The “Second Day” of the Ring cycle (Wagner thought of the work as a trilogy, with Das Rheingold as a “prefatory evening,” rather than as a tetralogy) is the coming-of-age story of Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s son Siegfried. An orphaned boy-hero who knows no fear, Siegfried can often seem something of a lout, and never more so than here. In Frank Castorf’s production, he is played by Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, who possesses indefatigable energy and really looks the part of the handsome young Wälsungen Spross, and treats his foster-papa Mime with completely believable adolescent contempt. His singing in acts I and II was remarkable for its pitch, clarion projection, wide range of timbre and simple power. But by the third act he began to shout and, like the Wotan of Wolfgang Koch- had, showed the disconcerting habit of delaying vibrato very late into his longer notes (and using no vibrato at all on many others). Given the scarcity of heldentenors in the world at any given time, Ryan is a useful presence. He can really act (in the very demanding, athletic conception by Castorf), so despite quibbles, his is a very strong characterization of one of opera’s most demanding roles. He has been brave (reckless?) enough to risk shortening his career by taking on a part that even fellow Canadian tenor Jon Vickers wouldn’t touch. He was truly poignant in “so starb meine Mutter an mir?” in Act I, and while musing in the forest in Act II. There were many such moments of poetry.
Act I is set near a re-chiseled Mt. Rushmore featuring Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao with the action’s centerpiece being a silver Airstream-style trailer (which unfortunately retains its starring role in the rest of this opera and most of Götterdämmerung, too). A bunch of cheap lawn furniture gets thrown around a great deal by both Mime and Siegfried as Siegfried demands to know why he has no mother. Sieglinde, of course, died while giving birth to Siegfried, but Mime wants him to know nothing of that, saying he is Siegfried’s “mutter und vater zugleich” (mom and dad in one). Sung and acted superbly by Burkhard Ulrich, Mime was the picture of cunning, eliciting very little of the misplaced sympathy we often feel for this Nibelung character. Brother of Alberich, Mime clearly has eventual possession of the Ring and world dominion in mind, and figures he has it all coming to him after raising Siegfried and being earlier enslaved by Alberich. (Castorff rather obviously didn’t bother to try to cast Alberich or Mime as dwarves, and Ulrich looks to be a good 6’2”, taller than Ryan.) A controversial interpreter of this role was Gerhard Stolze in the ’50s and ’60s; he had a style of singing that might be said to epitomize the so-called “Bayreuth bark,” a sprechstimme quality that many find unappealing and grating. Ulrich here had a very similar approach, and indeed an uncanny similarity to Stolze’s timbre, but minus the barking. In short, his is a spectacular realization and richly rewarded by a crazed ovation. Wolfgang Koch was Wanderer/Wotan, and was in good voice.
Now, I must admit to complete incomprehension of Castorf’s staging. I felt a little better after reading this. While I disagree with many of Berry’s negative assessments of the singers, his description of the staging and action is spot-on. It appears that irony, subject of an opaque essay in the Festival program book, is a construct that Castorf is exploring in spades in this Ring. Whether the joke is on us, on Wagner, or on bleak old East Germany I can’t say. But I can say that using an AK47 to kill Fafner in act II (with a resulting stench of burnt caps throughout the house) seemed overkill, and the presence of copulating crocodiles in both acts II and III seemed, well, non-sequitur. (An apparent ‘improvement’ over 2013 was the introduction of a third, smaller crocodile in the final scene: love does have its consequences.) Another feature of the entire production is heavy use of grainy projections on a large cloth while the real action is occurring on stage. These projections might have something, or apparently nothing, to do with the main action, but seem to suggest a profound alternate universe. For example, during much of act II, we see Siegfried’s face in closeup, in slow-motion, eyes blinking every two or three minutes. You know a production is in trouble if we start focusing on the next blink. Yet another Castorf innovation was introduction of a new, silent role for an actor who plays multiple invented parts.
To the remaining characters: Alberich was again sung well by the very un-dwarflike Martin Winkler. The hilariously feathered Forest Bird (who with her enormous wingspan could hardly walk, much less fly anyplace) was beautifully sung by Mirella Hagen (booed loudly). The Erda, evidently here a hooker, was the seductively rich-voiced alto Nadine Weismann (who in act III warns Wotan of the gods’ imminent doom, but also in this staging begins for some reason to fellate the inebriated and distracted chief god, who cast(orfs) her aside. Strange stuff, plus those crocodiles). Brunnhilde was again Catherine Foster. She has a gorgeous instrument, but was once more having real trouble hitting her highest notes, all flat. (The final high C of the opera lasted only a nanosecond before she had to cut it short). Like heldentenors, Wagner sopranos are as rare as tarnhelms, so although she’s no Nina Stemme, Foster is valuable. Plus she can act. The bad old days of ‘park and bark’ are at least gone in this production.
The Bayreuth Festival orchestra under Petrenko was again largely magnificent. Drawn principally from the premiere German orchestras, the players have this music in their blood. In the second and third acts, there were very occasional wrong entrances in the winds (quickly cut off by Peternko) and the rare blooper. But Siegfried’s horn call in act II was stupendous, as was the virtuosity of all sections throughout four hours of supremely demanding music.
The fortissimo booing (of the production) after acts I and III was quickly overwhelmed by an even louder ovation for much of the cast. The audience here is clearly (a) perplexed, (b) conflicted and (c) divided in its response to Castorf’s retelling of Wagner. People are trying hard to like it, find value in it. When Wagner famously said “Kinder!! Macht Neues!” (“Kids, make something new!”), I wonder if he might be inclined to suggest to Frank Castorf that he make something new himself, rather than hijack Wagner’s monumental work for purposes so unclear.
Usually one of the funniest lines in the Ring is Siegfried’s “Das ist kein Mann!!” (“That is no man!”) upon seeing the figure of the sleeping Brunnhilde. I came away from this Siegfried with a more serious line in mind: Das ist kein Ring.