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 angercalled 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 religionyou 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.
Wagner, R. (1988). Tannhäuser. (R. Blumer, Trans.) London: John Calder.
Wagner, R. (1988). Tannhäuser. (R. Blumer, Trans.) London: John Calder.