For months, Frank Castorf had given only brief indications of what was to lie behind his concept for the bicentenary Ring for Bayreuth: it was to deal with oil and globalization. As far back as February 2012, the Intendant of Berlin’s Volksbühne referred in an interview in Die Welt to Russia and America as antipodes in his version of the story, with Germany sitting somewhere in the middle. He spoke also of a desire—quickly and predictably vetoed by Kirill Petrenko, the conductor of the cycle—to make changes to the score and the libretto. Castorf had turned down previous invitations to direct opera exactly because of this inflexibility, so the Ring seems a particularly perverse choice for him, presenting as it does a complex, tightly-woven, self-reflexive and -referential web of music and drama.
Unable to make changes to the text, then, the director opted largely to ignore it, with Wagner’s work apparently becoming a trifling obstacle to the telling of his own story (seen at the final cycle, on August 22, 23, 25 and 27 at the Festspielhaus). Castorf’s own professed aim to produce theatre that is not easily reducible into anything so literal-minded as a coherent narrative added another layer of confusion. And matters can’t have been helped by what seems to have been a chaotic rehearsal process: apparently only nine days could be spent rehearsing Das Rheingold, but vast swathes of Die Walküre, in particular, gave the impression of being even more fatally under-prepared.
In a programme essay, Castorf argued that the fragmented nature of the rehearsal process, with acts and scenes addressed more according to practical necessity than artistic choice, became part and parcel of the production’s aesthetic. The use of video (by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull)—projecting a mixture of live action and other filmed material onto whatever surfaces presented themselves—apparently underlined this by emphasizing the way that TV encourages us to hop from the key moments of one large-scale drama to those of another at the touch of a button.
However, I can’t have been alone in suspecting that such theoretical justification was hastily mobilized after the event to try and dignify poor stagecraft and largely absent Personenregie—after all, the distinction between deliberate fragmentariness and straightforward ineptitude is largely a chronological one. Castorf’s sensible central idea of oil as modern-day gold, meanwhile, came and went, offering the director little inspiration after having apparently dictated the bizarre and, one assumes, deliberately perverse choices of location and time for each instalment. The Tarantino-esque Rheingold was set in the Golden Motel, above a petrol station on Route 66 some time in the late 20th century, the prelude accompanying the Rhinemaidens lazily taking their knickers off a washing line as Alberich sat back on a sun lounger; Die Walküre was set on a primitive oil well in remote Baku, Azerbaijan in the early 20th century—a caged bird looked on as Act 1 unfolded, and a derrick was uncovered to nod perfunctorily through some of Wotan’s farewell. The last two instalments returned to the later 20th century: Siegfried’s action was split between a socialist Mount Rushmore (a slightly Verdi-like Marx, alongside Lenin, Stalin and Mao) and Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; Götterdämmerung’s switched between sordid backstreet Berlin and Wall Street, where a meticulously recreated facade of the New York Stock Exchange was unveiled shortly before the final scene—take that, capitalism! That it was doused in petrol but left unlit, I couldn’t help cynically assuming, was a touch of ambiguity dictated more by depleted budget and deficient theatrical imagination than anything else.
Castorf’s ill-focused polemicizing, when superimposed upon Wagner’s own infinitely more sophisticated and eloquent critique of capitalism, created a sense of tautology that effectively neutralized the whole thing. The literalness of Aleksandar Denić’s hugely complex and detailed revolving sets fitted uncomfortably with the slippery imprecision of the oily concept. In a production saturated with far too many fleeting, unrelated and undeveloped ideas to catalogue, the occasional detail in Wagner’s staging that Castorf did doggedly follow—counting out Freia’s weight in gold, an anachronistic Notung—stuck out awkwardly. The ugliness of it all, banishing beauty and all but the basest humanity, meant we also lost the powerful critique of the dehumanizing power of industry.
But Castorf’s greatest error was to portray all the characters of the tetralogy so vaguely and unsympathetically. Few of them seemed aware of—or indeed the least bit interested in—the story unravelling around them. Wotan, Loge and Alberich reclined lazily on deckchairs during the final scene of Rheingold, for example, and during Wotan’s great monologue in Die Walküre Brünnhilde was more interested in rearranging furniture than in anything her father had to say. The almost constant use of film served as a further distraction at this point and throughout. The projections of live close-ups, filmed by a mixture of hidden and deliberately visible cameramen, represented a promising innovation, carried out with impressive organization. But additional footage—hints of oily orgasm accompanying Sieglinde and Siegmund’s duet, for example, a Gollum-like figure pawing a blood-caked blonde during the Act 3 duet of Siegfried, or Hagen wandering through a forest during the Funeral March—added further counterpoint to already baffling stage action. The result was frustrating, unrewarding sensory overload.
Unsurprisingly, Wagner’s music came out of it badly, left to stand alone, referring only to itself, occasionally coinciding with a striking image to give it momentary emotional weight in the manner of high-class film music. That Petrenko’s conducting seemed to hit its stride during Siegfried might have been due to the fact that the whole of that opera’s first act was free of projections, with only an uncredited actor, who featured prominently in all but the second instalment, distracting from a relatively conventional double act between Lance Ryan’s rather inelegant but admirably reliable Siegfried and Burkhard Ulrich’s vivid, lanky Mime. Here, suddenly, the orchestral sound seemed sharper and better focused, while the details of Petrenko’s reading registered more clearly—particular care was taken with voicing of wind chords towards the lower instruments, and there was telling subtlety and economy elsewhere. Throughout Götterdämmerung the orchestra’s contribution gained further in quality, with Petrenko managing to communicate the growing sense of inevitable tragedy, in spite of Castorf’s production.
In the circumstances, the cast had managed extremely well in Rheingold. The action was constantly extended beyond those engaged actively in the drama at any point, with the projections showing Fasolt and Fafner (the eloquent, suited Günther Groissböck and the appropriately implacable Sorin Coliban, in singlet and dungarees) rough-housing the gas station attendant before their arrival upstairs, for example. The minor gods appeared in a variety of suits (Adriana Braga Peretzki was the costume designer), Norbert Ernst’s slightly underwhelming Loge in red, nervously flicking a lighter on and off, joining the solidly-sung Donner and Froh of Oleksandr Pushniak and Lothar Odinius. Claudia Mahnke (Fricka) and Elisabet Strid (Freia) seemed only one part of this oversexed, gangland Wotan’s harem, joined at the close by the Ur-tart that was Nadine Weissmann’s richly expressive Erda (she returned for a sordid, if amusingly-staged, encounter with the Wanderer in Siegfried).
As Wotan, Wolfgang Koch was impressive. His smooth bass-baritone benefited from the kind Bayreuth acoustic but occasionally left one longing for more edge and heft. Koch is a fine actor but he was wasted in a production that robbed the god of his complexity, never clearly defining who he was or what motivated him (Castorf managed to render the Ring itself, let alone what it represents, largely irrelevant, and never clearly outlined the gold-oil parallel). The same went for Martin Winkler’s Alberich, whose incisive singing and vivid acting needed more by way of directorial foundation. Even Anja Kampe’s wonderfully free-voiced and impassioned Sieglinde seemed hampered, while Johan Botha’s solid but inexpressive Siegmund was unable to do much during their duet when slumped, in what seemed like a rare instruction from Castorf, on the ground between a couple of hay bales.
Mirella Hagen was joined by Julia Rutigliano and Okka von der Dammerau to make up the Rhinemaidens, and her Forest Bird—in magnificent winged showgirl costume—was accurate but a touch brittle and soubrettish; and it was typical of the production that Siegfried ran off with her (having saved her from the jaws of a passing crocodile) at the end of the opera, only to reappear happily shacked up with Brünnhilde, in Mime’s trailer, at the start of Götterdämmerung.
Attila Jun’s bass seemed surprisingly soft-grained for Hagen, but it had the necessary darkness. The singer’s German could be indistinct, but he was an impressive presence, and portrayed the thuggish backstreet gangster fearsomely. Mahnke returned as an eloquent Waltraute, and did what she could to move us and Brünnhilde with her account of a Wotan we’d never really cared about.
Allison Oakes’s Gutrune—a beehived ’60s housewife who is given a Messerschmitt threewheeler for her wedding—and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, as Gunther, made solid contributions, as did Franz-Josef Selig as Hunding. Oakes, Dara Hobbs, Mahnke, Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Rutigliano, Geneviève King and Alexandra Petersamer were the Valkyries, Von der Dammerau, Mahnke and Kohl the Norns.
Ryan gamely did what he was told—including much clambering around Marx & Co.— but was burdened with an unengaging, unlikeable characterization of Siegfried. Catherine Foster perhaps came off even worse: her Brünnhilde was very much left to her own dramatic devices. And her entrance at the start of the Immolation Scene, at the top of a staircase encased by walls, can have been visible only to half the audience (the sets were generally very high and wide, and Castorf explored their extremes with little regard for sightlines). Vocally, the British soprano occasionally sounded polite and underpowered, and the voice sometimes veered slightly off pitch and became occluded when she did sing full out, but this was an admirably secure performance, sung with rare musicality.
Ultimately Castorf has produced a Ring that is too incoherent and inconsistent to be truly transgressive or challenging. Worse, for vast swathes, it was simply uninvolving and, frankly, boring. Castorf apparently subscribes to the old cliché that opera audiences are hopelessly reactionary—and those at Bayreuth especially so—and might have interpreted the boos at the end of the first cycle as evidence of having successfully épaté the stuffy bourgeoisie. Some of the booing might indeed have come from conservative elements, but much of it must surely have been because this production was half-baked, marred by incompetence and ill-thought-through. Let’s hope that at least the Wagner sisters can appreciate the difference.
Certainly the two other productions I was able to catch this year seemed like masterpieces of stagecraft and conviction by comparison—Hans Neuenfels’s notorious but brilliant Lohengrin, I think, largely because that’s what it is (August 26). Jan Philipp Gloger’s Der fliegende Holländer (August 24) was less than enthusiastically received when unveiled last year, but even this, quite likely tightened up in the interim, seemed refreshingly inventive and stylish in the context. At least it did once the dark opening scene had given way to the garish playfulness that came with the arrival of the Steersman (a beautifully lyrical and sweet-voiced Benjamin Bruns) and his perky, perma-tanned air-steward crew, and Mary (the excellent Christa Mayer) and her no less perky factory workers. Samuel Youn remains slightly overparted in the title role (and hampered, dramatically, by a wheelie suitcase throughout), Franz-Josef Selig was a robust Daland and Tomislav Mužek a beautifully mellifluous Erik. The main change came in the form of Ricarda Merbeth’s gloriously secure and focused Senta. Christian Thielemann brought out the best in the orchestra, securing playing of striking power and flexibility.
The one change from last year’s cast in Lohengrin came with the return of Petra Lang as a brilliantly unhinged Ortrud, the only singer across all the performances I attended to offer truly rafter-rattling vocal power. Klaus Florian Vogt’s ethereal Lohengrin and Annette Dasch’s extraordinarily well-acted Elsa were joined by Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Thomas J. Mayer, both somewhat light-voiced, as Heinrich and Telramund, the latter risking being upstaged by Youn’s supremely confident Herald. There were signs of tiredness from the orchestra in the prelude, but otherwise they played beautifully for Andris Nelsons, and the choral passages were a highlight, as they had been in Holländer. Neuenfels’s production, meanwhile, gave a masterclass in how a director can force a radical reinterpretation of a work without negating it—largely as a result of simply listening to the music. Castorf might have learnt a thing or two.