The musical, dramatical, and theatrical apex of Richard Wagner’s epic, Edda-inspired Der Ring des Nibelungen is the final installment, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). In the Frank Castorf production, initially premiered in 2013 and revived this summer, the unclear messages with attendant unclear happenings conveyed onstage in the previous Ring installments continued unabated. Concluding the final, apocalyptic orchestral postlude while Valhalla crumbles and Brunnhilde rides into the cleansing funeral pyre blaze (neither of which happened here) is the closing D-flat major chord that slowly fades into silence but there was no silence, instead, the Bayreuth audience unleashed a raging and lengthy torrent of boos. After sitting through 15-plus hours of Castorf’s unintelligible production, the audience’s pent-up and visceral frustration was spontaneously released in a wild chorus of condemnation. Castorf, who has failed to appear this summer (and who is suing the Festival for changing some of his staging) is a self-indulgent provocateur who, from several published accounts, did not look at Wagner’s score (or evidently listen to much of it). During the intermissions, one heard much excited talk about the 2020 production of the Ring that will replace this one. From the perspective of this particular audience on Friday, 2020 can’t come soon enough.
In Castorf’s mise-en-scene, we were treated to the return of the Airstream trailer (now rigged up to look sort of like a big metal horse, maybe Brünnhilde’s Grane?). The majority German audience laughed out loud to see one set featuring an exact replica of a Döner Box, a chain of kebob joints in Deutschland as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donuts. Other memorable sets included an enormous bright neon sign for a company that produces plastics and rubber (back to the energy thing), a beautifully crafted and dramatically lit replica of the façade of the New York Stock Exchange, and Hagen’s vassals waving little flags, most from the UK it seemed from my seat, but also, German, US and Russian flags as well. Why? Who knows. The silent but very busy ‘actor’ (a silent part Wagner didn’t write and which was played by an assistant to Castorf) returned to do all sorts of distracting things on stage. These included cooking in the Döner Box (chain smoking all the while) and, perhaps most memorably slicing his hand badly resulting in a gush of blood that he quickly mixed into an ice cream smoothie he was making for customers. I cannot recall which scene this occurred in, but I assure you, it doesn’t matter. The vintage Mercedes convertible made a re-appearance, too. This time it was a place for the Rhine maidens in Act III to tempt Siegfried, and also during the very final moments of the cycle for them to frolic languidly as the world is essentially imploding.
I enjoyed Kyrill Petrencko’s conducting much less here than on the prior three evenings. The Siberian maestro (and new conductor of the Bavarian State Opera) seemed in a rush to get through the very long Prologue and first act, which clocked in at 1 hour fifty minutes. There is, of course, a wide range of tempi one can imagine for this music (and the Reginald Goodall live recording of this same act is a full hour longer than Petrencko’s !) The hurried tempi had a surprisingly inverse effect: the whole act, with its multiple and very distinctive, different scenes, seemed interminable. There were also more balance problems between the huge orchestra and the singers. After completing Götterdämmerung, and while starting Parsifal, Wagner remarked to wife Cosima that “I shall never again write anything as complex as that!” Musically, things improved somewhat in the second and third acts, but there was a palpable sense of fatigue emanating from the invisible pit. The Brünnhilde of Briton Catherine Foster was, on this evening, her best. Still flat on some of her top notes, it mattered less because she sounded in better voice overall, and in command musically and theatrically. The audience was forgiving of those high notes and gave her a rapturous reception. The Siegfried of Canadian Lance Ryan, however, was a real letdown; he almost never sang below forte, and as in the third act of Siegfried, he spent much more of his time bellowing than singing. To be fair, some of the positions Castorf had Ryan singing from were simply impossible: as just one example, after being stabbed by Hagen, Siegfried/Ryan had to sing his exquisite farewell to Bruünnhilde while lying on his stomach with his face partly obscured by a chair. The Bayreuth chorus was sensational, and most of the other roles reasonably well handled. Standouts were the Gunther of Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester and the Hagen of Attila Jun (scary indeed….)
CODA: From 1951 onwards, the Bayreuth Festival has been at the very center of European Regie Theater, treating each new production of the same canonical ten Wagner operas as a workshop, a laboratory. In doing so, risks are willingly taken. High risk can mean high reward – or the opposite. The spirit of embracing the new was set post-WWII by Wieland Wagner, and after his death in 1966 continued by his less visionary and gifted brother Wolfgang for over 50 years. I saw really successful, imaginative productions of Meistersinger, Tristan and Holländer in 1999 at Bayreuth. Although the Peter Hall/Solti “traditional” Ring of the mid 80s was a critical failure, I believe the most daring thing the Festival can do now under great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner’s leadership c is to present Wagner’s works precisely as he, a total creature of the theater, prescribed in his stage directions. With today’s technology and stagecraft, such an approach, at least for awhile, could be revelatory. That would be innovative, and newsworthy.
P.S. The history of the Bayreuth Festival has been forever tainted by Hitler’s warm welcome in the 1930s by Winifred Wagner (the composer’s daughter-in-law, born fifteen years after Wagner’s death). Upon the death, in 1930, of her husband Siegfried, the native Englishwoman—and mother of Wieland and Wolfgang—ran the Festival during the rise of National Socialism, and through the last wartime Festival of 1944. Her embrace of Germany’s Wagner-loving Führer, both personally and politically (which continued long after the war and articulated in an extraordinarily embarrassing filmed TV interview in the 1970s) has damaged the Festival’s reputation permanently. The toxic combination of Hitler’s photographed appearances on the balcony of the Festspielhaus, the repellent anti-Semitism of the composer himself, and the lack of transparency of some of the Wagner clan regarding its association with Hitler—all this has left a very bad hurdle for many Wagner lovers to get over, myself included. But because of the timeless greatness of this music, being in the town and theater where the Ring and Parsifal were completed and first produced, and seeing the very streets that so many great artists have walked before (from Melchior, Flagstad, Toscanini, and Nilsson) is extraordinary. Two of today’s greatest conductors who share the distinction of having conducted at the Festival more than any others- James Levine and Daniel Barenboim- have also walked on the same streets in town. These associations make the visit here uniquely powerful. But I understand why some simply cannot abide the idea of coming here. I think of Barenboim’s ironic comment, when asked about Wagner’s anti-Semitic railings and writings: “It probably would’ve been better if he’d used that time to write another opera”. Indeed. In the end, we face the old conundrum: Can (and should) we separate great art from its creator? Stravinsky stated: “I was merely the vessel through which the Rite of Spring passed.” This is how I choose to think about Wagner the creator vs. Wagner the flawed man.