While the Rhinemaidens grill Bratwurst, Alberich smears mustard on his nipples. Halfway through Frank Castorf’s new Ring cycle for Bayreuth, this is the most radical thing that has happened on stage.
For Wagner’s 200th birthday, opera houses from Melbourne to the Met are falling over each other to find a new take on his four-opera Ring des Nibelungen cycle. But only one house can boast a Wagner history dating back to 1876, only one house receives more than €5m of annual government subsidy (not counting an imminent €30m overhaul) purely for the performance of Wagner’s operas, only one house has an eight-year waiting-list for tickets, and only one house can boast the attendance of the nation’s chancellor at the complete cycle. Bayreuth, the festival founded by Richard Wagner for the performance of his own music, has a responsibility to the composer’s work and its troubled production history like no other.
After Tankred Dorst’s moribund 2006 Ring – the last arranged by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner before his death, at the age of 90, four years later – it seemed fair to assume that Bayreuth could not possibly get more boring. Wolfgang hung grimly on to life until his last wish – that of seeing his daughter Katharina on the Bayreuth throne – was assured. Now Katharina, 35, and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 68, bear the heavy burden of finding a future for the festival.
Can anything new be said about Wagner’s Ring? If so, it should have been clear from the outset that Frank Castorf, the 62-year-old intendant of Berlin’s Volksbühne, was not the man to say it. Castorf has no musical training, has not studied opera direction, and has very little opera experience. His deconstructive style, don’t-care attitude and rebellious habits are well-known from his Berlin work. Katharina and Eva must have known exactly what they were getting.
What Castorf has served up so far is much like his Volksbühne stagings. Aleksandar Denic provides one magnificent set per evening – for Das Rheingold a seedy motel with pool, petrol station, bar, bedroom and swimming pool; for Die Walküre an oil-drilling station in Azerbaijan. Numerous flights of stairs, a revolving stage and excellent lighting (Rainer Caspar) ensure an almost infinite number of theatrical possibilities. Add to this a vast video screen and a fleet camera team giving almost constant close-ups of live action, and you have a rock-concert-meets-soap-opera dimension to distract even further from the fundamental lack of content. There is a concept – the history of oil – and there is a nod to the class struggle that surrounds capitalist progress (cue Eisenstein film extracts), but both are so gratuitous and slipshod that they do little to lift the mood. For the most part, Castorf completely ignores the music and leaves his singers to fend for themselves. The results are boring. Terribly, frustratingly boring.
Like many theatre directors who think they are saving opera from itself, Castorf misses the main issues and ends up repeating the most banal of clichés. You cannot find the way forward if you do not know what has gone before. Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Ring dealt with the evils of capitalism with infinitely more refinement. Rhinemaidens as whores, giants with baseball bats, Wotan as a mafia boss? All been done before.
Preparation time in Bayreuth for a new Ring is tight. But when Alberich jumps into the motel pool and runs off with a sheet of gold plastic, when Alberich, Wotan and Loge spend the crucial 15 minutes of their confrontation motionless in deckchairs, when Valhalla fails to materialise, when the Valkyries pour themselves drinks or stare into space, and when Siegmund fiddles helplessly with his sword, it is hard not to wonder what Castorf actually did with the rehearsal time he had.
Fortunately the whole thing sounds wonderful. In the pit, Bayreuth newcomer Kirill Petrenko brings precisely the thrill and freshness to this behemoth score that Castorf so completely misses. Petrenko’s Wagner is transparent, refined, taut, intelligent, modest and absorbing. In the sweltering heat of the airless Festspielhaus, which must have reached 40 degrees on Saturday, the Festspielorchester plays superbly for him.
Bayreuth should also present a cast that represents the world’s best in Wagner singing. That can certainly be said for Johan Botha’s effortless Siegmund and Anja Kampe’s lyrical Sieglinde, for Claudia Mahnke’s youthful Fricka and Martin Winkler’s slimy, intense Alberich, for Franz-Josef Selig’s terrifying Hunding and Burkhard Ulrich’s sharp-edged Mime. Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan, so rounded in Das Rheingold, meets his limits in the lower registers of Die Walküre. Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde held back to such an extent in her second act that she earned a storm of boos at her curtain-call – though all was forgiven when she hurled herself at the endless third act with class and passion.
For now, only the Norns know how it will all end. But by Wednesday night, when Wotan’s world ends in flames, the world will have seen what Katharina and Eva Wagner can do for their great-grandfather’s music. Or what they cannot do.