This year’s entertainingly transgressive new production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at the Bayreuth Festival has caused one German-language newspaper to dub the provincial town “Gayreuth” after director Tobias Kratzer turned Venusberg, the land where Venus and her minions live in perpetual orgy, into an anarchist road gang that included the British/Nigerian drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat.
The audience loved him and pretty much everything else about this cunning production, including another Kratzer addition — a German actor impersonating Oscar in “The Tin Drum.” The cast was loudly acclaimed by hundreds of feet happily stomping on the wood-plank floors of the Festival House as singer after singer took a bow, with the loudest cheers for the sensational emerging Wagnerian soprano Lise Davidsen as a suicidal Elisabeth.
Last to take a bow was Russia’s greatest conductor, Valery Gergiev, making his Bayreuth debut. The mood immediately darkened. The audience booed with an anger that seemed to express more than displeasure. It was outright hatred.
Three nights later across the Austrian border at the Salzburg Festival, Gergiev appeared in this congenial town’s Great Festival House to conduct a grand new production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” with the Vienna Philharmonic as the orchestra. As he walked into the pit (uniquely hidden at Bayreuth, lest sight of an orchestra break the Wagnerian spell), the Russian conductor was warmly applauded. After intermission he was welcomed with robust bravos. At the curtain call, his was the most lavish reception.
What gives? Gergiev’s conducting style needed to be very different these two nights to accommodate the highly distinctive acoustics of the two venues, to say nothing of accommodating the diverse dramatic and musical needs. I found Gergiev the key ingredient to the big successes dramatically and musically both evenings and marveled at his ability to change gears to brilliantly suit the occasion.