Bayreuth Festival unveiled a new production of Tannhäuser by Sebastian Baumgarten in 2011 which proved to be unpopular with the audience and will be retired this year after four seasons, while a Bayreuth production typically runs for five. There were scattered boos after the performance this evening, likely not directed to singers but rather to production. While there was some good singing and orchestra playing, the musical performance was not particularly distinguished either to help save the occasion.  

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience is confronted with an open stage which has a look of a factory, with a red cylindrical tank with white letters “Alkoholator” written on it in back center, and an open structure of tall frames with two bridges across the top.  The factory represents Wartburg, the world of Elizabeth and the knights, the world from which Tannhauser fled, only to return later. Two small screens are sometimes lowered on both sides of the stage, to show images of the singers getting ready as the performance is about to begin; printed words and sentences sometimes appear to “explain” the proceedings on stage.  A large screen is used as a backdrop behind the Alkoholator, but its image is not fully visible as the installation blocks part of the screen. The staging remains unchanged throughout the opera, with a large cage representing Venusberg appearing from below the floor in the first and third acts.  The two worlds of Tannhauser are both contained within the closed system of the factory which recycles biological elements to create food and alcohol.  

Some audience members sit on both sides of the stage, which seems to indicate the director’s intention to integrate the audience into the performance and even make them part of the scenary.  Most of the performers of the opera are dressed as workers in the factory, and the pilgrims' chorus in the third act is sung by a cleaning crew. There is a reference to the gas chamber in the second act as some workers are first deprived of their jewels and then sent into a large box with a door closing on them as the chorus sings.  Venus is pregnant as the opera begins, and gives birth at the end. A group of sperms dance around the Venusburg cage, joined by other non-human creatures as the chorus swells into a moving musical finale.

There are some clever and even insightful aspects to the production, the most obvious being the two worlds and the two women of Tannhäuser being of essentially the two sides of the same coin, hence they are all in the factory.  Elisabeth is the only member to escape the circular factory system, as she kills herself by entering a biogas tank; her image appears on the back screen soon after, only to be dissolved into elemental matters.

One redeeming quality of the production is that there is clear stage direction for the singers and the chorus, and their movements were well choreographed and effective. Staging is busy but not noisy and thus does not interfere with the musical performance.  However, the production remains puzzling and confusing, and its concept is elusive.  Imposing the installation by a well-known artist to represent the Wagner’s musical world on a seemingly ad hoc basis just does not work.

Axel Kober conducted with more attention to details of the music than its overall arc, and the overture was uncharacteristically lacking in bombastic volume; rather, it was almost chamber music like. Strings were particularly notable, as was the brass section; the entrance of the guests in Act 2 had six trumpet players on the bridge on top of the installation, and their placement created a wonderful acoustic effect. The famous Bayreuth chorus again distinguished itself, especially in the rousing pilgrims’ chorus and in the beautiful final chorus of a heavenly hymn.  

Among the soloists, Camilla Nylund’s Elisabeth and Kwangchul Youn’s Landgraf deservedly received the most applause at the curtain calls. Nylund’s rich and largely vibrato-free soprano voice was never shrill, and she produced some thrilling high notes as well as touching pianissimo phrases during her prayer in Act 3. Youn was a solid anchor among the male soloists with his deep but flexible bass.  

Markus Eiche as Wolfram was a sympathetic friend to both Tannhäuser and Elisabeth, and his sometimes bland baritone was nevertheless effectively deployed for a moving hymn to the evening star as he danced with Venus while singing.  Michelle Breedt distinguished herself as Venus, with an evenly and warmly produced voice for Venus’s treacherous music; she also acted the part of a vain and sometimes flighty character with finesse. Thomas Jesatko was a  memorable Biterolf with his strong voice; soprano Katja Stuber sang a brief part of a young shepherd with clear and penetrating voice.

The title role was sung by Torsten Kerl. a German tenor with a distinguished career in mostly German repertoire. His voice unfortunately lacked sheen and heft in Act 1, and he had trouble with high notes during the three stanzas of Tannhäuser’s plea with Venus. The dryness in his voice culminated to a cracked high note at the end of Act 1. He recovered and was in better voice after the intermission, and his singing in Act 3 was impressive, especially the Roman narrative. His posture became erect and his voice more stern and haughty as he recounted the experience of being condemned by the Pope in Rome, a striking piece of vocal acting.

Overal, the quality of musical performance unfortunately failed to rise above the confusing production, and while the audience gave an enthusiastic reception at the end of the opera, I, for one, will not be sorry to see this production retired one year early.