On Tuesday D and I went to see Opera Australia’s production of Tannhäuser.
We sat next to a delightful older couple whom I last sat next to earlier this year at Alcina: that time they had driven up from Lake Bathurst (just past Goulburn) and would drive home afterwards, but this time they had arranged to stay “in walking distance” on Macquarie Street.
I saw this production the first time round in 1998. There was a prominent falling-out between the director, Elke Neidhardt, and the conductor, Philippe Auguin, which went so far as writs being issued.
Elke Neidhardt has had a long and interesting career. Much like Carlo Felice Cillario, who seems to have made a career as an export-only Italian and especially in Australia, Neidhardt has been a German in Australia since at least 1966, when she first appeared as Dr. Anna Steiner in Skippy. More recently, she has become an opera director, specialising in productions of the German auteur-Regisseur type: that is, where the Konzcept is the thing. She was the director of the second Adelaide Ring cycle, which most famously featured the Valkyries refreshing themselves at the Wunderbar – a joke which goes back at least to Cole Porter’s Kiss me, Kate (“Something about a bar – Wunderbar [cue music]”).
I heard part of Philippe Auguin’s side of the story at the cast party after Götterdämmerung which he conducted (along with the rest of the Ring) for the Nürnberg Opera at Beijing in 2005. The gist of this was that if you knew, as he did, a number of other productions (and one production in particular) of Tannhäuser, you wouldn’t consider Neidhardt’s approach to be so original at all. Since I don’t know as Auguin said he knew, I’m not in a position to judge, other than to say (unoriginally) that there are few things new under the sun.
This includes Wagner’s opera.
If you take the main east-west train which runs through the middle of Germany from Frankfurt to Dresden (or drive on the Autobahn) just after the former Grenze between West Germany and die ehemaliger DDR, you pass through or (in the case of the Autobahn pass by) Eisenach, birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach. On the right is the Wartburg, the castle of the Landgraves of Thuringia where St Elisabeth of Hungary lived (and died at the age of 24 in 12 something), Luther sought refuge (improbably disguised as Junker Jorge) to complete his translation of the Bible and there was a bit of “young German” political agitation leading up to 1848. On the left a little further is a hill (actually a number of hills) called the Hörselberg[e], with a cave historically associated with the Venusberg, a grotto where, it is said, the goddess Venus entertained the Minnesinger (a kind of German minstrel), Tannhäuser.
Out of this antithesis between Venusberg and Wartburg, throwing in Tannhäuser, Elisabeth and a host of other historical characters, Wagner stitched together an opera which is sometimes said to be about sacred and profane love. It is also said to be about quite a lot of other things, including (as quite often with Wagner) wild artists and respectable society, censorious morality and redemption through forgiveness and love. Quite frankly though, seeing Wagner for the philosophy is much like reading Playboy for the articles, though that doesn’t stop directors from having a go.
In his article in a recent edition of ABC’s Limelight magazine, Robert Gibson comments that Tannhäuser was a “critical work” in “the groundbreaking function of Wagner’s works for many opera-goers in the 19th century; namely, their capacity to tap into and liberate erotic desire.” Notwithstanding the opera’s “utterly conventional” moralising, Wagner subverts this himself by, amongst other things, ensuring that “the sinners get the best music in the opera.” He points out that “No other opera by Wagner received as many performances in the 19th century.”
The problem these days is the first act. Nothing very much happens. There is an erotic ballet in the Venusberg, which Tannhäuser tears himself away from, coming to on a hillside to the strains of pilgrim choruses (though not the pilgrim chorus: that comes later) – this reminds me of the Easter Hymn in Faust. After an odd pastoral interlude (cf Tristan und Isolde Act III), Tannhäuser encounters his former companions from the Wartburg who have come out on a hunting expedition. They persuade him to return there where, he is informed, Elisabeth misses him.
You know things are going badly when, in order to indicate decadence, a director has to resort (as Neidhardt did in the Venusberg scene) to a few languidly flourished cigarettes. Instead, Neidhardt works at the opposite end, satirising the hunting party and (a sure sign of desperation) including a fussily queeny character and bringing on, as the coup de theatre, a group of (real, live, audience murmers and gasps!) dachshunds.
Acts II and III, where more happens, are relatively straightforward. Even depicting the returning pilgrims as self-satisfied tourists bearing “I [heart] Roma” duty-free shopping bags and proudly displaying their papal indulgences is entirely consistent with Wagner’s argument: the Pope has refused to forgive Tannhäuser for his trip to the Venusberg and his outburst in the song competition (something rather akin to offering condoms on World Youth Day) and he is only redeemed by the intercession of the saintly Elisabeth.
But back to the Venusberg. The truth is that our tastes are these days so jaded that it is difficult to provide an erotic scene with sufficient “kick.”
Or so I had thought.
Throughout the opera, Venus’s side-kick, Amor, appears: a grotesque over-aged putto with (when not modestly obscured by a loincloth-nappy) a very large strap-on artificial and erect penis (or semi-erect: its angle is a bit horizontal, but then, he is no longer so young). The next day, I read in The Australian:
Keith Windschuttle, scourge of leftist historians, will campaign against decadence in the arts when he takes over as editor of Quadrant magazine next year.
Consider Wagner’s Tannhauser, that myth of the sacred and profane now on show at the Sydney Opera House. “There’s a guy painted in gold (who) stands there with a giant erection – symbolises lust or something,” Windschuttle said yesterday. “That kind of gratuitous offensiveness is almost everywhere.”
I guess people who are offended always find it gratuitous, though both the ticket price and the theme of the opera suggest otherwise to me. Our neighbours did not seem particularly alarmed. If that’s the best Quadrant can manage, I’m personally pretty relaxed and comfortable.