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In Review > International

Die Walküre

Bayreuth Festival

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Anja Kampe as Sieglinde and Tobias Kehrer as Hunding in Frank Castorf’s production of Walküre at Bayreuth
© Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
In Review Catherine Foster Brunnhilde lg 818
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath
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Stephen Gould as Siegmund
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

THE NOVELTIES AT THIS YEAR'S Bayreuth Festival were not limited to the premiere of a new Lohengrin; the final revival run of Frank Castorf’s Walküre also featured a number of significant firsts (seen July 31). For the first time it its 142-year history, the festival presented a single Ring opera in an otherwise Ring-less season. To conduct these final performances of the controversial 2013 production (before it is consigned to the scrapheap), Bayreuth’s director Katharina Wagner unexpectedly signed Plácido Domingo, back at the festival for the first time in nearly two decades, to make his conducting debut here. 

The Spanish superstar wowed audiences here as Parsifal between 1992 and 1995 and as Siegmund in 2000. To say that Domingo was an unlikely choice to lead these performances would be putting it both politely and lightly. While Domingo has a solid reputation as a concert and opera conductor, he lacks the usual credentials that most maestros invited to Bayreuth have. For example, Domingo has never led a full performance of a Wagner opera before.

Given the “wild card” nature of Domingo’s appearance this festival season, the suspense was high, expectations were low, resentment was in the air and the notoriously exacting audience was virtually set up for disappointment. The magnificent festival orchestra performed with its characteristic radiance, but Domingo often struggled with the score’s intricacies, achieving poorly articulated phrases, and murky orchestral details indicated his relative lack of familiarity with the house’s peculiar acoustics. 

Perhaps due to his past experience singing Siegmund, Domingo’s first act was by far the most expressive and intimate, often to a fault. The tempos were dangerously slow, and sometimes struggled to pace the singers, most obviously during Siegmund’s Act I “Winterstürme.” Yet there was also a rough brilliance to much of this Walküre, and little denying the ferocious drive that Domingo brought to the opera’s liveliest moments. At any other opera house on earth, Domingo’s conducting, with its dramatic energy despite the unpolished moments, would have been considered more than serviceable. In Wagner’s hallowed shine, the faithful regarded him as an apostate. But if the thunderous applause after every act was any indication, they didn’t consider the evening completely wasted, not with a cast this sensational, in which new faces joined veterans from Castorf’s cycle. 

Back at the festival for the first time since 2015—when reported clashes between Christian Thielemann and Kirill Petrenko led her to withdraw from that summer’s new production of Tristan—Anja Kampe revived her searingly emotional Sieglinde. (The same role was her international breakthrough in 2003, singing at Domingo’s side at Washington National Opera). Since her last Bayreuth appearances, the German soprano has made sensational debuts as Brünnhilde, Kundry and, most recently, Isolde. In January, she seemed emotional overwhelmed by being made Kammersängerin after a performance of Walküre in Munich. Singing the same role in Bayreuth several months later, she sang with a similar combination of noble lyricism and wrenching pain. Kampe achieved less emotional immediacy in Bayreuth than in Munich, which might have been due to the distractions of Castorf’s staging. 

Stephen Gould, Bayreuth’s Tristan du jour, sang a robust Siegmund, a role he recently debuted in Tokyo. Over the course of the lengthy role, he put his rich Heldentenor to excellent use, although the out-of-synch moments with the orchestra earned him a few boos at the final curtain call. But for all the vocal finesse on display, his Siegmund lacked the acumen of Gould’s masterly and fully fleshed-out Tristan interpretation. 

Catherine Foster, the British dramatic soprano who has been the Castorf Ring’s one and only Brünnhilde for the past six years, once again electrified with her incisive, clarion tones, exciting stamina and bold acting.  Her voice sounded somewhat less fresh than it did six years ago, but it has become fuller-bodied and more expressively agile. Swedish baritone John Lundgrun returned for third consecutive year as Wotan, singing with more power and pathos than he did when covering for an indisposed Wolfgang Koch in the above-mentioned Munich performance. Marina Prudenskaya’s Fricka was cackling and fierce, although Bayreuth must be running low on Valkyries nowadays because the Russian mezzo returned in Act III as Schwertleite. Rounding out the cast was Tobias Kehrer, a resplendent bass at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, making his Bayreuth debut as a grim, gripping Hundig. (Kehrer also sings small roles in this summer’s Meistersinger and Parsifal).    

One essay in this year’s program makes the argument for presenting the second Ring opera, which contains the philosophical core of the cycle, in isolation. Castorf’s Walküre most fully lays out his approach to the tetralogy as a metaphor for the worldwide scramble for oil in the twentieth century. Few productions have been as divisive, if not as outright hated, at Bayreuth as Castorf’s post-dramatic and radically deconstructive Ring. (Another essay argues, rather feebly, to convince the audience of the production’s importance). Bayreuth has a notoriously long waitlist for tickets, but after its debut season Castorf’s Ring was rarely sold-out. 

Encountering this Walküre for the first time since the premiere, I was struck with how tame it now seemed, especially by the director’s grueling standards. Castorf’s has slowly been applying his provocations to operas throughout Germany, with both success (his magnificently crass Faust in Stuttgart) and failure (his chaotic and muddled From the House of the Dead in Munich). What works in his Walküre works splendidly. The rest is just annoying or confusing (much of the video, for instance), rather than offensive. 

On opening night of the revival, Castorf didn’t bother putting in an appearance; he was putting on Knut Hamsun’s Hunger at the Salzburg Festival. In past years, the director has always fielded a hailstorm of boos at the curtain call, standing his ground defiantly and daring the audience to howl as loud as they could. This time around, the most vociferous boos greeted Domingo, who, looking bemused, made a slight bow and smiled. He took it like a pro.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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