… and they said they’d have left after the first act if I hadn’t been there. The orchestra and performers were understandably world-class. The problem was the staging, as in the director only seemed to be mildly inconvenienced by the fact that he was staging Tannhäuser, an opera, in his quest to be (in my best estimation) an experimental film director.
The basic premise of Tannhäuser is the embracing of Elizabethan asceticism and the redemptive power of spiritual love. The other immutable fact is that a North American of a certain age will giggle like a damn idiot during the opening ballet because of Looney Tunes. I warned my husband about this in advance. My in-laws, who grew up on the far side of the wall are only now vaguely aware of who Bugs Bunny is.
Initially we’re treated to a filmed section of people in uniform in an industrial setting doing a “quitting time”-style montage except that they’re getting ready for something. On the stage we see a factory-like setting with brightly coloured tanks, pipes, a catwalk, and the largest tank in the back oriented horizontally with “ALKOHOL” on it along with apparent markers for the days of the week vertically, but I’ll just trust that German engineering can accomplish anything.
The visuals supplied during the ballet were of an ovum being fertilized and other images which were apparently the first x-rays ever taken. The ovum being fertilized is a very important symbol for reasons the audience are beaten over the head with later. “OK,” I think, “we’re having one of those multimedia extravaganza things” and then go back to trying to stifle my laughter because the particular bar where Bugs Bunny dressed as Brünnhilde begins the descent down the long staircase on that great fat white horse to Elmer Fudd as Siegfried gets me every time.
So after the achingly beautiful call of the church bells we get to the Venusberg, where Venus is pregnant. She argues a bit with Tannhäuser and jumps him cowgirl fashion because Venus is pregnant, and during Venus getting her freak on people dressed as tadpoles come out on stage and lay down and do some sort of choreographed writhing, because Venus is pregnant. I think humanity figured out how that whole “reproduction” process worked around the time of animal husbandry, but it was nice to have an offline reminder.
After Tannhäuser leaves the Venusberg for Wartburg an image of Mary with her breasts out and distractingly large feet is projected on the screen behind the “ALKOHOL” tank and industrial catwalk, flanked by the words “arbeit” (work) and “kunst” (art). The friendly x-ray ovum from the opening ballet is placed to act as the divine radiation around her head, because Venus is pregnant.
After the first act we went down one floor of the cinema to get pretzels, and I could tell by the expressions on my in-laws’ faces that an understanding of German didn’t actually help the director’s game become any clearer. We agreed (allegedly, relying on my husband to translate) that Tannhäuser: All Shagging didn’t add anything at all to the opera, the performances, or the story; and that it had all of the subtlety of an acrobat in a polio ward.
At the opening of the second act, a bunch of text is flashed about (I guess, as I consider my German to have gone from pure shit to adulterated shit after that Berlitz incident) the nature of factories and production. One particular statement was about how families are an organized unit of production, which my father in-law openly scoffed at, but after three children and two grandchildren that’s a judgment he’s qualified to make. Elisabeth, not played by the same singer as Venus probably because the madonna/whore thing would be too obvious for this postmodern multimedia extravaganza we paid to sit through, comes out and dresses herself in jewelry before the singing contest. This seems odd to me as Elisabeth is the embodiment of all that is spiritual and lofty, so it seemed out of character for her to be so taken with glittery trinkets. After this is another bafflingly long filmed sequence in black and white of a nude woman made up to resemble silent era film actors frolicking among the machinery with that very slightly sped up look that again suggests the silent era of film. Each of the participants in the singing contest are similarly introduced by footage of a silent-era homaged out of place nude woman who doesn’t seem to have much to do with the contestant (although the onscreen text might have) or anything related to the opera we’re currently listening to and, if this had been another year, might have been seeing. Venus is also brought back to the stage and Elisabeth is disturbed by this, because Venus is pregnant. Once Elisabeth decides to sacrifice herself I possibly see a reason for the jewelry as the bracelets catch the blood effects nicely, but this is hardly sufficient reason to misrepresent a character.
I think before the third act one of the questions posed on screen is “how many drugs does a man need” which might have been a golden opportunity to tie in what is happening in the opera with what is happening on stage with a suggestion that religion is simply a sublimated opiate of the righteous, but to my knowledge this opportunity was not taken. At the opening of the third act we once again get treated to overlong footage of the friendly ovum and the little soldiers trying to secure their own legacy because Venus is pregnant. This reminded me of the art film Travis Bickle took his date to but without the narration to make it at least mildly interesting. So we’re at the part where everybody dies, the pope’s staff is in bloom, and Venus, who is pregnant and the antagonist, gets the happy ending as she gives birth to a boy. As you may know, Venus is pregnant and apparently the pope’s staff wasn’t enough of a symbol of redemption and renewal.
I don’t automatically reject attempts to do something new of innovative with works of art, but this was just excruciating and baffling. I was a second year film student once, but I managed to get through it without convincing myself I was the second coming of Fritz Lang or the worst ever reading of the dialogue between Tom and Jeanne in Bertolucci’s magnificent Last Tango in Paris concerning the pop marriage. Considering that tickets to Bayreuth have to be booked roughly a decade in advance, sex in this case simply isn’t needed to sell. I’m in the middle of finding out how many and which drugs I need for my chronic vertigo and this will be a long process, but I haven’t yet had the right ones to confuse incomprehensibility with brilliance.