Yesterday, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, where devotees of Richard Wagner converge annually from all over the world, opened its doors again for this year’s festival. Traditionally presented on the first evening, the new production for this season was Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (to use the opera’s full name), presented to a capacity audience.

Stephen Gould (Tannhäuser), Elena Zhidkova (Venus) and Manni Laudenbach
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

The premiere drew intense attention, in part because it marked Valery Gergiev’s Bayreuth debut, and in part because the role of Venus was taken over by Russian soprano Elena Zhidkova at short notice (her compatriot, Ekaterina Gubanova, had to pull out due to injury). It also provided German director Tobias Kratzer with his first production on the Green Hill.

Kratzer and his creative team, Rainer Sellmeier (set and costume designs) and Manuel Braun (video) courageously challenged the traditionally accepted conflict of the eponymous hero’s raw, utterly sensual passion towards Venus on the one hand, and his serene and sacred love towards Elisabeth on the other. Thus, the powerful tension between sexual and spiritual love was almost completely missing from Kratzer’s reading of Wagner’s text and music – that is, until the crude and gratuitous copulation between Elisabeth and Wolfram in Act 3, absent from Wagner’s stage directions.

Le Gateau Chocolat, Manni Laudenbach, Stephen Gould (Tannhäuser)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

This tension is replaced by a different one, between ordinary people in an ordinary society with a focus on Elisabeth and an alternate world, represented by four hoodlums, two of whom are Tannhäuser, as a clown, and Venus in a glittery cocktail dress. Next, there is a dwarf (a direct reference to Oscar Matzerath, the child protagonist of Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum), while the last one is Le Gateau Chocolat, a celebrated drag icon. This puzzled me, not only because many members of the audience would not recognise them, but more because if they did, in what way did it enhance Kratzer’s confronting artistic concept?

Thought-provoking reinterpretations of a dramatic conflict are always exciting and who would object to the pranks of a lithe, sexy Venus? However, this concept of “otherness”, while appealing on the surface, clashed regularly with both Wagner’s libretto and music. In the overture, video utterly distracted from the music, telling an alternative story of the four hoodlums in their battered van, taking drugs, stealing from Burger King and killing a policeman. Our eyes could not help but follow the events on screen and thus our ears failed to pay attention to Gergiev’s splendid orchestra and stylish music-making. Elsewhere, in Act 2, a video on the upper part of a split screen (showing behind-the-stage scenes, technicians at work and nervous singers) again distracted from not just the actual stage but more importantly from what makes Bayreuth so extraordinarily unique: Wagner’s music.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

The quality of the singing was extremely high, both from the soloists and the chorus. The technical difficulties of Tannhäuser’s role seemed easy for American tenor Stephen Gould to conquer. Of many highlights, his Romerzählung in Act 3, with the delicate accompaniment of three flutes and an oboe, particularly appealed. Elena Zhidkova not only looked the part of the ever-alluring Venus but with her strong voice and clear articulation also made her credible. Her counterpart, Elisabeth was sung by Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen, with an equally strong voice, which sounded initially somewhat tense and forced; a problem disappearing later and probably caused by nerves.

Stephen Milling’s warm and sonorous bass served eminently well in the role of the Landgraf. As Wolfram von Eschenbach, German baritone Markus Eiche’s rendition was touchingly beautiful in his aria to the evening star, “O du mein holder Abendstern”. In other roles, Daniel Behle (Walter von der Vogelweide), Kay Stiefermann (Biterolf), Jorge Rodríguez-Norton (Heinrich), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Reinmar von Zweter) and Katharina Konradi (Shepherd) contributed to the success of the evening.

Manni Laudenbach and Lise Davidsen (Elisabeth)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Some of the director’s ideas worked well: in Scene 4 of Act 1, the famous Pilgrims’ Chorus was sung by elegantly clad members of the audience walking towards the Festspielhaus in the distance. In Act 2, our lithe, sexy Venus crashing the party adds a comic element to the song contest, but at least does not disturb the flow of the music (even if, of course, this is not in Wagner’s original). However, such ideas did little to offset the problematic juxtaposition of a traditional world and its opposing “otherness”. Nowhere did this become more obvious than in the final moments of the opera, always a test to the director: how to express redemption through love, a fundamental topos in several of Wagner's works. Kratzer’s answer came – yet again – by video. While all on stage reiterate the Pilgrims’ Chorus one more glorious time, on the screen, Tannhäuser and Venus take off in their van, into the digital sunset. Happy end, but no redemption.