Friday 25 August 2023

Klaus Florian Vogt is exemplary in the title-role of Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner: Tannhäuser - Le Gateau Chocolat - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Tannhäuser - Le Gateau Chocolat - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Wagner: Tannhäuser; Jens-Erik Aasbø, Markus Eiche, Günther Groissböck, Julia Grüter, Ekaterina Gubanova, Siyabonga Maqungo, Jorge Rodríguez-Norton, Olafur Sigurdarson, Elisabeth Teige, Klaus Florian Vogt; dir: Tobias Kratzer; cond: Nathalie Stutzmann; Bayreuth Festival  
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 23 August 2023

Katharina Wagner puts in a Hitchcock-style appearance in this compelling and telling production of Tannhäuser. 

This current production of Tannhäuser by Tobias Kratzer (which, incidentally, received its première in Dresden on 19th October 1845) chalks up the opera’s ninth staging at the Bayreuth Festival and was first seen in 2019. It’s now making its final bow following a four-year tenure on the Grüner Hügel. Surprisingly, no other work in the Wagner canon has received such few productions.  

By the way, Kratzer made his Bayreuth début with this production which, I feel, has lost none of its shine or momentum since I attended its première. And I’m pleased to say that it was well received by the cognoscenti of the Grüner Hügel as opposed to Sebastian Baumgarten’s realization which received a chorus of disapproval from the army of traditionally-minded Wagnerites. 

Wagner: Tannhäuser - Klaus Floria Vogt, Ekaterina Gubanova - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Tannhäuser - Klaus Floria Vogt, Ekaterina Gubanova - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Primarily based on the Pilgrims’ Chorus and partly on the contrasting music of the orgies in the court of Venus, the overture - summarising the theme of the whole story focusing on the struggle between sacred and profane love and redemption through love, a theme running through many of Wagner’s later works - was brilliantly played with Nathalie Stutzmann driving the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra to a stirring conclusion.  

Employed by so many theatre directors nowadays, video technology lies at the heart of Kratzer’s thinking. And when we first meet Venus, goddess of beauty and love, it’s by an aerial video sequence driving a battered-up old Citroën Type-H van (Venusberg on wheels) through the Thuringian valley thus striking a chord with Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring in which he put the underground city of Nibelheim on wheels by employing a silver-plated, Air Stream mobile trailer. 

Stuck atop of Venus’ ‘love-van’ was a green-coloured hare attributed to Joseph Beuys who profoundly stated that ‘the open space in the arts is a rabbit hutch’. Well - that’s according to the programme book. Pause for thought! However, in Roman mythology, the hare was closely associated with Venus and by having such an additional ‘passenger’ on board it fitted extremely well the overall scenario of Kratzer’s portrayal of this Wonder Woman. 

Blatantly full of energy and looking trim in a tight-fitting sparkling black leotard, Venus was in tow with an odd-looking bunch of characters comprising a decadent burlesque performer going by the name of Le Gateau Chocolat (the Drag Queen of Brighton), a drum-playing dwarf summing up the child protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, featured in Günter Grass’ 1959 novel The Tin Drum who challenges the hypocrisy, injustice and so forth of life and a clown echoing the character, Hans Schnier, found in Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel, The Clown, who, in this case, turns out to be Heinrich Tannhäuser, the disgraced, foolish naïve Minnesinger. The idea of Kratzer comparing Tannhäuser with Schnier seems quite plausible, I thought, as both characters’ lives lay in tatters collapsing round them. 

Roguish and unlawful in every conceivable way, this anarchic and motley looking crew were on the rampage siphoning off petrol, nicking burgers from Burger King (maybe the branch at the bottom of the Green Hill), driving over and killing a copper when fleeing the garage forecourt and exercising the proverbial habit of their free-wheeling and carefree society of drug-taking. Coke, who drinks it nowadays? Revolutionaries to the core! 

And with the revolutionary spirit of the opera in mind, Kratzer opted for the score used for the Dresden première of 1845 as opposed to that used in Paris in 1861 citing that the former was more in keeping with Wagner’s political and revolutionary views. And in a nod to Wagner’s revolutionary days, Venus’ gang were found happily littering the German countryside (and, indeed, the façade of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus) with graffiti of a trio of exclamatory phrases coined by the Young Revolutionaries: Freely Willing! Freely Doing! Freely Enjoying! 

An energic production for sure, it could well be described as Freely Thinking! too as it fuelled and challenges the mind especially when you find Tannhäuser singing that beautiful ode to Venus against the drabness of an unattractively designed roadside parking café set in the forest of the green and lush Thuringian valley. It’s here that he comes across a Green-energised cyclist (usually seen in the traditional role of the Young Shepherd) who brings to his attention the pilgrims plodding the road to Rome, the part so beautifully and tenderly sung by German soprano, Julia Grüter. 

But in Kratzer’s scenario the Eternal City is miles away and resurfaces as a detailed model of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus situated in a lofty position at the back of the stage. It reminded me of King Ludwig’s Disney-like castles whilst the pilgrims themselves mirrored well-heeled members of the audience. 

Economically, the same set was utilised for the Wartburg song contest and represented the prison, too, where poor old Tannhäuser found himself locked up after taking the rap for the copper’s death. I guess it’s not the Holy Father he should have been seeking general absolution from but more likely that of the Godfather. Perhaps, Kratzer had a visionary moment of the Mafia circling in his mind. 

Throughout the second act, backstage video clips provided an interesting comparison to the overall stage action catching members of the cast preparing themselves before going on stage, the stage crew going about their business and Katharina Wagner putting in a Hitchcock-style appearance urgently calling for the cops from the theatre’s switchboard. On their arrival they flooded the Hall of the Minstrels and with firearms at the ready they took away a distraught Tannhäuser whilst leaving the actual killer, Venus, looking relieved and puzzled by the outcome. 

The end of the road for this freewheeling girl? Maybe? But not for Le Gateau Chocolat, the grabbing, stingy, little ‘bitch’ came up trumps plastered over a large billboard promoting a luxury watch brand. Oskar the dwarf didn’t fare so well, though. He was forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence in the back of the burnt-out Citroën abandoned on a piece of waste ground. 

I found this production of Tannhäuser a most entertaining and satisfying production which was extremely well cast, too, with the pivotal role of Heinrich Tannhäuser magnificently sung by the king of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt (previously the role was sung by Bayreuth favourite, Stephen Gould, who put in a good erstwhile performance) while Venus was energetically and youthfully sung by Ekaterina Gubanova who proved her worth every inch of the way. 

The solid bass voice of Günther Groissböck illuminated the role of Hermann, Elisabeth’s uncle, Landgraf of Thuringia, while the coterie of knights and Minnesingers, who added so much to the overall success and pleasure of the production comprised Siyabonga Maqungo (Walther von der Vogelweide), Jorge Rodríguez-Norton (Heinrich der Schreiber), Jens-Erik Aasbø (Reinmar von Zweter) and Olafur Sigurdarson (Biterolf). 

Singing the central role of Elisabeth, Norwegian soprano, Elisabeth Teige (originally sung by Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen, while making her Bayreuth début) reached out to an audience who absolutely adored her. She lit up the stage! Her crystal-clear and well-controlled voice radiated round the spacious Graeco-Roman-designed Festspielhaus with consummate ease particularly in that wonderful aria in Act II ‘Dich, teure Halle’. I don’t think these two Norwegians cannot be separated as far as performance is concerned! 

And no stranger to the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach having sung it in Baumgarten’s production, Markus Eiche delivered a fine rendition of the opera’s big number ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ in Act III stating his love for the distracted and forlorn Elisabeth. But her mind was elsewhere worrying and awaiting the safe return from Rome of the penitent and chastised Tannhäuser. 

But he doesn’t arrive and in the last act the action boils over when the seemingly not-so-saintly Elisabeth gets ‘knocked off’ in the back of the Citroën by Wolfram who dresses up as a clown to imitate Tannhäuser to get at her. Bizarrely, she later dies in the van and when Tannhäuser arrives on the scene, it’s too late. Gently he softly gathers and cradles her body in his arms dutifully praying for the repose of her soul. An odd ending for sure! 

As in many of Wagner’s operas the backbone of the whole show is the chorus therefore one has to shout out loud and clear their praises in this well-conceived production of Tannhäuser and, indeed, the praises of their long-standing chorus-master Eberhard Friedrich while French-born contralto/conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann, in the pit thus being the second woman to conduct at Bayreuth following Ukrainian conductor, Oksana Lyniv (the first woman to set foot in the hallowed pit of the famed and iconic Bayreuth Festspielhaus following decades of male domination) conducting Hollander in 2021. She energised her players with all the necessary fire power needed to capture the mood and passion of Wagner’s compelling score that made this production of Tannhäuser, playing to a packed house, so appealing.  

Wagner: Tannhäuser - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Tannhäuser - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

As an aside, the first production I saw of Tannhäuser was by Carl Rosa at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1958. My first Wagnerian and, indeed, one of my first opera experiences. Therefore, if Tannhäuser was one of Wagner’s favourites, it’s certainly one of mine, too. The opera simply hooked me on Wagner. Full stop! 

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Conductor: Nathalie Stutzmann
Director: Tobias Kratzer
Stage/costume designer: Rainer Sellmaier 
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Video designer: Manuel Braun
Dramaturgy: Konrad Kuhn 
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich
Hermann, Landgraf of Thuringia: Günther Groissböck
Tannhäuser: Klaus Florian Vogt 
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Markus Eiche 
Walther von der Vogelweide: Siyabonga Maqungo
Biterolf:  Olafur Sigurdarson
Heinrich der Schreiber: Jorge Rodríguez-Norton
Reinmar von Zweter: Jens-Erik Aasbø
Elisabeth, Nichte des Landgrafen: Elisabeth Teige
Venus: Ekaterina Gubanova
Ein junger Hirt: Julia Grüter.
Le Gateau Chocolat: Le Gateau Chocolat 
Oskar: Manni Laudenbach 

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