Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Night at the Opera

The Deutsche Oper Berlin, located, where else?, on Richard Wagner Strasse

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Finale and curtain calls

Original title: "Tannhauser: Nudie Star Wars Sick Bed Version"

Sunday afternoon and evening we spent at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, also in Charlottengurg, about 2 km from the Schloss. I'd gotten tickets a few days earlier to the season's final performance of Wagner's Tannhauser, one of my favorites. After Schloss Charlottenburg we did a quick change into opera attire in the camper and had a quick meal. All this while parked on Schloss Strasse. The performance began at 5PM, and ended a bit after 9PM, with two leisurely intermissions. Even the most dedicated Wagnerites have to eat.

The music, the orchestra, the singing, and the acting too, all were glorious. The fiddles were drowned out on a few exuberant occasions, but that was the only acoustic defect of a great performance. The lead was the American, Scott McAllister. I was transported.

At least when I kept my eyes shut. One of the problems with Wagner performances these days (it happens with Shakespeare too) is that directors are always trying to put new spins on the works, their “stamp,” trying to eke new or contemporary messages out of them (as if they were not pregnant enough). We once saw a Flying Dutchman in New York that was presented as the first mate's dream. Whatever.

It gets worse when you have 21st century theatrical technology at your disposal. Deus ex machina is one thing, but this was an entire stage floor full of trap doors through which people were passing, being raised and lifted and lowered, often en mass. And then there were dozens of things (mostly knights in shining armor that looked more like storm troopers from The Empire Strikes Back (see illustration)) coming out of the ceiling and hovering, almost throughout the evening, over the singing and acting. All the knightly characters in the performance were attired in head-to-toe armor, as if the audience might not understand who they were. The performance was of the 1845 Dresden version, but the DOB decided to put on a ballet anyway in the first act overture (the 1861 Paris version indeed had a ballet, to accommodate the Jockey Club, all of which ended in a riot, but that's another story), apparently assuming no one would actually want to listen to the music. The “ballet” was a poor imitation of Gotz Friedrich's Bayreuth Tannhauser, the so-called “Porno Tannhauser.” Imagine 40 or so D-cupped cuties (Vicki, who would not relinqish the binoculars, said they were in body-stockings) flopping about in Venus' grotto. For 15 minutes. And, following the same reasoning, or lack, the DOB did not want to portray the Pilgrims' Chorus as a bunch of—what? pilgrims?—and so in act one they were red-devil-looking sinners, yes, popping up out of the floor, and in act three they were the inmates of a sick house...people in need of redemption, finally healed (see illustration again).... Mallarme, the father of Symbolism, called Tannhauser “that forest of symbols,” but I think he was referring mostly to the libretto.

It took a truly masterful performance, musically, to overcome all this, which it did; and it is good to know that the music can, for me at least, transcend just about any theatrical instantiation. Despite it all, I was very grateful for the opportunity to finally see a Wagner performance in Germany. I just hope I get to see another one, more conventionally done.

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