Boos from the audience are almost a standard occurrence with every new production that kicks off at the Bayreuth Festival. This year's opening on July 25, featuring the new production of "Tannhäuser" directed by Sebastian Baumgarten and conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock, was no exception. Still, the reaction in the audience - which included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, some of her cabinet members and an array of celebrities - must have been hard to swallow, even for the most experienced in the director's team.
A pregnant Venus, an Elisabeth who enters a recycling center and allows herself to be disintegrated, main character Tannhäuser in his underwear, video projections displaying digestion processes and the fertilization of an egg, copulating animals in a cage - and in the midst of it all, members of the audience sitting on the stage. All that can be found in the production and has little to do with romanticism.
An art installation by stage designer Joep van Lieshout reveals a world unto itself: an industrial plant which takes care of various human needs, from eating and drinking to sexual satisfaction. In a perfect cycle of sustainability, even human excrement is collected here and used to generate energy.
"I'm used to doing Brecht theater," director Sebastian Baumgarten told Deutsche Welle in an interview. "I'm interested in systems that are intricately connected and how various figures act within them. We are trying to implement this form of performance here."
However, according to Baumgarten, there was not much time for rehearsals. He explained that it usually takes years to create the right level of intensity in a piece of this sort and to direct the cast as effectively as possible.
"If you only rehearse for seven, eight weeks, you're not at the level that you're used to reaching as a director," said Baumgarten.
That is perhaps a way of explaining or excusing any directing glitches. Singer Michael Nagy also seems to feel a need to explain things.
"This production poses many questions and gives few answers," said Nagy. "A lot of the work is left to the viewer. I find that this is exactly the right process on the path of authenticity."
In any case, "Tannhäuser" provides the audience with a lot of drama. It tells of a singing contest in the Middle Ages, in which the main character violates societal values with his profane songs.
A trend for the new and different
Despite its 100th anniversary, the Bayreuth Festival - which runs through Aug. 28 - will not celebrate in any special way this year. But a new feature this time is a performance by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth's town hall on July 26. It is the first performance of this kind, as Wagner's music is frowned upon in the Jewish community due to the fact that he was admired by Hitler and other Nazi officials.
At the press conference preceding the festival, Katharina Wagner - the event's co-director and Wagner's great-granddaughter - announced that the director of the 2013 staging of the epic "The Ring of the Nibelung" operas would be Frank Castorf. Known for his provocative productions with embedded political critique, it will be no surprise if Castorf also manages to fan the flames of controversy. However, one thing is certain: the plot of the operas will not be changed, as official regulations prohibit this.
Author: Rick Fulker / ew
Editor: Louisa Schaefer