In Review > International

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Bayreuth Festival

In Review Bayreuth 1 hdl 1113
Image problems: Castorf's new staging of Siegfried at Bayreuth
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath 2013

F rank Castorf was not Bayreuth's first choice to direct  Der Ring des Nibelungen  in Richard Wagner's bicentennial year. Contractual difficulties caused film director Wim Wenders to cancel — just as Lars von Trier had canceled the last new Bayreuth  Ring , in 2006. East Berlin-born Castorf was faced with the enormous task of conceiving and staging this massively complex cycle in half the usual time. That Castorf is professional enough to accomplish the task is a given. He is, however, well known as a director who has no reverence for the work at hand, no respect for author or composer and even less respect for the audience. Following the principles of Bertolt Brecht, he uses his productions to teach — often with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. His is theater on an epic scale, using pictures or videos superimposed ad nauseam to underscore his relevant or irrelevant message. His method is deconstruction: he destroys the work and leaves the public to pick up the pieces. His greatest fulfillment seems to be pummeling the audience into a state of helplessness and then adding more confusion. 

That Wagner maps emotions through the use of leitmotifs is of no consequence to Castorf. In most cases, he simply ignored the music; elsewhere, he staged against it. There is no question that the Ring has a political as well as a human message, but Castorf ignored the human side and invented a political epic-saga that quite often had nothing to do with Wagner. Most of the "big moments" were either ignored or made into laughable travesties. To say that the production was a total failure, scandalously misconceived, a slap in the face of both the conservative and the progressive sides of the Bayreuth public is an understatement. 

There is something to be said for disorientation: it can rock the audience out of its accustomed intellectual lethargy, at the same time satisfying those looking for new interpretive direction. In this case, Castorf's mishandling of seventeen hours of music drama left both sides incredulous and incensed. His addiction to seeking a radically different perspective led to a cycle with no perspective at all. His refusal to identify with any of the characters — with the possible exceptions of Brünnhilde and Hagen — led to a cycle in which the audience was goaded into a fury of rejection. Any insights into the story — and there were some — were negated by hours of senseless topsy-turvy antics. Ultimately, unrelenting provocation provoked sheer boredom. The new direction that Bayreuth is continually seeking turned into an old-fashioned Frank Castorf sideshow. Instead of reinterpreting Wagner's saga, Castorf staged his own political view of the economic and moral downfall of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) — a sort of "This is your life, Frank Castorf" with a lot of Wagnerian music as accompaniment. 

Several themes dominated, but in no continuous form. These included oil and its value, the Russian revolution, and conditions in East Germany under Communist rule. Das Rheingold (seen Aug. 14) was set at a rundown motel in Texas on Route 66. The Gods were Pulp Fiction gangsters. Most of the action was confined to a small, enclosed room above the main entrance. Vocal projection from the window of the room was difficult, to say the least, and Castorf managed to undermine the wonderful Bayreuth acoustics. As the room filled up, it called to mind the stateroom in the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera. The Rhinemaidens were turned into whores, with Erda as a madam. Alberich played with a rubber ducky, and he and the nixies sprayed each other with condiments. Wotan was first discovered in bed, having sex with both Fricka and Freia. The Rhine was a small motel swimming pool. Violence ran rampant. Videos constantly distracted from the music. Patric Seibert mimed the non-existent role of a bartender. Seibert reappeared throughout the cycle in a number of guises, most of which have nothing to do with Wagner's tetrology. The set (Aleksandar Denic) was so realistic that it became surreal. (Denic's work throughout the cycle was astounding, even if the superb sets were unrelated to the story.) Vocally, only Günther Groissböck (Fasolt) was of world-class stature. Martin Winkler was a strong-voiced Alberich, Claudia Mahnke a promising Fricka. Sorin Coliban (his fake beard making him look like one of the Smith Brothers of cough-drop fame) sang a sturdy Fafner. Wolfgang Koch is among the world's elite Alberichs. Here, trying his hand at Wotan, he showed strength and range but not perhaps the depth of understanding that the role demands. Then again, how could he hope to do so in a production like this?

Die Walküre (Aug. 15) takes place in 1871 in Baku, Azerbaijan, location of the first oil refinery in Russia. The wooden set, reaching into the heights, is massive. For once, Castorf let the music come to the fore, and Act I was one of the few highlights. Anja Kampe was a stunning, moving Sieglinde, magnificently partnered by Johan Botha and by a sonorous, if dramatically brutal, Franz-Josef Selig as Hunding. All sang superbly, particularly the mellifluous Botha; video was kept to a minimum, and hopes were temporarily raised. Act II saw Wotan (Wolfgang Koch) as a long-bearded Russian patriarch and Fricka (a very much vocally present Claudia Mahnke) costumed gorgeously as an Oriental princess by designer Adriana Braga Peretzki. Catherine Foster sang an enormously sympathetic Brünnhilde, her tone rich and full, even if her diction left much to be desired. The Valkyries, each costumed differently, were a fine brood. Wotan was by this time a beardless oligarch. True to form, Castorf killed all the emotional high points of Act III. Brünnhilde simply walked offstage to go to sleep while a fire burned on an oil tower in the foreground. Conductor Kirill Petrenko, after a lackluster Rheingold, came into his own in Walküre, breathing life and expression into the score and drawing amazing playing from the orchestra.

Most of Siegfried (Aug. 17) takes place on Berlin's Alexanderplatz in the time of the Wall. The hero is a miserable brute, antisocial and lacking any redeeming virtue. He sort of forges a sword but is much more interested in his Kalashnikovs. Mime's caravan is at the foot of a huge Mount Rushmore parody (Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao). Fafner lives in a subway station, the Forest Bird (in an extravagant costume weighing nearly forty pounds) is a review dancer at the Friedrichspalast Theater, with whom Siegfried later will have sex. The nadir of the cycle was the Wanderer–Erda scene, in which the chief god ate a spaghetti dinner and drank himself into a stupor; the former was a noble whore. At the end of that musically extraordinary scene, Wotan pushed Erda to her knees and demanded to be orally satisfied, giving new meaning to the closing text "hinab Erda, hinab" (Go down, Erda, go down). The booing inflicted on Nadine Weissmann, a perfectly good Erda, had more to do with the staging than with her singing. Siegfried killed Fafner loudly via Kalashnikov. Wolfgang Koch gave his best performance as the Wanderer. Burkhard Ulrich was a suitably repulsive Mime, Catherine Foster a glowing Brünnhilde, Martin Winkler a strong Alberich, bullet-riddled Sorin Coliban a sonorous Fafner, Mirella Hagen a lovely Forest Bird. That leaves Lance Ryan, who made it through the title role with voice to spare, but whose voice, in a steady stream of fortissimo, was more bleat than tone. Petrenko moved confidently from strength to strength. 

Bayreuth Götterdammerung hdl 2 1113
Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth, with Ryan, Allison Oakes (Gutrune) and Foster
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath 2013

Götterdämmerung (Aug. 19) brought us back to Alexanderplatz and East Berlin, but we also wandered to the New York Stock Exchange building. Voodoo played a significant role. Siegfried and Brünnhilde lived in the same caravan used by Mime. Castorf brought in a bit of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the Gibichungs were a motorcycle gang, Alberich appeared in only his underpants, etc. In one memorable scene, Castorf left the singers alone. The Brünnhilde–Waltraute meeting offered singing, acting and orchestral playing at their very best, with both Catherine Foster and Claudia Mahnke showing the frustrated audience how things ought to be done. Foster, in fact, was brilliant throughout the opera. Attila Jun was a malevolent, brutally violent Hagen with a voice not quite sufficient for the role. Norns and Rhinemaiden were excellent. It would take up too much space to recount all of the malheurs in the staging, and by the time Götterdämmerung neared its absurdly staged finale, nobody in the audience seemed to care anymore. Petrenko very nearly clutched victory out of defeat. Castorf himself did not appear for a curtain call on August 19, although the unending booing at the end of the first cycle in late July reportedly seemed to please him beyond description. spacer


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