It was business as usual for the 100th Bayreuth Festival: the directors Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are doubtless saving their thunder for the 200th anniversary of their great-grandfather's birth in 2013, when a new Ring at the Festspielhaus and productions of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, in other venues, are promised, subject to fundraising. Under the half-sisters, ‘business as usual' now means pushing their father Wolfgang's notion of ‘Werkstatt-Bayreuth' (‘the Bayreuth Workshop') to extremes of Regietheater, with mixed theatrical success. As well as Katharina's still-audience-reviled production of Meistersinger, which I have now seen twice but couldn't face for a third time, the 2011 revivals were Stefan Herheim's phantasmagorical Parsifal (still the festival's hottest property), Hans Neuenfels's rat-infested Lohengrin, and Christoph Marthaler's bleak, contemporary Tristan.
Sebastian Baumgarten's interpretation of Tannhäuser was the novelty. I use this word advisedly because, although most of these productions were nominally commissioned by Wolfgang, Bayreuth under Katharina and Eva has become the refuge for ‘novelty' rather than genuinely innovative stagings of Wagner's masterworks. Baumgarten-a disciple of Frank Castorf, the edgy Berlin Volksbühne's Intendant, who is now hotly tipped as director of the 2013 Ring-proposes an ecological, anti-consumerist Tannhäuser, set in what looks like a recycling plant, with huge colour-coded canisters designed by the Dutch artist-sculptor Joep van Lieshout (the modern-day costumes are by Nina van Mechow; lighting by Franck Evin; dramaturgy by Carl Hegemann). Baumgarten apparently wanted to stage the entire three-act opera without an interval, which the caterers refused to sanction (to the relief of most of the audience, I imagine). As a compromise, a stage audience was given free access to the performance on condition that they stayed to watch the (minimal) scene changes and filmed commentaries.
Essentially this Tannhäuser is yet another operatic ‘installation' of the kind pioneered by La Fura dels Baus in their early days, but Baumgarten disdains to engage with the issues raised in Wagner's libretto-the place of the artist in society, the pull between erotic and spiritual love. It was hard to discern who the people portrayed in his productions were meant to be and what they were doing in a recycling plant. Venus's realm emerged from beneath the stage as a cage in which simian creatures cavorted in sexually provocative (but hideously unsensual) poses, while human-sized tadpoles writhed outside it. Presumably, for those who didn't know already, Baumgarten is telling us that physical lust is animalistic. This grubby bacchanale was presided over by a shrewish, scolding, pregnant Venus (Stephanie Friede, rawly sung), while her Tannhäuser (Lars Cleveman, uncharismatic but enduring) played with the simians wearing soiled underwear revealing grimy legs. At least one could empathize with his keenness to get away from this Venus's clutches. The Landgrave's hunting party entered like the Mechanicals from a regie production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, larking about like superannuated schoolboys. In Act 2 the ‘saintly' Elisabeth (Camilla Nylund, in rough voice) sported a Magda Goebbels hairdo, while in Act 3 she wore a scarlet gown and went mad, à la Lady Macbeth, before Wolfram (the promising Michael Nagy) bundled her into a gas canister.
Of course, all of this is very different from previous Bayreuth Tannhäusers, but does it tell us anything new about Wagner's problem child? Even after reading Baumgarten's explication of his ‘interpretation' I was none the wiser about what his staging hoped to achieve beyond enraging a large section of the audience. At the opening-night curtain call (July 25) there were few counter-bravos from the usually undiscriminating so-called Wagner progressives to mitigate the fiasco.
In any case, it is hard to imagine a turnaround for this staging with the current casting. Cleveman's Tannhäuser was no more than respectable. You can hear better Wagner sopranos than Friede and Nylund in houses such as Düsseldorf and Frankfurt these days. Only Gunther Groissböck's impossibly youthful Hermann-who looked like Elisabeth's nephew rather than her uncle-sang to festival standards. Thomas Hengelbrock unsuccessfully attempted to conduct a quasi-authentic 1840s Tannhäuser, but the orchestra clearly was not convinced-the musical results seemed merely tentative. The most rewarding aspect of the performance was the superb singing of the chorus (a Bayreuth constant), but why they had to dust and polish the surfaces of the recycling canisters on their return from Rome is anyone's guess.
Andris Nelsons's conducting of Lohengrin has clearly grown in authority since his debut here last year, when it was already very good, but he had to contend with mostly unsatisfactory cast changes. Klaus Florian Vogt's flutey, choirboyish Lohengrin was lionized by the audience, but completely lacked the heroic dimension and textual energy Jonas Kaufmann brought to the role in 2010. Petra Lang's vampy, silent-movie Ortrud now has a voice that could skin a cat at ten paces-undoubtedly exciting in ‘Entweihte Götter', but her tone was gusty and her pitching hit-or-miss. (Histrionically she was no match for Evelyn Herlitzius in the previous cast.) Tomas Tomasson blustered generically as Telramund, while Georg Zeppenfeld and Samuel Youn returned as the comedy double-act of König Heinrich and the Herald (the latter the grotesque and sinister éminence grise of his pathologically cowed master), and delivered the most satisfying singing of the evening. Annette Dasch's Elsa sounded ragged and frail, though she was cheered as if the audience had heard Elisabeth Grümmer and Gundula Janowitz rolled into one.
Expertly conducted by the Bayreuth veteran Peter Schneider (though he was booed for his steadfast loyalty to Wagner and the festival), Tristan und Isolde suffered from out-of-sorts principals: Iréne Theorin, a thrilling Isolde in Copenhagen, sounded tired, and Robert Dean Smith ran out of steam in Act 3, conceding the vocal honours to Michelle Breedt's impassioned Brangaene and, above all, to Robert Holl's nobly sung Marke.
Herheim's Parsifal (August 10) also had a new hero in Simon O'Neill, on whom Covent Garden has placed its Wagnerian hopes. He looked less convincing in his sailor suit than Christopher Ventris did, and his bright tenor sounds light and nasal even for this most lyrical of Wagner's helden roles, but he's a useful addition to the international roster for this repertoire. The only other newcomer this year was Martin Snell (Biterolf in Tannhäuser), who saved the performance at short notice, singing Klingsor very well indeed, while Thomas Jesatko played a drag Marlene Dietrich lookalike on stage. The ‘Magic Garden' act-with Berlin-cabaret showgirls as Flower Maidens-is perhaps the most thrilling coup de théâtre from Herheim and his set designer Heike Scheele in this always absorbing staging. Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz) and Susan Maclean (Kundry) repeated their sterling portrayals, but Detlef Roth sounded like a frayed Papageno, overparted as Amfortas. Daniele Gatti (who relinquishes the baton to Philippe Jordan next year, when the production will be filmed) has become a Parsifal conductor to reckon with. The Festspielorchester played like angels for him. This Parsifal remains the Bayreuth show to catch in the run-up to the Wagner year festivities.