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The waiter comes with a bill that Wotan cannot pay just as Erda sinks to her knees and begins to fumble with his belt. This is Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, where two giant crocodiles lumber past overflowing rubbish bins during Siegfried’s love duet with Brünnhilde. One of them swallows the Waldvogel – her high heels can be seen kicking feebly between its teeth as the two sing on. Earlier, when Siegfried blasted Mime full of holes with a machine gun, a member of the public collapsed. Hagen and Günter run a kebab stand in a forgotten corner of East Berlin. Hagen hacks Siegfried to death with an axe. The Norns practise voodoo. Siegfried has not ridden down the Rhine, and the world does not end in flames.
For these and a thousand other petty provocations, the Bayreuth audience rewarded stage director Frank Castorf with more than 15 minutes of solid booing when he appeared for his curtain call after Götterdämmerung on Wednesday night. Some had brought whistles to add to the din. Smiling unctuously, Castorf refused to leave the stage, tapping his forehead and making circular gestures at the audience with his forefingers. It was a grand stand-off and an utterly predictable end to the previous 16 hours of Bayreuth’s latest Ring.
Scandals are normal fare at Bayreuth. Patrice Chéreau’s Ring and Heiner Müller’s Tristan were howled down when new, but later lionised. Yet it is hard to imagine Castorf’s Ring reaching cult status at subsequent airings in Bayreuth.
Famous for his flamboyantly deconstructive theatre, Castorf has not set out to deconstruct Wagner’s four-opera cycle. Instead, he has largely ignored it, assembling a loose collection of anecdotal vignettes that do anything but tell a coherent story. There are references to the history of oil, there is constant coquetry with the conflict between communism and capitalism, there is slapstick, there are clever references to cinematic, operatic and Wagnerian history, there is cheap sex and gratuitous violence.
With rigorous consistency, Castorf ignores all of the work’s central questions and narrative challenges. Actions and associations are largely conjured by Aleksandar Denic’s vast, elaborate sets (Siegfried combines Mount Rushmore, where the carved heads belong respectively to Marx, Stalin, Lenin and Mao, with an East German version of Alexanderplatz; Götterdämmerung brings together the New York Stock Exchange, the Berlin Wall, an East German chemical factory, the kebab stand and a fire escape) through which characters wander with decreasing logic. Any suspicions that Castorf cares about opera or respects his audiences were amply dispelled by his infantile curtain-call behaviour.
This is not to say that Castorf has not been an important stage director in his time, nor that he cannot move actors decoratively around a stage. The man knows his craft – but his craft is not opera. An opera director knows how to handle a chorus on a stage: Castorf has them stand around or wave little flags. An opera director can read a musical score, and stage something that grows from the notes: Castorf demonstratively does not care. In this, he has been true to himself.
Fortunately this Ring sounded, for the most part, superb. Kirill Petrenko, despite the occasional odd tempo or rough patch, is the most exciting Wagnerian of his generation, a conductor with a great deal to say, the means to say it and thrilling potential. Here, at least, there is hope for the future.
The consistently high vocal standards of the first two operas were, however, eroded in the second two. Wolfgang Koch’s Wanderer grew in stature and refinement, Martin Winkler’s Alberich remained eye-wateringly good, you could find no better Rhine-maidens and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester’s Gunther was a treat. But Lance Ryan’s Siegfried was consistently disappointing. He tends to shout, producing a strained sound that often falls painfully short of the intended note. And Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde, often meltingly wonderful in Siegfried, showed the strain with increasingly poor intonation as Götterdämmerung wore on.
The real question about this production is why, of all the people they could have chosen to stage the Ring for Wagner’s 200th birthday, Festival directors Eva and Katharina Wagner chose Castorf. He was, in their defence, only their fifth choice – four others had wisely declined. Perhaps the buck stops with the Bavarian politicians who appointed the Wagner sisters to run their great-grandfather’s festival. If opera direction has run so dry that there is nothing left to do but ignore, fragment and provoke, the point of having a Bayreuth Festival at all must surely be called into question. Perhaps the best birthday present for Wagner would be a 10-year ban on the performance of his music.
The new Bayreuth Ring is not just a scandal, and not only a musical triumph. It is a crisis of content for the Wagner Festival, and calls into question the future of the genre.
Twilight of the Gods indeed.
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