Concerts & Opera

A ring cycle in Bayreuth which you have to see with a fresh mind



Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, arrived on the Green Hill in 2013 making his Bayreuth début with this Ring cycle which celebrated Wagner’s bicentenary. The Ring offered him huge opportunities to explore and his concept and direction explored them to the full. A man for change, he poured plenty of new ideas and creative energy into a production that has divided audiences since its première.

But change, I feel, is necessary at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival. And Castorf certainly saw to that! But so did Wieland Wagner in a way. He ushered in a new dawn on the Green Hill when he dumped the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day replacing them by minimalist affairs and facing forceful opposition in doing so.

His Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 - the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War - was booed to bits in company with Patrice Chéreau’s politically-motivated centenary Ring in 1976. Surprisingly, today, they’re now hailed as masterpieces. C’est la vie! or, if you like, 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 wake and received the same treatment for her recent production of the same opera but, I think, unfairly so.

The protests continue! Will they ever stop, I wonder? It’s now the fourth time that I’ve seen Castorf’s Ring which many Wagnerites found out of kilter right from the start. Why? And while the Bayreuth booing mafia enjoy their moment of glory against Castorf, a great number now contradict them and voice their approval just as loudly. Bayreuth audiences are getting used to change. The times they’re a-changin’! Bob Dylan said so!

Indeed, they are! And Castorf’s right there! A deconstructionist in every sense of the word he brazenly 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. Nothing changes here! It’s sacred ground!

All of the sets were ingeniously designed by Serbian artist Aleksandar Denić and constructed on an extremely large revolving stage built on a variety of levels while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were strikingly colourful to say the least. For instance, when Erda - the role so 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 and gloom she makes quite an entrance dolled up to the nines in a striking, gold-lamé, tight-fitting dress attired in a white mink coat while Mime (Andreas Conrad) looked a picture of discontent flashily dressed in the style of an Elvis impersonator bullied and regularly shook up by Alberich, sung with great confidence by a master of the role, Albert Dohmen. What a deuce! They worked so well off each other to the great delight of the audience.

Rainer Casper completed the creative team and his flood of rainbow-coloured lighting in Das Rheingold hit the mark while Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull showed their stuff producing some intelligent video sequences thereby adding an extra dimension to the overall stage picture. Hand-held cameras, for instance, 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 spouts off about 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.

Providing a marvellous setting for Das Rheingold was a rather rundown and faded 1950s motel located on Route 66 aptly named ‘Golden’. Up to date, though, as in Kansas City, with modern technology, it offered a free wi-fi service, while Die Walküre transported itself 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 (monument to socialist dreams!) 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 (monument to capitalist dreams!) where black gold’s traded for the real stuff.

And the real stuff (mined through oil-powered machinery!) was the choice of payment the giants Fafner (Karl-Heinz Lehner) and Fasolt (Günther Groissböch) favoured in exchange for Freia. Portrayed as ‘grease-monkeys’ and kitted out in true Detroit fashion with blue dungarees, they exchanged her for the golden bounty in one of the upstairs rooms of the ‘Golden’ but, oddly enough, after slugging his brother to death with an ingot, Fafner didn’t take the money and run. He left the hoard behind. The Rhine seemed a long way off.

Not really, though! The peanut-shaped aquamarine pool of the ‘Golden’ saw to that with the Rhinemaidens lazing about on sun-loungers as if there was no tomorrow while Alberich was stretched out on a sun-lounger, too, playing with a yellow-coloured toy duck.

The famed trio - who sang without a hitch and acted equally as well - comprised Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde) - she also sang Waltraute in Die Walküre and also Second Norn in Götterdämmerung - and Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde/First Norn) while Christiane Kohl sang Third Norn. They teased and provoked 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.

And the boss of the whole shooting-match was none other than Wotan - boss, too, of the oil-field in Die Walküre - who came over as a Mafia-type character and seen in Das Rheingold enjoying a ‘threesome’ with his wife and sister-in-law, Fricka and Freia (Sarah Connolly/Caroline Wenborne), thereby keeping it in the family.

The Russian mezzo-soprano, Marina Prudenskaya, fitted perfectly the role of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung and that lovely scene where she comes to warn Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse in Götterdämmerung was brilliantly executed and passionately sung by Ms Prudenskaya while 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 quirky touch to the underground city of Nibelheim by putting it on wheels. After all, Texas (and America) is a car-driven society, so what better way to represent Nibelheim than by a silver-plated, Air Stream, double-wheeled, mobile trailer, which leisurely rode America’s iconic Route 66 but ended up in Götterdämmerung parked right outside of the New York Stock Exchange.

And a nice scene unfolded in Das Rheingold when Alberich pulled up on the forecourt of the ‘Golden’ to fill up while the Rhinemaidens pulled away on a full tank in a Mercedes-Benz, chrome-trimmed, black convertible - their favourite form of transport. And to sort out the Gods’ crossing to Valhalla, a rainbow-coloured flag represented the rainbow bridge. But, in fact, Wotan and Fricka were just as happy standing alone looking heavenwards from the roof of the car-port.

Christopher Ventris and Heidi Melton stamped their credentials on the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre and were complemented well 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 simply rapturous and engaging. She’s blessed with a strong voice that harbours so much tonal colour. Her curtain-call was, deservedly, thunderous!

And in Die Walküre, Brünnhilde and her Warrior Maidens cleverly navigated some rather tricky stage movement charging about on a variety of uneven surfaces of the Baku oil-rig gathering the Fallen Heroes who, in this instance, were workers battling against all 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. And full marks must go to Stefan Vinke as Siegfried. Not only did his voice hit the mark but he put in a very strong, confident and athletic performance that brought out the youthfulness and naiveté of Siegfried’s unworldly character.

On top of all this The Woodbird (heavenly sung by Ana Durlovski lavishly dressed in a gorgeous Rio Carnival-style outfit) came down on Siegfried in a rash moment of passion and Erda sought fit to perform an indecent act on Wotan/The Wanderer in all such places as a pasta restaurant only to be rudely interrupted by the waiter presenting him the bill. And the part of the waiter was acted with panache by Patric Seibert who also took the part of the ‘dancing bear’ in Siegfried, served as Mime’s general factotum and turned up behind the counter of a Döner kebab takeaway in Götterdämmerung. A busy person, indeed, but he wanted payment for his services just as much as the Giants did for theirs while Erda seemed bitterly disappointed with her payment for the night. Get the picture!

The fun and games continued with Siegfried pinning Gutrune to the wall in a fit of passion, the Norns (daughters of Erda) practising voodoo and witchcraft while five mean-looking crocodiles crawled about Alexanderplatz bringing the jungle to the city and routing for their fair share of the spoils during Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s big romantic number that closes the last act of Siegfried: ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’

A treat for one croc, however, was bagging The Woodbird, reappearing as an attractive young girl wearing a flowing white dress enjoying a night out on the town. Siegfried took the grin off his face, stepped in at the last minute and saved her. What a hero! And Fafner met his lot by a quick round from a Kalashnikov fired at point-blank range by the eponymous hero in true Tarantino style. Nothung, it seems, was not at hand.

Gangland B-movie world was rife in this production with gangsters and their molls replacing Nordic Gods and so forth. Markus Eiche as Donner (god of thunder) fitted his role perfectly looking a shady character 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.

He could, however, have conjured up a bit more fire for Brünnhilde’s ‘lying-in-state’ in Siegfried. We had to do with a large oil-drum blazing away with Brünnhilde caught on camera looking somewhat bewildered about her situation. Hero boy didn’t even have to fight through the flames for her - she was there! No fire, be damned! A quiet affair! And Brünnhilde’s rock was made from a swathe of recycled plastic-coated sheeting and, of course, a by-product of oil.

Götterdämmerung hit the buffers rather quietly. Wagner’s music radiated round the vastness of the Graeco-Roman-designed Festspielhaus in a haunting and spiritual way with the Rhinemaidens shadowing Brünnhilde every inch of the way to get back the ring while Hagen, looking blank, disillusioned and forlorn, stared longingly into a raging-burning brazier knowing that the game was up.

It’s not up for Castorf, though! His Ring still packs a punch or two and raises a ‘boo’ at the same time but it leaves a lot to the imagination. As Wagner exclaimed: imagination creates reality! Indeed, it does!

This production, I predict, will be hailed as a ‘classic’ in years to come. It’s one that you needed to come to with a fresh open mind while paying strict attention to every minute detail. There was a lot to take in. Some you got, some you didn’t! But what the hell, it was that sort of production. And as for the Bayreuth booing mafia, I reminded myself of George Bernard Shaw waspish remarks. He said that the best way to enjoy the Ring was to relax at the back of a box with your feet up, eyes closed and just listen to the music. He was just as cantankerous as Bayreuth’s ‘old guard’ is today! But give it a thought! Just think of what you would miss if you followed his viewpoint.

I wonder, too, that if you clocked back to the days of Richard Wagner (whom I think would have greatly enjoyed today’s arguments about how his operas should be staged) what would modern-day audiences make of his style. I doubt very much if they would take to it. And, of course, Wagner was very specific, determined and matter-of-fact about what he wanted his productions to be like. The same goes for directors today. But for Bayreuth to flourish and engage with new audiences change has to be at the forefront of the agenda. And this is exactly what’s happening.

What goes on in the pit is just as important as to the stage action, therefore full marks must go to Marek Janowski for such outstanding work with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, hand-picked from some of the finest musicians to be found in Germany. He energised his charges so well especially in the big production numbers such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung underwriting what marvellous acoustic properties the Festspielhaus harbours and most definitely the place to hear the music of Richard Wagner in all its consummate and radiant glory.

Review by Tony Cooper

Photos: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath



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