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Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, March 2009

“I’m not making this up you know!” to quote Anna Russell. Long before the great Australian diva became world famous for her parody of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and outraged music lovers. His fourth opera, Tannhäuser und der Sängerfest auf der Wartburg, was first performed in 1845 in Dresden. After its 1857 production in Vienna the opera became wildly popular—so much so that it became a target for parody. Just two months after the Vienna premiere Johann Nepomuk Nestroy skewered the opera with a wickedly funny parody, Tannhäuser und die Keilerei auf der Wartburg, the singing contest now changed to the “delicatessen”! Wagner’s music was arranged and deranged by a minor Viennese composer, Carl Binder. The parody was as successful as Wagner’s original. In the 2005-06 season at the Vienna Burgtheater actor Robert Meyer revived the Nestroy-Binder parody to great acclaim. This video comes from the 2008 run at the Vienna Volksoper. Instead of a full cast of characters, Meyer portrays them all, singing and narrating. The Wagnerian orchestra is reduced to two violins, a “contraguitar” and an accordion (a “Chromatische Knopfharmonika”). It’s parody stretched to the extreme, with a surprise rewrite of the opera’s ending. And it’s great fun.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2009

As can be easily understood from the header this is no “pocket-version” of Wagner’s opera but a completely self-contained parody, based on Wagner’s work but with music by Carl Binder—mostly adapted from Wagner’s score. As to Johann Nepomuk Nestroy’s role it is not clear that he actually wrote the text, even though he was known ‘for writing caustic pieces’. But he was also an opera singer, who sang Sarastro at the Vienna Hofoper in 1822, but obviously lacked the important low notes and changed the pitch of his voice, next year singing Max in Der Freischütz, which of course is a tenor role.
Anyway, two months after the Vienna premiere he staged this parody in his Carltheater. Tannhäuser in this version is banned from the singers’ hall at Wartburg to a stage where the ‘Future Opera is being cultivated / the easiest way to ruin your voice…’ Wagner’s music was even at this early stage of his development ‘the music of the future’ but the mockery is as much against the notion that Wagner’s music has no melody, that it is harmful for singers as well as listeners. Certain aspects of the Tannhäuser story have been disposed of, thus all the religious references are gone—obviously since the censorship objected and the text had to be re-written. Whether this was Nestroy’s work rather than creating the whole manuscript is open to debate. A certain doctor from Breslau named Wollheim had written a farce along the same lines a few years earlier. It was even printed and he died shortly afterwards. Maybe Nestroy had bought the rights from Wollheim’s heirs.

The present production was originally played at Vienna’s Burgtheater during the 2005/2006 season and was a great success and last season it was staged at the Vienna Volksoper, from where this recording comes. Robert Meyer re-elaborated the piece further—to what extent it differs from Nestroy’s version I don’t know and this is, honestly, beside the point. Suffice it to say that this is a highly entertaining performance. It is a one-man-show with Robert Meyer playing and singing all the roles as well as being the narrator. The image from the DVD box above shows that he does all this with small means: no sets, no costumes, just a few attributes to illustrate the characters. Knowing Wagner’s is not necessary, even though the parody becomes more obvious if one does. It also helps to be reasonably versed in German but those who are not will be able to follow the play through English or French subtitles.

Robert Meyer is certainly a tremendous actor and there isn’t a dull moment throughout the 80 minutes. He is well supported by the four musicians who, besides making the most of the clever arrangements, also function as opera chorus.

Any Wagner performance can be a heavy meal for an outsider. I am not sure if this performance is the best way to convert the uninformed but at least open-minded non-Wagnerians should be curious to find out what the real thing is like. Good sound and good pictures and as I already said.

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