Commentary: For Putin-backed conductor Valery Gergiev, boos and cheers at Bayreuth and Salzburg


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.


To what degree radically differing attitudes toward Gergiev are based on personal — and political — rather than musical reasons is hard to sort out. The talk in Bayreuth has been all about how unprepared Gergiev was when he showed up for rehearsals. “Tannhäuser” opened the festival on July 25, and the reviews were nearly unanimous in citing Gergiev as the evening’s one flaw, the orchestra sounding wan. Calls came instantly to remove him.

When he dropped out of the third performance it was first far too widely assumed he had been canned. Then it was announced that he would not be back for the next summer’s revival of the production. Obviously, he must have been canned.

In fact, the cancellation was because his mother had died unexpectedly. He had never intended to return for the revival. His schedule is insanely busy.

I presume the performance I heard, Gergiev’s third, was an improvement over the earlier ones. Adjusting to Bayreuth’s pit, where the conductor has to be a fraction of a second ahead of the singers, takes practice. Plácido Domingo, thrown by the challenge, was booed last year when he conducted for the first time in Bayreuth.

Even so, the complaints about Gergiev being on the light side discounted that this was exactly what the crazy production needed. “Tannhäuser” uses video to show the angst-ridden anarchists storming the theater, and it requires a conductor with agility to go along for the wild ride. There was a further need to accommodate a range of voices, from the large and dramatic Davidsen to the lighter, electric soprano of Elena Zhidkova, a Pussy Riot of a Venus.


Gergiev handled all of this masterfully, as he did in giving added instrumental vibrancy to Stephen Gould’s otherwise straightforward Tannhäuser, who here is a troubled clown in troupe. Too big of Wagnerian blast would have further spoiled Le Gateau’s wonderful antics.

That Gergiev relishes the big and brassy when it works, moreover, couldn’t have been more evident in the magnificence of his “Boccanegra” in Salzburg.

Ultimately, it seemed that Gergiev’s favored status in Vladimir Putin’s Russia was the real source of the animosity.

Gergiev runs the Mariinsky empire, which extends from the opera and ballet in two St. Petersburg theaters (the second built with government support for Gergiev) and outposts in Vladivostok and the conductor’s native Caucasus. He heads the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

His relationship to Putin goes back to glasnost, when a young Gergiev was new music director of Mariinsky, and Putin championed the company as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. With Russian government support, as well as support from around the world — including the late Los Angeles philanthropist Richard Colburn and Renée and Henry Segerstrom in Costa Mesa — Gergiev has found funds to do what no other conductor anywhere can boast.

During a quick interview with Gergiev on Wednesday morning after “Boccanegra” and before his four-hour drive in pouring rain for a 4 p.m. curtain in Bayreuth, he had no interest in getting into politics. “The world doesn’t understand Russia, “ he said throwing his hands up.


And he has no time for anything but music. Beyond his Mariinsky commitment — a third outpost is being created on Sakhalin, a Russian island north of Japan — and the Tchaikovsky competition, he puts on the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Easter Festival, along with smaller festivals he has headed for decades in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the town of Mikkeli, Finland.

He co-founded with Esa-Pekka Salonen the Baltic Sea Festival, relating music with environmental issues. He heads Pacific Music Festival, an educational enterprise begun by Leonard Bernstein in Sapporo, Japan, and the high-end Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps. And then there is the Munich Philharmonic, of which he’s been music director since 2015.

Now 66, Gergiev has not stopped for the last 40 years and may even be speeding up. On Thursday he dashes out of Bayreuth to conduct the touring Mariinsky orchestra in Turku, Finland. Friday he has three concerts in two days at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria. Sunday, he’s back at Bayreuth. If it’s Monday, it’s Ljubljana. Tuesday, Salzburg, again. Wednesday, Gergiev conducts Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the Château Louis XI in La Cote-Saint André, France. And so it goes with seven more concerts and operas over the following six days before he opens the Mariinsky season in St. Petersburg on Sept. 6.

How does he do it? Gergiev shrugs. He’s experienced. His mission, he said, has always been serving music and exposing the world — and Russia itself — to Russian culture. That, he insisted, is his politics.

His passion has increasingly become education, the next generation. At the Mariinsky, Gergiev has developed a long line of singers, such as Anna Netrebko, as well as orchestra musicians. He is particularly excited by the latest generation.

This is the Gergiev whom Salzburg loves. Colburn funded Gergiev and the Mariinsky’s first appearances at the festival more than a quarter century ago. This is where he has been nurtured and became an international star.

I can say this from attending Gergiev’s two opera performances: When there is a feeling of love rather than hate in a concert hall, you leave with a sense that in this world of divisiveness, we just might make up our minds to get along, to find the good and not the bad in one another.

That just so happens to be the theme of “Boccanegra,” which starred Luca Salsi in the title role of the Doge. He tries to put an end to the thug-like factions running around tweeting “Make Genoa great again” in Andreas Kriegenburg’s imposing and affecting production.


Who knows whether captains of industry and politicians who see this production, which has been filmed to be streamed on, will inspire anyone to act better? Gergiev does not fancy himself any kind of cultural ambassador. He merely hopes to set an example.

As his car arrived, he quickly explained his role in mentoring young musicians. “They have all the technique they will ever need,” he said. “They just need to develop a little soul.”