Okay it all sounds random and crackers, but it all works thanks to the remarkable acoustics of the Festspielhaus, the adoption of a contemporary I Am What I Am concept to the original revolutionary stance of Tannhauser and then the intelligent and shockingly moving final act.

As we have our breath back (in the second hour long interval) Act Three begins with the horror of reality hitting the entire cast between the eyes as we are now back in Venusberg – but a desolate, ruined material world.
The production plunges into darkness and despair as Venus and her troupe have fallen on hard times, the van is a wreck, abandoned behind a huge advertising sign. Elisabeth and Wolfram, who has always loved her but knows that Tannhauser is the object of her love, enter. Wolfram puts on the clown costume and is seduced by Elizabeth who insists he keeps it on, presumably so she can imagine she is with Tannhauser. But of course, she knows she is not and kills herself. It is in this desperately sad context Wolfram sings his perfect final aria

Yes, Tannhäuser has now found his way back from Rome to Venusberg, now looking like an old, dishevelled tramp and tears up the script for the story’s outcome that we have seen in Act One. There are two revelations – the advertising sign turns round, and it is Le Gateaux Chocolat who has sold out and is advertising an own brand of diamond encrusted watches – and Wolfram reveals Oskar cradling Elisabeth’s corpse. The opera ends with a video projection of Tannhauser and Elisabeth driving in their van through the countryside. Heart-breaking.

This may read like a theatre production, and you may ask where the opera is. In the hands of conductor Nathalie Stutzmann this is just the medium for some of Wagner’s most appealing music and to my mind most approachable work. Klaus Florian Vogt sang and looked the part of Tannhauser. This is a bright lyrical tenor that fills the heart and soul, a Wagnerian hero of power and drama that has it all. He can act and he can sing – he can melt hearts and reduce us to tears. Elisabeth Teige sang the most luxurious dark soprano as Elisabeth. Still dressed in her medieval courtly garb, but soon discarded, her final aria with Wolfram, with the now despondent Oskar watching her with pity, is breath-taking. Tiege gives a magnificent sung Prayer to the Virgin to match the wonder of Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star. Ekaterina Gubanova is just fantastic as Venus, with boundless and bounding energy in a role she has made her own, and baritone Marcus Eiche sings a truly beautiful Wolfram, totally convincing in his role.

Oskar was played by Manni Laudenbach and Le Gateau Chocolat played himself. In an evening of sensational singing, it would be careless and wrong not to praise Siyabonga Maqungo as Walther Von Der Vogelweide and Gunther Groissbock as Hermann, Landgraf von Thuringen.

And the Wartburg visit? The setting for Act Two was a recreation of that most famous chamber where Tannhauser is still performed, complete with one of the gilded quasi medieval chandeliers, benches, and archways. I guess I must have also driven through Venusberg but not made quite so dramatic an entry to the Festspielhaus.

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