Wednesday 29 July 2015

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Bayreuth, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2014

Axel Kober, Sebastian Baumgarten, Torsten Kerl, Camilla Nylund, Michelle Breedt, Markus Eiche, Kwangchul Youn, Lothar Odinius, Thomas Jesatko, Stefan Heibach, Rainer Zaun, Katja Stuber

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Always controversial in their revisionist approach to Wagner's legacy, the 2014 Tannhäuser is fairly typical of recent Bayreuth productions. The stage set is constructed out of a number of independently created art installations that were never created with Wagner's opera in mind. If it isn't a perfect tailor-made fit then for the ideas and themes in the opera, much less the stated settings, it does however form an interesting dialectic that encourages the viewer to see the work in a new light, and is somewhat successful in how it informs and puts across the all-important musical aspect of the work.

Director Sebastian Baumgarten's idea is to bring together several art installation pieces by the artist and sculptor Joep van Lieshout. These pieces, with names like Alcoholator, Disciplinator and Technocrat, are processes that produce a 'biogas', the whole system forming a kind of working model for the cyclical human and bodily processes that generate life and, by extension, art. Which, if you look at it broadly and in the abstract, is more or less what Tannhäuser is about. It's not enough to simply follow the old stage directions, and reverential literalism is by no means the philosophy of the current Bayreuth administration. They are aware that Wagner's works must be constantly scrutinised in order to remain relevant, but the balance between real significance and pretension is always hard to maintain.

If you want to look at the theme of Tannhäuser on a more simplistic level, it's about the co-dependency of physical and the spiritual. Even then it has to be acknowledged that the work is a little more complicated than that. There is also an outlook on society as a whole, on the role of the artist, and of course it's all tied up in Wagner's own complex and contradictory impulses, political vision and developing philosophical outlook. Baumgarten's Tannhäuser follows a similar path to Hans Neuenfels' laboratory experiment 'rat' Lohengrin for Bayreuth, viewing the work as a model of society, taking in Wagner's perspective and extending it to a more modern outlook. It's not so much trying to update it or make it fit as use it as a means to revisit the work and explore whether it really has something new to inform our view of the world we live in today.

Baumgarten of course doesn't simply just use the installations as a backdrop. There has to be consideration given to how the drama and the music interact with the set design. It's an impressive construction, if initially bewildering, the stage filled with stage hands who operate the machinery, regulating and monitoring the meters that convert the liquids and solids into biogas, cleaning-up the mess it creates. These processes extend way beyond the musical performance, starting while the audience take their seats and continuing through the intervals. There even seems to be a mass for the operators taking place on the stage in-between acts. The audience too are given a place in the interaction of the installation and the performance, with a number of them seated to the sides of the stage.

I'm not sure that the director really manages to draw anything new out of Tannhäuser, but it does encourage anyone who thinks they are familiar with the work to reconsider more deeply what it is about, and question whether those contradictions and inconsistencies within it aren't actually essential to its purpose. It does at least, I find, explore the characters in greater detail, and not just Tannhäuser, but also Venus and Elisabeth and the relationships between them. Wolfram von Eschenbach also comes out of this production with a role that suddenly seems more significant, but it seems to me that as much of the strength of the characterisation here is also down to how it is performed.

Whatever you make of the Bayreuth stage production, musically it's a glorious affair that does open up the work and reveal new qualities. It's not a forceful, driving traditional Wagnerian interpretation of Tannhäuser, but one that finds the true delicacy and poignancy within what is surely the most Romantic of Wagner's works on the misunderstood, suffering, exiled artist as national or social hero. Alex Kober's conducting of the orchestra is outstanding and the chorus are superb, as they really have to be in this particular work. There's not a trace of heavy-handedness, yet all the force and dynamic of the work is there, measured and applied in such a way that it works hand-in-hand with the production.

The singing likewise is never forced. I thought at first that Camilla Nylund was underpowered here as Elisabeth. Knowing what she is capable of, it sounded like she was conserving her voice, but the more gentle delivery and the colour that Nylund is able to apply actually pays dividends with Elisabeth and her nature here. This is also borne out in the performances of Michelle Breedt's Venus, but particularly in Markus Eiche's excellent and impressive Wolfram. The complex character of Tannhäuser is another matter however, and requires a different approach. Torsten Kerl achieves a good balance between the more lyrical side of his character and the Romantic heldentenor, his performance also covering all the playfulness, bawdiness, irreverence and the more serious, spiritual as well as the vainglorious sides of the character.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray release presents all the colour and brightness of the busy Bayreuth stage very well. Spread over two BD50 discs, there is the option to view the musical performance alone or, if you've an hour or so to spare and are interested in the set as an art installation piece, you can view it interspersed with all the extra performance art set-pieces in-between. Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, both giving an impressive full uncompressed true HD sound. The interviews on the disc and in the booklet provide much more useful information about the concept. Subtitles on the disc are English, French, German and Korean only.