The first night of the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth is attended by political heavyweights, including this year the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank. There they sat in the centre box watching a new production of Tannhäuser, the festival’s opening performance. The production team was deservedly booed to the rafters at the end, and word was that the director, Sebastian Baumgarten, left the festival the next day, upset that no one understood his bold concept. But we all understood one thing very well. The entire story was treated as a giant experiment in a recycling plant, with a stage audience witnessing every move. And the real audience included two people, Merkel and Trichet, who are endeavouring to control the outcome of a similar experiment in the control of excess.
In the opera Tannhäuser is first seen overindulging himself in the Venusberg — a pleasure dome presided over by Venus — which he then abandons hoping to regain his true love, Elisabeth. She is willing, but he’s told he can only win her by journeying to Rome with other pilgrims and seeking absolution from the Pope. When he returns in Act III, rejected, he can imagine nothing more than a return to the Venusberg. The Pope has denied him, but he is redeemed just in time by a miracle from on high.
I have no evidence that the director, with his great “experiment” Konzept saw the irony, but Merkel and Trichet represent those in control of the euro. In this real-world experiment, Greece is in the Venusberg, and Elisabeth represents the euro, but rather than seeking redemption in Rome, the Greek government must journey to Berlin and Brussels. There is no absolution for the sins of excess in Tannhäuser, but there is divine intervention. Now in the real experiment, Greece has started its journey, but regardless of what the euro gods decide in the capitals of Europe, the omnipotent power on high is the bond market. That’s worth remembering because although the higher power absolves Tannhäuser at the end, there is a final denouement: both he and Elisabeth die.
Now if the director had couched his experiment in those terms, he’d have had a magnificent press, raised the status of Bayreuth, and secured the funding the festival needs. Pity he didn’t think of it.