Rebellious like Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner composed the opera Tannhäuser a few years before he took to the barricades in Dresden in 1849. The work was influenced by his political ideals but also by his ambition to succeed as an artist. A culture clash? At Bayreuth this year, director Tobias Kratzer took Wagner’s call to join in the revolution as inspiration for his interpretation of the opera, taking a fresh and modern perspective via videos and live recordings.
Tobias Kratzer is intrigued by the figure of Tannhäuser on many levels.
He based his production of the eponymous opera on a revolutionary slogan Wagner wrote to persuade his contemporaries to take to the barricades in Dresden in 1849: “Free in will – free in deeds – free in enjoyment”. And he goes on, “Come, you motley crowds, and follow my example”. Kratzer looked at the ways of life and ideals that the opera’s opposing settings symbolize – the sensual and guilt-laden love-nest in the Venusberg on the one hand and the pious community of knights and pilgrims on the other – and transposes them on to today’s world. How he does that is illustrated by the individual scenes.
The curtain is raised to the sound of the dramatic overture; the audience sees a large screen showing a drone flying over Wartburg Castle, where Wagner set the Minnesinger contest that takes place later in the opera. As the mighty overture is played, we see a bird’s-eye view of green forests before the camera zooms in on the castle. Then it pans down to a lonely road along which just one old Citroën bus is trundling. While the overture is still playing, then, scenes “invented” by video designer Manuel Braun lead into the plot of the opera. The idea behind Braun’s concept was that, “even though you’re watching, you don’t close your ears. So, you hear and see; that is, you are addressed on two levels simultaneously. You don’t have to get that served separately.”
As the camera pans to the front of the bus, it also appears in real life on the stage. Venus (Elena Zhidkova) is in the driver’s seat and Tannhäuser (Stephen Gould) is the passenger next to her. They also have two other characters introduced by Kratzer in tow: a drag queen named Le Gateau Chocolat, playing herself, and Oskar with the Tin Drum (Manni Laudenbach), from the novel of the same name, a boy who refuses to grow. In parallel, the video above blends with the action on stage.
The video perspective is not sustained throughout. The first act begins on a bare stage, with just the Citroën bus parked by a fairy-tale house with garden gnomes, sparingly illuminated by light designer Reinhard Traub. Tannhäuser wants to return to his ideal world of Minnesong but Venus manages to hold him back and they drive off together in the bus. This is shown in the film projected above. “The film being shown on a ten-metre-wide screen allows us to get really close up to the faces – even if you are sitting 30, 40 metres away from the singers,” explains Braun. The audience are then intimate witnesses of the couple’s argument; we clearly see Venus throwing her lover out of the car in a rage and cursing him. This is followed by a clever change in perspective back to the stage, where Tannhäuser is lying on the floor. His old friends appear live on the stage and welcome the vagabond back into their midst. In the background we see the Bayreuth theatre in miniature, on its green hill in springtime, surrounded by budding green trees.
In the second act, various levels of the plot are introduced via film and video perspectives. Surprise: the proscenium arch is reduced to half its height. Stage and costume designer Rainer Sellmaier explains: “The almost square shape of the proscenium, which is quite unusual and characteristic of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, provided the unique opportunity to make this horizontal separation into two levels without making one look squashed; an ideal ‘split-screen’ situation for the two simultaneous levels of ‘stage performance’ and ‘backstage’.” The reduced-size arch is framed by a band of light and when the curtain opens, the audience sees the hall of the castle, ready for the climactic contest.
The upper video now reintroduces the concept of the theatre as a location. In black-and-white, it shows the Bayreuth festival-goers thronging to the theatre in their evening clothes. Meanwhile, the stage fills up with attendants at the singing contest. It is announced that the best singer will get Elisabeth’s hand in marriage as the prize. Above, the video shows her and the other protagonists preparing for their entrances in the dressing rooms of the real theatre. This introduces an additional, internal strand of the action: Tannhäuser is the singer who returns to sing Tannhäuser. A field of tension is created between the various plot strands, and by the contrast between the close-up film images and the formal choreography of the solemn crowd scenes on the stage below.
The third act shows the entire stage again. It is an apocalyptic landscape, mounted on a turntable. Oskar is sitting in front of the wrecked Citroën. Black-and-white lighting emphasises the desolation. Wolfram is looking for Elisabeth who appears in a state of disarray. She accepts Wolfram as a substitute for Tannhäuser but after their “love-making”, rams a knife into her chest. She does this offstage, and it is projected on to the large screen. The chorus of returning pilgrims that now appears is a group of refuse collectors. Tannhäuser enters looking like a dropout with greasy hair. He is too late for Elisabeth – and for his own good – but the film shows it all ending in a dream.
Creating the set – stage design, video and light
Incorporating video projections into a stage set without one dominating the other is always a balancing act. In this production, the film directly refers to the stage action. The former is a combination of pre-produced videos and live filming. “Essentially, everything that is in colour is preproduced and the live recordings are broadcast in black-and-white,” says Braun. Unexpectedly, all the outside recordings needed to be filmed twice since some weeks before the premiere Ekaterina Gubanova, who was originally cast as Venus, was injured and replaced by Elena Zhidkova.
A crucial aspect to Braun was the quality of the videos and that the scenes could be easily reproduced so that the quality is ensured night after night. This is also important for the singers. They are filmed by two cameramen, “and now we know that there are basically only one or two models of camera that are good enough for this kind of live filming.” The cameras are operated via radio control so that there are no distracting cables on the stage.
Finetuning the video and lighting to work together and with the stage set was not easy. But it worked out brilliantly, as everyone stressed. The main problem for Traub was that he could not use the spotlights in the proscenium area in the second act, or the towers throughout the performance. “The followspots saved my life,” Traub enthuses. “They needed to know beforehand where the singers would appear, it was all going on underneath them, under the screen. The side lighting was diagonal, so we had to be very careful that we didn’t blind the singers and they could still see the conductor.”