Thursday, 12 August 2010

Tannhäuser at Bayerische Staastoper

I attended two operas whilst in Munich, both performed by Bayerische Staatsoper as part of their annual opera festival at the Bavarian National Theatre. The theatre is a beautiful if rather imposing neoclassical edifice, much more welcoming inside, where rococo predominates in the foyers and the auditorium is almost circular, with a very deep stage and five small tier circles; in the centre of the second and third of these is an enormous Royal Box. Above all looms an enormous chandelier. The theatre seats over 2000. Both of the operas I saw were by Richard Wagner, which is appropriate as it was in this theatre (extensively reconstructed to the original pattern after WW2) that the world premiers of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre took place, albeit that it wasn't any of these I saw.

I don't want to dwell too much on the first production, Richard Jones' 2009 Lohengrin. Whilst I was watching this, I found it irritating when not annoying and mostly unbothered by bringing across the story that Wagner is telling, although a skeleton of it remained. Since the performance, a number of the images have stayed with me and been food for thought, so perhaps this is an experience better recalled in memories that judiciously edit out the more irksome details. Watching Wagner is Germany is always, for good or ill, a testing experience, as directors feel (probably rightly) that they have to deal with those elements of the operas which might tend, in a warped reading, toward reaction and which therefore might perhaps prefigure National Socialism. I could probably eek out some kind of meaning from Jones' mish-mash of Metropolis, Bavarian kitsch, 1984 and Stasiland but the evening was so uniformly ugly (thank to designer Ultz) that it didn't encourage me to want to bother. I have seen far better Jones productions, of operas by other composers and by Wagner (including his recent, very fine Meistersinger for WNO).

Far better I write about David Alden's 1994 version of Tannhäuser, which I saw two days later. I’d seen and enjoyed a DVD of the original cast of this production but seeing it in situ is far more rewarding, especially as the cast on this occasion was so fine (the DVD features a very tired-looking René Kollo past his prime in the title role). Alden's take on the opera elucidates the work's meaning rather than building something other than Wagner on the top, as well as featuring the kind of being in music that I have always seen achieved by performers in Alden's opera productions.

Being in Bavaria and looking around various churches, galleries and palaces, I experienced the intense atmosphere of Catholic religiosity which runs through the region, a religiosity as per usual with Catholicism marked and marred by the veneration of the Virgin; the city's main cathedral is the Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady) and the main square is centred around a Marian column. This is highly relevant to Tannhäuser, which tells the story of a historical Meistersinger who became the subject of a legend: he spent time at the Venusberg, repented of his "sin" then went on a pilgrimage to Rome, seeking forgiveness. The Pope, reckoning then as now that sexual "immorality" was the worst form of godlessness, refuses Tannhäuser absolution, saying that it was more likely that his staff will flower. Tannhäuser returns to the Venusberg in a huff, not knowing that in Rome the nasty old Pontiff's staff has indeed miraculously bloomed. Wagner adds a fair deal of his own into the story, most notably giving Venus a foil in the figure of Saint Elizabeth, portrayed as in love with and venerated by Tannhäuser, her finally dying after years of praying for his soul. It is implicit that it is her sacrificial love that causes the staff to bloom. One of the most problematic tendencies in Wagner is his penchant for elevating "purity" as a virtue, a tendency definitely implanted in him by the culture in which he lived.

Alden's portrait of the Venusberg in the ballet at the work's beginning is exemplary and ambiguous; muscle-queens, gimps, nymphs, crocodiles, well-hung sex-slaves and done-up whorish Madames stalk the stage as if in a world created by Clive Barker, creating a kaleidoscope of wearying pleasure for the poor old minstrel who is understandably both attracted to this world and keen to get out of it and breath some fresh air (anyone who has spent an entire night in a Vauxhall club will know how he feels). The relationship of Tannhäuser with Venus herself is complex and stricken; she is cast in standard readings as the villain of the piece but she does have a right to be a more than a little ticked off when the man to whom she's given the utmost pleasure for many moons turns around and, in the midst of telling her how wonderful she is, says that nevertheless "I must go." Go he does. The scene changes to a pastoral clime peopled by a youthful swain , repentant pilgrims carrying stone burdens heading for Rome (reminiscent of Blake's illustrations to Bunyan) and Tannhäuser's fellow minstrels paying court to the imposing Landgrave of Thuringia. The other minstrels here are a right bunch of nobs, ranging from flower-carrying fop Walter to Herr Flick-like leather-coated Biteroff. Only the sensitive Wolfram possesses any humanity but even he is infected by the overarching ideology of the court.

It is in the portrayal of the Landgrave's court and the ensuing song contest that Alden's vision really makes its impact. These are not attractive people but nationalists and idealist poseurs whose world could only be wearisome to bear, tending towards authoritarianism. Their attitude to the Landgrave's niece Elizabeth is rather nauseating, encouraging her holier than thou self-image and worshipping her as the living embodiment of Virginity. It is clear from Alden's direction that she feels trapped by this role; Tannhäuser is also entrapped by her public image of sanctity and foolishly looks to it as a means of rescuing him from the lures of Venus. Yet when the contest begins and the Mastersingers sing their songs, Tannhäuser can no longer keep his cool and he spoils their mutual back-slapping session of bigging up Pure Love with a rousing song in praise of his old mistress, Venus. Elizabeth gets the vapours, the minstrel crew are shocked and only Elizabeth reminding them of Christ's call to forgive sinners saves Tannhäuser from being murdered by his furious old comrades. Tannhäuser is packed off to Rome to beg forgiveness. The genius decision in Alden's version is to have Tannhäuser's hackles begin to rise at the Landgrave's introduction to the contest, where he sings the praises of a Mastersingers' art in which 
"…You have enriched our quality of life.
What if our swords were drawn in righteous anger
called to defend the safety of the state,

both to repel invaders from our borders,
and crush dissent with in our nation's confines?
The art of song has played its part in battle,
For virtue and our ancient customs,
for chastity and true religion
you fought beside us with your art.
and won a victory no less great." 
(Wagner, 1988, p. 76)
The Landgrave's nationalistic regime has used Art for its own sinister purposes. Roni Toren's set for Act II gives us Speer-like architecture over which the giant words Germania Nostra tower. Some might find this a little too much an underlining of the point but the history of Tannhäuser criticism has seen Venus as the problem, when all the while the Landgrave and his lickspittle Artist lackeys have been far more dangerous; the production gives much a needed re-emphasis.

In this reading, Tannhäuser and Elizabeth suffer under a regime of repressive sexual morality which is imposed by a dangerous, nationalist ideology. At the close of the opera, as Venus fails to win her lover back and he dies alongside Elizabeth, worn out by the wrenching contradictions of his life, the Pope's blossoming staff is brought on as a holy relic and the forgiven pilgrims follow worshipping it, swarming over the stage like so many George Romero zombies. The miracle hasn't helped the human beings Tannhäuser and Elizabeth one jot; their dead bodies speak eloquently of a waste of life. Their memory will be appropriated by a bunch of hysterical zealots whose religion misses all of the salient points in the tale.

In giving us such a Tannhäuser, Alden doesn't damage or underestimate or rewrite Wagner, although he does see the work through the prism of a history which has happened since the its composition; how could he not? All of the ingredients for this evening were provided in the text and music of Wagner himself. Alden has teased meaning out in a way which makes them vital, visionary and for us in our time. He takes it as read that Wagner was an astonishing genius who, like Blake's fool who persisted in his folly and became wise, is a visionary because he persisted in telling the truth about his own and his contemporaries' inner lives and the ways in which these were intensely affected by the ideologies of their day; ideologies which still survive today.

The cast were astonishing, with a be-quiffed and looming Peter Seiffert as charming, riven and sensual a Tannhäuser as one could wish for. Kent Nagano encouraged really sensitive and detailed playing from an orchestra which must be surely one of the best in the world, at least in terms of this composer.

Works cited
Wagner, R. (1988). Tannhäuser. (R. Blumer, Trans.) London: John Calder.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Path to Dachau

Whilst in Munich, I paid a visit to the Dachau Memorial Site, which preserves the grounds and some of the buildings of the former Concentration Camp and houses an exhibition, Art works and religious memorials. I went with on a a guided trip with a Munich-based tour company. I was rather nervous as to what this would be like, because the same company sold trips to destinations such as Neuschwanstein Castle and Salzburg; would the site of such horror be reduced to a mere tourist attraction? I was particularly leery of this as, when I visited the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, there were people having their photographs taken smiling with the house in the background (although everyone behaved impeccably in the house).

My fears were not realised as not only was our guide excellent at conveying the horror and the history of the place but for the most part people were very respectful at the site. I've read a fair amount about the Nazis in power and the Holocaust but seeing the actual location of one of the notorious camps is something else. Not, I have to say, because the camp has any residual atmosphere - it was a sunny day when I visited, everything is clean and people were making their way around the site in a relaxed fashion, which mitigated against atmosphere. What struck me at the site itself was the scale of the place and the proximity to the town of Dachau. It has only been since the visit, in digesting the worlds of the guide and the meaning of this particular piece of recent history, that I've felt Dachau's deep impact.

Dachau was the first of the Camps, the one which set the principle for all of the others. The tour guide took us on a route which mirrored the prisoners' induction into the camp. They were marched through the town (the camp at Dachau was public knowledge), then passed through the gate with its infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign. It is in this sign that the Protestant Work Ethic reaches its ultimate conclusion - a world where work kills and where the only freedom is in that death. As prisoners entered, the rest of the inmates would be gathered in the yard. The new arrivals would be brutally beaten before the other prisoners; it was clear that they were entering a world where your fellows will watch you being brutalised and do nothing about it. Then, with broken noses and aching guts from the smashes and jabs of the SS men's fists and elbows, the new prisoners would be taken into the reception area. Here they would be forced to strip naked and hand over all their belongings. Their possessions would be carefully bagged and labelled, creating an idea in the prisoner's mind ("arbeit macht frei") that they might one day get their stuff back on release. A prisoner would be given a number, which would henceforth be their only name. They would have the hair from their entire body removed; the clippers are on display, and they are more designed to rip than shave the hair. Having had their hair ripped out, they would be dipped in a chemical bath (inflaming their wounds) and then given uniforms, which most likely did not fit. As it says in the printed Guide to the Camp:

"By this stage in the admission process, the prisoners had lost their liberty, dignity, property, clothing, bodily hair and their names (...) They had also lost their independence and autonomy; the only thing they had not lost in the maelstrom was the freedom to die." (Mitchell, 2009, p. 19)

Death now lay in wait at every moment. Guards, or the Capos who effectively policed the camp for the SS guards, might arbitrarily pick a prisoner to humiliate unto death. Uniform must be worn at all times, as the lack of it means an attempt to escape. Even the lack of the cap means you are not in uniform. So a guard might take your cap and throw it on the camp perimeter, where snipers will shoot to kill anyone trespassing. So, a choice - either get instantly shot dead fetching the cap or slowly beaten to death for not wearing it. The labouring work prisoners did in the camp and in the local area was itself so burdensome it could be fatal; work made you free to die.

The guide emphasised two things: the process through which the Nazis gained political power (the post WW1 depression which gripped the country, where people watched their  children starve to death, was made vivid; no one in Germany wanted to go back to that in the late 20s/early 30s and would look to anything that would prevent this); and the lack of solidarity between the prisoners in the camp: the Capos (Socialists in this camp) would be as cruel as the guards; some groups of prisoners would be better treated than others, breeding intense resentments; snitching on and stealing from fellow prisoners was rife. The stakes if another prisoner escaped could be your own death. Yet there were appalling acts of kindness, courage and mercy by prisoners for their fellows.

The camp began by imprisoning political opponents of the Nazis: "Communists, Social Democrats, journalists, royalists, trade unionists, Jewish Lawyers and others" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 12) but soon encompassed all kinds of "undesirables" including violent and career criminals (who found themselves in Dachau after serving their sentences in regular prison), homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, Jews. When the war begun, enemy combatants from the USSR and other countries crowded the camp. Each types of prisoner was identified by a patch, sown into their uniform; the system of categorisation was very sophisticated, so for example if you were a Jewish homosexual you'd get a Star of David made up of interlinking Yellow and Pink Triangles. As a racially Jewish homosexual with anarchist leanings, there would have been at least three reasons why I would have been sent to the camps; constitutionally, I don't think I would have survived for long. Perhaps it is morbid to think this way. I was very saddened to see that the 1960s memorial sculpture In the Machine by Nandor Glid - part of which is made up of triangles which "symbolise the prisoner patches" - omits the pink as well as the black (asocial) and green (criminal)  triangles, as at that time there was still a feeling that some people perhaps deserved to be in Dachau. There is now a large Pink Triangle memorial on site, although hidden away in a room whereas Glid's sculpture has a significant place in the parade ground. Our guide told us that there has been talk of adding the other triangles to the sculpture but this was rejected as the work offers a snapshot of attitudes when it was designed. This is probably right but those 1960s attitude were shameful. The sign in five languages nearby says  "Never Again" and never again should this happen to any of the groups categorised, even the worst of criminals does not deserve anything like this kind of treatment and no society which treated a single one of its citizens thus would be properly human. Someone said that you can measure a society's values by how it treats its criminals...

There is a display about the euthanasia programme, whereby the mentally and physically disabled were murdered by the state, and the medical experiments which doctors carried out on inmates at the Camp. I won't describe these here. The picture of the young man frozen to death in an ice bath will stay with me forever. More chilling even than this is the "commemorative photograph" which the doctors in charge of the euthanasia programme had taken on their appointment to their job, after they'd chosen the first batch of people to be murdered. They look relaxed, happy and proud of themselves. Our guide was very firm in maintaining that these men were not mad - the Nazis made a point of weeding out psychopaths and sociopaths from such position. There were "normal" men who were convinced that murdering other human beings was the best thing for their country.

There is a crematorium at Dachau; in fact, there are two, as an earlier pair of ovens did not suffice to dispose of the many dead the system produced. The newer building, built by prisoner labour, includes gas chambers for delousing clothes, a gas chamber for murdering human beings, a mortuary room and a number of large ovens. There is some doubt that the gas chamber was ever used for mass exterminations - Dachau was a prison camp not a death camp (those were further afield). Despite knowing this, there is no coming to terms with the experience of walking through the second building, a man-made conveyer belt designed to turn living human beings to ash.

There are religious monuments on the site - Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox Churches, a Carmelite monastery and a Jewish memorial. The first four are concentrated places of worship and services go on most Sundays. They appeared to me to be rather melancholy and inadequate responses to the horror of what went on here, although the architects have striven to find imaginative ways of responding to the needs of the place; the crown of thorns in the Catholic Church of Christ's Mortal Agony has barbed wire making its crown of thorns, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation has no right angles (Nazi architecture being obsessed with them) and the Jewish Memorial poetical surveys the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, a granite tunnel leading down to nowhere. The Carmelite nuns, our guide told us, think it is their duty to pray the pain in the place away but this just seemed to me to be hyperbolic superstitious grandstanding of a dubious nature.

It is a week since I went to Dachau. What keeps me going through my mind as I think about the place is not a sense of the absolute apartness of what went on when compared to what happens in our society but rather the sense of the similarities. At the end of Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, the old comic speaks about his experience of visiting a camp shorty after the end of the war and he says "It was the logic of our world... extended" (Griffiths, 1979, p. 64). A word where some people are judged fit to be able to be productive members of society, some people can't or won't produce and some people are distrusted as culturally or politically alien. The whole point of the Camp system was to dehumanise those reckoned to be unfit for society. This came after years of propaganda in which non-productive or alien people were dehumanised through language in newspapers and general conversation. You read a copy of The Sun or Daily Mail or go onto the comment threads at The Guardian even and you can see the dehumanising language that people who have enough wealth to gain access to a computer are using about their fellow human beings.

Something in some ways very predictable but nevertheless very strong is said by the guide at the end of the tour: now that we've have been here, and seen and heard this, We become the custodians of "Never Again." The people of the tour were "ordinary" people, from the UK, the US, Austria, South Africa. It is my faith that all of them came away with as strong a feeling as I did of the need for watchfulness of the language and behaviour we use when referring to or interacting with our fellow human beings, even our political opponents or those whose behaviour or culture scandalises us. May we all also find the courage to point out when we see others dehumanising our fellows that that this is the path to Dachau.

Works Cited
Griffiths, T. (1979). Comedians. London: Faber and Faber.
Mitchell, N. S. (2009). Dachau Concentration Camp: A Guide to the former Concentration Camp and the Memorial Site. Sheffield: Minerva Research.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Direct Gothic Encounter and its Loss

Certain thoughts and feelings have occurred to me on occasions of exploring the major collections housed in European art galleries. The most recent incident was last week, as I ruminated around the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The thoughts and feelings are based around the viewing of any significant gathering of Medieval Art and can be summed up as a kind of inspired melancholy that something was lost in Art after that period, albeit a loss which was for many more than partially compensated for in gains. Yet a part of me loves that which was lost over anything which replaced it.

The Nationalmuseum's Medieval galleries are the finest I've yet encountered. It holds room after room of paintings, wood sculpture, ivory carvings, bronzes and tapestries from the Middle Ages, stretching from the 9th to 14th centuries. The vast majority of this work is Christian and represents stories and characters from the Bible or the lives of Saints. The bulk of the collection is German in origin and Gothic in style, concentrating on the years 1250 to 1530. As I explored the many rooms, I was moved (as I have always and many times been, when I've encountered Art from this period) by the directness of communication that the artists achieve.

One of the pieces which caught my attention here was a painting on wood, dated approx. 1335, from a Viennese Altarpiece, showing Christ Before Pilate. The figures are arranged in a line; beginning (from left to right) with two soldiers, then Christ, then a bearded accuser, the two young noblemen and finally, at the far right, Pilate himself sitting on a canopied wooden throne. Each of the figures has his own specific character – one of the soldiers hangs back, knock-kneed, trying not to be too involved whilst the other shoves his arm up in the air for attention; the bearded accuser points at Christ whilst talking straight at Pilate; one of the young men points out his tongue whilst the other looks stern and serious. Christ himself, taller than the rest, stands calmly and passively with his head bowed but his gaze very much on Pilate; Pilate sits with a finger in the air and the most curious, vacillating, weak and confused expression on his face. The power in the scene is Christ's. With a small bow of the head, he accepts his fate yet his gaze is full of sorrow for the man of supposed power it looks at; it is clear that Pilate is quite befuddled by the whole scene and the man before him.

The impact of the painting has everything to do with its concentration on character within drama. Each of the figures is playing a particular role in the scene and the viewer can immediately identify these roles. The artist shows one man of strength in submission – Christ – and another of power and weakness – Pilate. The viewer is encouraged to put all of their meditations into the implications of this scene; what do we make of Christ, Pilate and the rest here? What is the import of this scene? Who does one admire? Who does one wish to emulate? Who does one really pity? Who would one prefer to be? What is human nobility?

Of course, for a fourteenth century viewer all of these questions would be mediated by their cultural relationship with Christianity and the Church. But surely they would also be affected by one's actual life experience? There is a subversive element to the work, to do with the weakness of the man on the throne and the inner strength Christ's portrayal might potentially inspire in anyone brought before such a power. Yes, these images were used ideologically by the Church to corral and control their congregations but there is something about the drama and characterisations in the scene which transcend ideology and bring us to the realm of story and myth, a realm which encourages each individual to consider his or her place within the relationships portrayed. Although I have no evidence for believing this (other than the paintings themselves), I speculate that the greatest artists of the Gothic period (and the architects) plied their trade in tension with the churchmen who commissioned them, not merely in thrall to them. Truly visionary artists have always had a conflicted relationship between those with the power to pay them and the best have created potent work which transcends the requirements of the commissioner and speaks frankly to the individual in the audience. This is as true of the Art commissioned by commissioned or supported by the contemporary UK Arts Council or Hollywood as it is of the Art of Medieval times. My suspicion is that there are less artists willing to rise above the demands of their commissioners these days than there were in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The walk through these galleries and through the less extensive Medieval ones at the Alte Pinakothek were thrilling experiences. I was again and again arrested by an image and plunged by the artist into dramatic, ethical and spiritual situations which, despite the intervening centuries, were immediately relevant to aspects of my life. The reason for this long-lasting immediacy is the lack in the Art of those times of the very things people usually criticize it for lacking – perspective, ornamentation, historical realism or indeed realism of any other kind, except what I can only describe as a realism of character and dramatic encounter, which are intensely real. In both collections I wandered through the paintings chronologically and was struck, on entering the Renaissance rooms, not on the gains made by the introduction of those lacking things but rather on the loss of dramatic immediacy. Suddenly bodies bulk out, clothing becomes ornately and extravagantly realised, aestheticized beauty replaces sublime simplicity, perspective becomes something to be striven for; these effects later reach their zenith in the Baroque Art of Rubens, whose pictures are all about flesh and its ornamentation and which rarely communicate much drama to this viewer (except a kind of self-dramatizing need to impress).

It is no coincidence that the rise of the Renaissance saw both an opening up of subject matter to include both Greek and Roman mythology and the portraits of nobles and notables. Greek and Roman society was based around a very intense ideological definition of class nobility and the Emperors, Kings, Princes (sacred and profane) and Electors of the Renaissance saw these tales as much more capable of emphasizing and aggrandizing themselves and their power than Biblical stories. These latter remained in Art but in a less forceful form, sometimes with the profanity of the commissioner's face replacing that of the Saint on the Canvas. More important than the art of direct communication of the story to the viewer had develop into the Art of flattering the wealthy and powerful; the beginnings of a bourgeois Art. Art became (as Blake accused Milton and Shakespeare of being) "curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword." No coincidence again that colonization and the beginning of Empire rear their ugly heads at this juncture of European history. Go into a major collection like this and you can see it all happening up there on the walls.

I don't mean to be Philistine and reject everything from the Renaissance onwards as a loss. But "Everybody must give something back / For something they get" and European Art gave up something very precious at this time. The best Art of the Renaissance (Caravaggio) combines the new techniques with the old directness of drama; artists and movements since – the counter-reformation works of El Greco, Blake, the Pre-Raphaelites – have made extraordinary attempts at regaining the dramatic impact of Gothic Art.

The most important thing is that large collections of early European Art do exist and we can experience it anew, not as mere historical oddity but as it always was, as direct communication of stories that are of vital importance to the whole being of the person who encounters it. Any of us working in the Arts today can glean something very valuable from it.