With a successful staging, a spectacular re-casting, a difficult primadonna, and an overbooked conductor — it was a colorful season at the Bayreuth Festival.
Postcards showing Elena Zhidkova in her Venus costume, a glittering, tight-fitting cat suit, were sold in no time — sold and often immediately dispatched at the little post office across from the Festspielhaus. The artist herself snatched up the last two, she revealed.
Zhidkova was the unchallenged cover girl of this year's Wagner festival. One reviewer called her "the hottest Venus ever," and then wondered whether that terminology was still permissible nowadays. It was all the more astonishing considering that the singer from St. Petersburg was cast at the very last minute — in an emergency when Ekaterina Gubanova, originally slated for the role and also from Russia, had to back down after a serious injury sustained in a rehearsal.
Well-established on the European opera scene, Zhidkova came, saw and conquered the heart of the Wagner world. Vocal performance, charisma and elan served her well, not only in mastering the big role with only four stage rehearsals, but also in refilming the video sequences that are so essential in Tobias Kratzer’s staging of Tannhäuser.
A star is born. No, actually, two stars: Norwegian Lise Davidsen, 32 years young, took on the role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in a sort of dress rehearsal for bigger Wagnerian roles that probably lie ahead. Her performance on opening day, July 25, was something else that made the trip to Bayreuth worthwhile.
Read more: Tannhäuser: A play within a play
Tannhäuser in good company
Eyes and ears are usually trained on the festival opening, and the 108th season of the Richard Wagner Festival began with the ninth production of Tannhäuser in festival history. Critics described the rendition by the 39-year-old German star director Tobias Kratzer as clever and hard-hitting, with many new technical effects but everything derived from the score.
It was the third triumph in as many years for the festival. The Mastersingers as staged in 2017 by Barrie Kosky and Lohengrin, were presented last year by Yuval Sharon with a standard-setting mise-en-scene created by German artists Rosa Loy und Neo Rauch. A string of successes like this is rare in Bayreuth festival history.
The stagings are currently matched by an orchestra giving highest-level performances and a solid ensemble of singers including names like Markus Eiche, Daniel Behle, Günter Groissböck, Tansel Akzeybek and Georg Zeppenfeld. Bayreuth can arguably again assert its status at the Mount Olympus of Wagnerian performance.
Gergiev and Netrebko
The debut of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev at the Bayreuth Festival had been eagerly anticipated. Many felt that the appearance of the "Wagner Czar" was years, if not decades, overdue. It was that same Gergiev, after all, who in the past twenty years at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg had mounted Wagner’s complete works and unleashed a new cult of Wagner in Russia, the first since the October Revolution of 1917. In an interview with DW in 2012, the maestro even referred to his own "Alternative Bayreuth" on the River Neva.
The word spread to Bayreuth — to the festival director and to the influential orchestral management. After conductor Andris Nelsons threw in the towel four seasons ago, Gergiev was discussed as a candidate to replace him in "Parsifal." Schedules could not be brought into agreement however, but he was invited to wield the baton in Tannhäuser 2019.
In the end, internal sources from both sides reported that the meeting of maestro and musicians was a disappointment. The chemistry wasn't there, it is said, and Gergiev wasn't able to convey his vision to the instrumentalists. Most listeners felt that the sound from the pit was sometimes inspired, but in general, simply functional.
Was it due time constraints? Gergiev's last-minute operations are notorious in the music world, as is his tight schedule: Parallel to Bayreuth, Gergiev was also conducting in Salzburg in Austria and Verbier in Switzerland; and preparing a presentation of "Parsifal" in Vladivostok, 11,000 kilometers away. This kind of schedule is par for the course for this conductor, however. Nor did the controversy over his warm support for Russian President Vladmir Putin seem to stand in the way.
Had expectations simply been too high, on both sides? Whatever the answer, it is clear that Valery Gergiev will not return to the Green Hill in Bayreuth. Nor does he have to. Next year, Axel Kober will take over.
An even greater disappointment was the short-term cancellation of Anna Netrebko. Health reasons were cited: After fulfilling other obligations, notably in Salzburg, the star soprano had to take a summer break to avoid exhaustion. Her Instagram account documents the singer switching to a more leisurely pace in the company of her family on the Caspian and Black Sea coasts. Netrebko doesn't need Bayreuth. Perhaps Bayreuth doesn't need Netrebko either. This festival makes a point of saying that it has only one star: Richard Wagner.
Anna Netrebko with her husband Yusif Eyvazov: the tenor, too, cancelled his performances in Verona "due to exhaustion"
Bayreuth 2020: A new "Ring" — and women wait their turn
In 2020 the four-opera Ring of the Nibelung cycle will receive a facelift at the festival. That news is not sensational in itself, but there was a surprising change in the road map: Instead of Tatjana Gürbaca, the 29-year-old Austrian director Valentin Schwarz will be in charge of the stage direction, and the 39-year-old Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen will take over the musical direction.
Inkinen spent much of this season getting accustomed to the particulars of the Bayreuth Festival Theater — something that, it is clear, Valery Gergiev would never have done. The production team thus consists of two Wagner newcomers.
Some were disappointed that a woman stage director was not named, but it was announced that in the 2021 season, a maestra will sit in the orchestra pit.