Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2016. Director Frank Castorf, conducted by Marek Janowski, reviewed by Tony Cooper
Berlin-based, avant-garde theatre director Frank Castorf arrived on the Green Hill in 2013, making his Bayreuth début with the Ring cycle that celebrated Wagner’s bicentenary. It offered him huge opportunities and he exploited them to the full.
Change is necessary at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival and Castorf certainly saw to that. But so, before him, did Wieland Wagner. He went beyond the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day, replacing them by minimalist affairs, facing forceful opposition in doing so.
His Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 – the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War – was booed, in company with Patrice Chéreau’s politically-motivated centenary Ring in 1976. Today, they are hailed as masterpieces. So ist das Leben!
Wieland was also derided for his 1956 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, stripped of its pageantry. Bayreuth audiences saw it as an outrage and the breaking up of a most ‘sacred German Wagner tradition’. His niece, Katharina Wagner, followed in his footsteps and received the same treatment for her recent production of the same opera.
The protests continue. It is now the fourth time that I’ve seen Castorf’s Ring which many Wagnerites found out of kilter. But while the Bayreuth booing mafia enjoy their moment of glory, other attendees voice their approval just as loudly. Perhaps Bayreuth audiences are getting used to change.
A deconstructionist, Castorf shifted the scenario of his Ring production from its traditional romantic Rhineland setting to the rough-and-tough world of oil prospecting, setting the scenes in the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union. Therefore, ‘black gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard. The music and libretto, however, remained as Wagner ordered. This remains sacred ground.
The sets were ingeniously designed by Serbian artist Aleksandar Denić and constructed on a large revolving stage built on a variety of levels, while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were strikingly colourful. For instance, when Erda – the role attractively sung by Nadine Weissmann and one of a handful of singers retained for this year’s festival – arrives on the scene at the end of Das Rheingold warning Wotan (authoritatively sung by Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson) of impending doom, she enters in a striking, gold-lamé, tight-fitting dress attired in a white mink coat. Likewise, Mime (Andreas Conrad) looked a picture of discontent, flashily dressed in the style of an Elvis impersonator bullied by Alberich, sung with great confidence by Albert Dohmen.
Rainer Casper completed the creative team with his flood of rainbow-coloured lighting in Das Rheingold. Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull produced some intelligent video sequences, adding an extra dimension to the overall stage picture. Hand-held cameras captured the stage action that was immediately projected on to large screens and used effectively throughout the cycle, especially in Alberich’s boastful scene when he describes the powers of the Tarnhelm. As he morphs into a giant snake and then a croaking toad, the amphibious creatures are caught on camera and immediately beamed on screen.
A rundown 1950s motel located on Route 66, aptly named ‘Golden’, provided an apposite setting for Das Rheingold. It offered free wi-fi service, though, while Die Walkure was transported to the oil-prospecting city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia and Siegfried shared the revolving stage with Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and the sculpted carved heads of Communist chiefs Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in a Mount Rushmore-style setting. Götterdämmerung, on the other hand, was dominated in the final scene by the façade of the New York Stock Exchange where black gold is traded for the real stuff.And the real stuff was the choice of payment that the giants Fafner (Karl-Heinz Lehner) and Fasolt (Günther Groissböch) favoured in exchange for Freia. Portrayed as ‘grease-monkeys’ and kitted out in Detroit fashion with blue dungarees, they exchanged her for the golden bounty in one of the upstairs rooms of the ‘Golden’.
The Rhine seemed a long way off. But perhaps not. The peanut-shaped aquamarine pool of the ‘Golden’ saw to that, with the Rhinemaidens lazing about on sun-loungers, while Alberich played with a toy duck.
The famed trio – who sang without a hitch and acted equally well – comprised Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde) and Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde/First Norn) while Christiane Kohl sang Third Norn. They teased poor-old Alberich to bursting-point with articles of their underwear, while the final punch came by covering his head with a pair of black tights.
Wotan – the boss of the oil-field in Die Walkure was depicted as a Mafia-type character and was seen in Das Rheingold enjoying a ‘threesome’ with his wife and sister-in-law, Fricka and Freia (Sarah Connolly/Caroline Wenborne).
The Russian mezzo-soprano, Marina Prudenskaya, perfectly fitted the role of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung and that lovely scene where she warns Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse in Götterdämmerung was brilliantly executed and passionately sung by Ms Prudenskaya. Markus Eiche and Allison Oakes proved a good pairing in the brother-sister roles of Gunther and Gutrune feeling the heat and the brute-force of Hagen, so brilliantly sung by Stephen Milling, who chilled the air just by his presence, let alone his actions.
Castorf added a nice touch to the underground city of Nibelheim by putting it on wheels. America is a car-driven society, so what better way to represent Nibelheim than by a silver-plated, mobile trailer, which leisurely rode America’s iconic Route 66 but ended up in Götterdämmerung parked right outside the New York Stock Exchange?
A striking scene unfolded in Das Rheingold. Alberich pulled up on the forecourt of the ‘Golden’ to fill up, while the Rhinemaidens pulled away on a full tank in a chrome-trimmed, black convertible Mercedes-Benz. And to sort out the Gods’ crossing to Valhalla, a rainbow-coloured flag represented the rainbow bridge.
Christopher Ventris and Heidi Melton stamped their credentials on the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre and were complemented by Georg Zeppenfeld’s moody reading of Hunding, while Catherine Foster’s portrayal of Brünnhilde (the first English-born soprano to sing the role at Bayreuth) was scintillating. She is blessed with a strong voice that harbours so much tonal colour. Her curtain call, deservedly, was rapturous.
In Die Walküre, Brünnhilde and her Warrior Maidens skilfully navigated some tricky moments on a variety of uneven surfaces on the Baku oil-rig gathering the Fallen Heroes. In this instance, they were workers battling against the odds after being overcome by toxic fumes following the Soviet’s decision to dynamite the rig to halt the great German advance in 1942. Stefan Vinke as Siegfried brought out the youthfulness and naiveté of Siegfried’s unworldly character.
On top of all this The Woodbird (beautifully sung by Ana Durlovski, lavishly dressed in a Rio Carnival-style outfit) came down on Siegfried in a rash moment of passion and Erda performed an indecent act on Wotan/The Wanderer in a pasta restaurant, only to be rudely interrupted by the waiter presenting him the bill.
Gangland B-movie world was rife in this production with gangsters and their molls replacing Nordic Gods. Markus Eiche as Donner (god of thunder) fitted his role perfectly wearing a Stetson and armed with a Colt 49, while Froh (god of spring) was tenderly portrayed by Tansel Akzeybek and Roberto Saccà (Loge), suitably attired for pyrotechnical action in a flaming-red suit, incessantly lighting a Zippo.
Götterdämmerung hit the buffers somewhat quietly. Wagner’s music radiated around the vastness of the Graeco-Roman-designed Festspielhaus in a haunting way with the Rhinemaidens shadowing Brünnhilde every inch to retrieve the ring, while Hagen, looking disillusioned and forlorn, stared longingly into a raging-burning brazier, knowing that the game was up.
This production, I predict, will eventually be hailed as a ‘classic’. It is one that you need to come to with an open mind. As for the Bayreuth booing brigade, I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s waspish remark. The best way to enjoy the Ring, he observed, was at the back of a box with your feet up and your eyes closed. He was just as cantankerous as todays Bayreuth ‘old guard’.
One wonders, too, that if you could return to the days of Richard Wagner (who would have enjoyed current arguments about how his operas should be staged), what would modern-day audiences make of his style? Would they take to it? And, of course, Wagner was as punctilious about his productions as directors today.
What goes on in the pit is just as important as on the stage. Full marks therefore to Marek Janowski for outstanding work with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. He energised his charges so well, especially in the big production numbers such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, under lining the marvellous acoustic properties of the Festspielhaus. It remains the best place to hear the music of Richard Wagner in all its radiant glory.
TONY COOPER is QR’S Opera Critic