Between Wartburg Castle’s bastion of civilisation and the decadence that reigns in Venusberg, Wagner’s original 13th-century setting for Tannhäuser gets oodles of modern mileage in Bayreuth’s new 2019 production. In his house debut, director Tobias Kratzer brings inventive contemporary relevance to the work, rather eschewing the medieval moral rigidity – as well as any overt reference to the theme of redemption – and lays bare a bleak romantic thriller of fatal attraction. The problem is, it doesn’t consistently work with Wagner’s libretto. On the other hand, with no surtitles to draw attention to inconsistencies, Kratzer at the very least takes you on a wild, confronting and bittersweet ride in three acts you won’t easily forget.

Stephen Gould and Elena Zhidkova. Photo © Bayreuther Festpiele/Enrico Nawrath

Here, Venusberg is not a place but is simply the anarchic lifestyle Venus and some colourful misfits set upon. During the long, vividly sculptured overture, Kratzer draws his audience into something of a B-grade movie on the big screen. The minx-like Venus at the wheel of her quirky old van, a vivacious black drag queen, a dwarf and Tannhäuser, as a clown, are driving through the German countryside, a law unto themselves and thinking nothing of diddling Burger King out of a free meal and siphoning off petrol before Venus, in a panic, mows down a policeman. With just enough sanity to feel remorse, it’s Tannhäuser’s exit out of lawlessness. Any sense that this is about the nature of love is challenging to find, but in relation to the work’s interest in artistic freedom, Kratzer makes in-roads.

Tannhäuser ends up not at Wartburg Castle but outside the Festspielhaus, praising God as the well-heeled and highly privileged pass by to engage with opera on the Green Hill. Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Landgrave’s hunting party are singers who become part of Act II in a staid period production of the actual opera, with Tannhäuser returning to his career, in the title role naturally, alongside Elisabeth. In black and white video footage, Venus and her accomplices are shown to be in pursuit. They break into the theatre, Venus restraining a chorus woman and ending up on the actual stage in a hoot of a scene as the Minnesingers begin the contest on the nature of love, and she bears witness to the actual love Tannhäuser and Elisabeth share. Surprises follow, with the police showing up and arresting Tannhäuser after he presumably takes the blame for the hit-and-run depicted in the overture.

Manni Laudenbach and Lise Davidsen. Photo © Bayreuther Festpiele/Enrico Nawrath

Between a gutsy Venus and emotionally spent Elisabeth, Tannhäuser comes across as unlikeable and lost, moving from one world to the other somewhat freely but never finding solace in either. The strength that comes from Kratzer’s vision for Elisabeth is that she, an artist herself but hopelessly distraught over Tannhäuser’s second absence – not on a pilgrimage to Rome but doing time in prison it appears – opens herself to inclusiveness while waiting for his return in Act III’s roadside junkyard. It comes too late. In her abjection, her career is over, she has sex with Wolfram, he having to don the clown suit, and out of sight she takes her life. A revolve reveal a black drag queen on a billboard as both icon and luxury brand, Le Gateau Chocolat, representing the artist as commercial success. Oskar, the sailor-suited drumming dwarf has lost his spark, Venus continues on her merry way and, though it’s not clear if he dies or not, Tannhäuser feels deep remorse again.

The final act, despite having produced the most impressive singing in what was an overall thrillingly sung opening night, feels conceptually restless. But while the glove doesn’t always fit Wagner’s medieval tale, the production jigs along with uncanny appeal to his mid-19th century score. Kratzer’s creative team of Rainer Sellmaier (sets and costumes), Manuel Braun (video) and Reinhard Traub (lighting) all contribute greatly to its overall execution. In his Bayreuth debut, Valery Gergiev conducts with such verve that at multiple turns it was like hearing the score anew.

Stephen Gould and Lise Davidsen. Photo © Bayreuther Festpiele/Enrico Nawrath

Continuing his long association with Bayreuth that started in 2004 in the very same role of Tannhäuser, American Stephen Gould’s experience and potent heldentenor was in full evidence here. The big, molten centre of his chest voice conveyed much of the character’s soul, and although some of the high head notes he hit in the first act were uneven, Gould’s performance in the final act, particularly his wrenching Roman Narrative, was outstanding.

In her Bayreuth debut, Norwegian dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen brought exceptional crystalline vocal strength and emotional translucency to Elisabeth. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, stepping in for Ekaterina Gubanova who injured herself during rehearsal, earned thunderous applause for her uber-lithe and feisty Venus, the voice pliant and assured, her top notes clear and penetrating.

Markus Eiche is superbly cast as Wolfram von Eschenbach, bringing complexity to the mix and singing with a burnished baritone sound of radiance. Eiche’s Act III Song to the Evening Star was of particular poignancy, an aria that hints at Elisabeth’s impending death and which was sung with post-coital tenderness. Hefty Danish bass Stephen Milling balanced authority and compassion as Landgraf Hermann, while  German actor Manni Laudenbach as Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat were rhythm and zest combined, indispensable to the production. The chorus too were convincing in acting and excellent in voice.

A final thought. In referencing a period-set Tannhäuser in his interpretation, Kratzer could also be alluding to the need for opera never to shy away from reinvention. That the Festspielhaus, dating back to 1876, has embraced change and is committed to presenting Wagner’s work in ever critical and creative ways is glowingly on show here. As part of this intrepid production, in a Festspielhaus first, Le Gateau Chocolat performed in the garden during the first interval alongside Manni Laudenbach’s Oskar beating his drum and Venus sorting her banners, bearing the words “Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Geniessen” (Free in will, free in doing, free in enjoyment). You get the distinct feeling that Bayreuth not only takes its commitment seriously, it can do so with a good tongue-in-cheek look at itself.

Bayreuth Festival’s Tannhäuser runs until August 25


Limelight subscriptions start from $4 per month, with savings of up to 50% when you subscribe for longer.