Thursday, August 16, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (3)

Dear Andrew,

I always find coffee problematic in foreign parts - milchkafee should be coffee with milk but for some reason my efforts to order coffee often result in unexpected beverages. My advice is to stick to the beer.  Beer is a bit of a lottery when it comes to size.  “Ein bier”  can produce a genteel sip or a vessel that puts me in mind of the scene where hobbits discover it comes in pints.  I like both - the tiny ones mean you can indulge in an endless procession of  fresh cold beers and the big ones are, well, big. Make sure you try a dark beer tomorrow if you haven’t already and don‘t forget to have a plate of small sausages in the dining car on the train.

Will you put roses on the grave?  Do you remember last time we were deciding between a final beer and a return visit to the Wagner house to lay flowers?  We came down in favour of the house.  We didn’t have long and  I tried to buy the flowers off the table in the tea shop only to be directed by the nice owner to a nearby  florist.  The lady in the flower shop was obviously used to this as she asked me if they were “for laying”. Considering how ostentatious Wagner could be the grave is very plain.

Tristan often seems to bring on production ideas that don’t go anywhere, perhaps because it is almost purely about feelings and emotions. I remember a production in London where they spent the whole of the first Act alternating between striking stiff poses against the sides of the stage and throwing themselves around on the floor, presumably to suggest strong and confused emotions, as if the music wasn‘t already doing so rather better.  Maybe the sight of so much dialogue with no inherent activity engenders a state of panic resulting in an urge to fill the stage with action. Or maybe it is an urge to illuminate some perceived hidden meaning or just use the work to make a comment on whatever the director’s current enthusiasm happens to be.

Act three of the same production opened with Tristan and his loyal retainer together on  a bare stage, lit to suggest the sea off to the back.  They hardly moved during the whole of the “waiting” scene and when Isolde arrived, aside from a brief flurry of activity, there was very little action.  It was one of the most moving performances of anything I have sever seen.

It is midnight here so an hour later for you.  I hope you have enjoyed tonight and are even now sitting in the bar dissecting/enthusing over/ranting about tonight’s offering.

Love Opera-Buddy

P.S. have you visited the smoking materials museum yet?  

 Dear Opera-Buddy

 No, I haven't been to the smoking materials museum. Or the typewriter museum. If it stops raining, I will go and have a look at the Other Opera House, the one that wasn't grand enough for Wagner.

The inside of the Festspielhaus is less plain than I remembered it, by the way, a certain amount of gold foliage painted on the ceiling, lots of doric, or possibly ionic, columns. But still very plain and big and awesome; it really is more like watching live cinema than being in a theatre. In general the orchestra does not come out on stage in order to take the applause; that seemed to be a specific idea by the Lohengrin producer.

I have to say that Lohengrin must, at some level, have been a very good production: tonight in the bar the discussion was still running – "Tristan and Isolde...very interesting, a bit 1950s. Tannhäuser – very spectacular, not sure what it meant... Now, about those rats...")

 Producers really ought to take into account the unintentional connections which audiences are going to make with what is going on on the stage? There was a point in Lohengrin when Elsa was walking around in one of those long, floor length ball gowns (doubtless intended to be swan like) and every English person – me, at any rate – thought "it's a dalek." And obviously the rats seemed as if they were going to start singing "Here's a pin and here's a pingle" at any moment. Tonight, Elizabeth was at one point in sparkly dress, front stage, gesticulating wildly and everyone thought "Don't cry for me, Argentina."

 Had a walk round Wagner's garden yesterday. It must have been a very interesting street to live on; Lizt's house was next door, and there was also a famous artist called John-Paul Museum.

I think that, with lots off "Ifs" and "Buts" and possibly even some caveats, Tannhäuser was the best show of the week so far. It did raise lots of difficult questions, the main one being, who is this stuff aimed at? The programme notes include a long, long essay about Wagner's theory of the art of the future and gesamkunstwerk (bless you). In the olden days, when art was sacred, people worshipped it even if they didn't like it very much; and Wagner's scheme involved whole communities presenting mixed media art which would be in some sense sacred; the purpose of which would be to create and transform those communities. Which seems a rather long way of saying that if you are here with any notion that you are going to enjoy the opera, then you've missed the point.

It's a funny thing, isn't it: you have people from all over the world dressed in tuxedos drinking champagne and eating bratwurst and staying in nice hotels; and you have a producer quoting Marx and Brecht and Deirrida and coming up with productions which are, frankly, impenetrable

Mind you, I am always torn between two kinds of ambivalence at these events: on the one hand – "All these people didn't have the experience of watching the Ring on BBC 2 when we did, they probably don't really like Wagner but have just come for the sake of it" / "I'm an imposter, I can't remember who I heard singing Parsifal at Covent Garden and don't know what an unresolved chord is, among all these music reading Wagner experts." I feel the same at folk festivals.

I reckon that in fact most of us really do think of Tannhäuser as a romantic opera with a religious twinge – about a medieval knight caught up in a world of sensuous pleasure who has to go on a pilgrimage to purify himself; and I think that Wagner really did intend his operas to be serious political philosophical statements, so that those of us hoping for a pretty swan and a holy grail that looks like a holy grail are probably in the wrong. (I also think that a lot of producers have the idea that the operas are pure symphonies that work quite separately from the plot and the libretto, and that therefore you can have any old rubbish going on on the stage, which is quite simply wrong.)

 OK: so Tannhäuser appears to be happening in an oil rig. There are big tanks and cannisters on the stage, which is on three levels, with lots of balconies and beams. The curtains are already open when we arrive, and various characters are operating the machines and generally doing Stuff. (The actions carries on after each act finishes, apparently, in the second intermission, there was a full scale religious ceremony performed to a virtually empty hall.) Oh, and part of the audience is on the stage, watching the action: I assume member of the Friends of Bayreuth, but for all I know they were the German equivalent of equity members who had work-shopped fidgeting and applauding and programming waving very realistically. During the overture, a lot of x-ray pictures are projected on the back of the stage. One bit was definitely of someone drinking a glass of water. There were also quite a lot of things which I guess were sperms, but could have been sea-monkeys for all I knew. Then a big cage is raised up from the middle of the stage, with much smoke and red light, representing the Venusberg. (Can I translate that "Sex-City"?) Tannhäuser is being embraced by lots of rather bestial people of both sexes, and Venus is pregnant. Actually, I think the thing I said yesterday about the opening of Act III of Tristan is probably wrong: the first 20 minutes of Tannhäuser – overture and Venusberg scene – may be the best music Wagner ever wrote.

Is it very wicked of me to positively look forward to some poor person passing a very quiet comment to his neighbour (I am pretty sure I now know the German for "what the hell is going on"?) and getting aggressively shushed.

So, in the first interval I ordered cappuccino, which turns out to be the German for "flat white" (very small, very strong, just the way I like it) and a mango ice cream and actually read the programme. It turns out that I had been completely misunderstanding it. It was not supposed to be an oil rig: it was, and I quote:

"A vision of the transhumanist trajectory veering very near to the post human negative extreme as the societal transformation process approaches completion as per novelist Aldous Huxley's futuristic world state of the controllers or the direst predictions of the socialist philosopher Francis Fukuyama."

 Which, I must say made everything much clearer. It was supposed to be a future world where everyone is drugged, everything is regulated and everything is recycled: what we saw on the stage was supposed to be a model representing the whole of that world. The Venusberg is an experiment in producing clones animal human hybrids. The pilgrims are not going to Rome, they are going off to a social conditioning centre to be brain washed. Tannhäuser and Elizabeth are resisting this oppressive world. The song competition isn't about love, it's about the meaning of human existence. I must admit that having read this, Act II did make a lot more sense. There was certainly a lot of striking imagery in it. The lady sitting next to me couldn't understand why Tannhäuser was being chased around the set by turtles. I had to explain that they were – obviously – giant spermatozoa.

Actually this is the worst thing about these kinds of productions: you get "symbols" which mean something to the producer, but don't actually make sense even in terms of the world that he's built on the stage. Drugged underworld in which the individualist is having sex with savage human-animal hybrids; yes. Giant sperm? Giant sperm?

 In Act III, Elizabeth dies by throwing herself into one of the big chemical tanks, which is supposed to suggest that her essence is going to be recycled and absorbed by Tannhäuser, and also call to mind gas chambers and suggest that these regulated scientific societies always become awful in the end....but unfortunately, most of what was going on was obscured (from the point of view of everyone on the right of the theatre) by one of the superfluous beams. Quite a lot of text was projected on screens, as well, explaining obscurities in the production, possibly, but you couldn't actually read them either. There may be something in the idea that the production was designed to be watched by the people on the stage, and those of us in the auditorium were superfluous.

Which would be very Wagnerian, wouldn't it – "What difference do fifty or sixty more schwienhund make?"

It does seem awfully precious that Bayreuth is happy to fill the stage with screens and text, and run productions which are borderline deranged but refuses point blank to have surtitles because it would be different from Wagner's intentions. (This seems to annoy the native German speakers as well: even you have fluent German, you can't always follow the words that are being sung by an English or Korean singer.) One bit which definitely did work, by the way, was the overture to Act III, in which what we could see on the back of the stage was film of a spermatozoa impregnating an egg, and the egg splitting into multiple cells just as the music goes all triumphant. (At least I assume that was what I was looking at.) Oh, yeah, and the opera ends, not with the staff flowering, but with Venus giving birth to her child, and the baby being passed around the cast. I think the idea was that the baby is a new chance for the society to get things right, because it is so far unaffected by all the conditioning.

So, all very clear.

Literally five minutes from the hotel, my I-Phone ran out of batteries, and I realised that I didn't actually know where I was; I spent 20 minutes walking round in circles trying to spot a land mark. (I think the problem was that I was on a different plaza to the one I thought I was one, so even by going down each road systematically I wasn't going to find the right one.) In the end I walked back to the main road with the station on it and started again.

The multi-lingual Wagner debating society was still in progress in the bar when I got there. A new Canadian man was crazy about the production – "what a show! What a show!" Enthusiastic German man said that if he had to choose one way or the other, he didn't like it. The American lady (who seems to have seen absolutely everything) was quite cross; she thought (not unreasonably) that the opera ought to have at least something to do with the libretto

. …..Decided I would venture out of the hotel (not actually raining hard) and went to have a look at the Markgrafliches Opernhaus. I spent about ten minutes looking at all the angels, carvings of musicians, crowns, coats of arms, etc which is almost exactly the right amount of time to spend looking at an old building, whereupon a lady came and shut all the doors and talked to us in German for half and hour. 

....I am back in the coffee shop and the Americans have joined me, and are still talking about how angry the production made them. I think if you went to Bayreuth and weren't angry you'd probably feel short changed. The programme notes keep talking about the "Bayreuth workshop" and the "Bayreuth laboratory" as if the producer and the cast are doing an experiment and the audience is almost not there.

 Another advantage of a hat is that it keeps the rain off your head. Who knew?