Tannhauser Withdrawn

Tannhauser as performed last week in Germany(Photo: Hans Jörg Michel)
Tannhauser as performed last week in Germany(Photo: Hans Jörg Michel)

The Deutsche Opera am Rhein in Dusseldorf has withdrawn a new production of Wagner’s Tannhauser stating that “members of the first night audience were becoming ill and upset to the point of needing medical attention.”

The Associated Press reports of last Saturday’s opening in Dusseldorf:

“…performers could be seen behind glass chambers, falling on the floor as white fog flowed – an illusion to the mass killings of the Jews in Nazi death camps. After a half hour, the music stopped and a family stepped on stage. The parents and children were having their hair shaved off and then they were shot dead…”

Members of the audience booed and banged the doors when they left the opera house in protest before the end of the show…

This was the latest example of Regietheater. This is when a stage director’s concept seeks to reinterpret what the composer and librettist have created. It’s not a new practice. Regietheater in the modern era goes back to Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Parsifal was done with sophisticated lighting and no sets. Wunderbar! In fact, the setting was necessitated by the absence of lumber and material in post war Germany.

But no one questioned the integrity of stage director Wieland Wagner, the grandson of composer Richard Wagner. The filial relationship was important, but Wieland’s stagings were solidly based on his Grandpa’s music. In short, he knew the bloody operas very well.

East Berlin’s Komische Opera was the home of Walter Felsenstein. The Stasi looked the other way and the government paid the bills. Felsenstein insisted on months of rehearsal. Everything was performed in German, the language of the audience. The singers were adequate since no star name could be afforded for months of rehearsal. Still, he insisted on the total absorption of characterization into music. He mentored a mentor of mine, Sarah Caldwell, and Sarah went broke emulating his rehearsal practices (and did some magnificent opera on the way.)

Tannhauser is Richard Wagner’s fourth music drama. It tells the story of a 12th century minstrel who lives in two worlds:  the hedonist realm of Venus, which is all eroticism and sexual availability, and the world of the Landgrave and his saintly niece with whom Tannhauser is in love. He finds redemption after death.

Last week in Düsseldorf,  Tannhauser was updated to Germany in 1939 — large posters of Hitler everywhere, Venus and her minions were in the SS.  There was apparently a lot of goose stepping. (WHERE!?! There’s no such rhythm in the score!)  The current joke among audience members is to beware if you see trench coats, sunglasses and cell phones onstage. This production saw Swastikas, Brown shirts, and Jews being round up and shot. This in an opera whose goal is redemption.

I’m not surprised such a horrible production was allowed. I’ve seen Aida on motorcycles and Bellini’s Norma dolled up like Eva Peron. Spanish director Calito Biexto staged Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera that began with a row of men sitting on toilets. I am surprised that the audience outrage was such that this Third Reich Tannhauser was booted off the stage. In the case, the audience is always right.

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