in: Reviews

August 18, 2014



A Gallery God prepares to alight.

A Gallery God prepares to alight.

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.

Brass octet summoning the audience into the Festspielhaus, playing a leitmotif from the coming act.

Brass octet summoning the audience into the Festspielhaus, playing a leitmotif from the coming act.

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.

One of Boston’s favorite pianists, David Deveau also teaches at MIT and directs the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.


  1. Admirable writing, well worth posting on BCMint. Thank you D.D. and thank you L.E.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — August 21, 2014 at 7:49 pm

  2. David Deveau’s dispatches from Bayreuth have been very interesting, and a welcome addition to BMInt. In the poscript he raises an always difficult and always present question, and then puts it down again a little hastily. This caught my attention because only a few hours previously I had read Alex Ross’s somewhat more restless treatment of the same subject in the New Yorker, here:

    The last few paragraphs are particularly applicable, and particularly fine.

    Comment by SamW — August 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  3. That’s a bit of a crazy article from Alex Ross (whom I normally like and admire). To say that portions of complicated peoples’ lives are so linked that they cannot make disinterested, trustworthy judgments about art might allow one to discredit all of Charles Ives’s aesthetic opinions because he sold insurance. That’s not to say that artists’ lives don’t sometimes reflect themselves in their work. Nevertheless, artists have lives and personal circumstances that don’t always agree with their art.

    Comment by Camilli — August 22, 2014 at 9:51 pm

  4. Ross said all of those things in his article, so I think your disagreement must be with how much weight you think he gives to those reflections. I think his final point is a crucial one; it may be possible for an artist to make completely disinterested art, but they cannot detach it entirely from their lives without detaching it from ours as well. And if they cannot detach themselves, neither can we. Of course there are many degrees of entanglement. All artists have lives, and their lives must always in some manner influence their work, but this influence is not always interesting. I never think about insurance when listening to Ives, but I can understand how someone apprised of the details mentioned in the article might have difficulty listening to Cappricio without thinking of the 1800 Jews that arrived at Auschwitz on the day of its première. It is hard not to find its gaiety forced against such a background. Those who think such considerations unjust and immaterial do not seem to hold this position of detachment in a general sense; they do not usually seem to have any difficulty admiring the heroic circumstances of Messiaen’s composition of the “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”, for example. This seems inconsistent to me.

    Again, it’s a matter of mental infection, not judgement. One of my favorite composers, Carlo Gesualdo, was a murderer; this does not ruin his music for me, or make me feel complicit in his crime when I listen to it, but I am sure it is not the same music he would have composed if he had led a more blameless life, and my knowledge certainly colors my hearing of it.

    Comment by SamW — August 22, 2014 at 11:15 pm

  5. Personality is one thing, and there are elements of character that can be imagined to appear in a composer’s music. Strauss– professional, fluent, so prolix that there couldn’t possibly be deep emotion in everything he wrote. Best story about him I’ve heard was from Hans Hotter, who asked him about his addiction to playing skat (the card game). Strauss said that he constantly had music running through his head, the way some people can’t stop talking, or imagining conversations or planning things to say. The only time he got silence was when he played cards, which came as blessed relief.

    Prokofiev is another whose music, while well-crafted and often beautiful on the surface, seems to lack an ethical core or sincerity. I’m not sure how much of that I decided before I learned about his life, so that’s one to tread lightly on.

    Beethoven and Verdi, of course, had their own brands of directness that were obvious to friends as well as in their scores.

    My quarrel with Ross is that he somehow views Strauss’s government work as invalidating his interest in artistic excellence. As best I know, Strauss had nothing but contempt for the Nazis but saw the opportunity to do some real good for German composers at the head of this commission. After all, in addition to writing music, he was very good at managing a career in the opera houses. As a result, he was quite aware of inconsistencies in royalty laws, etc. He also had a non-financial interest in not leaving Germany at the time, as he had some Jewish in-laws who would have benefited from his presence. So while we now know he stuck around in a society that was going into the toilet very quickly, should we invalidate his words when he turned off his “career” mode and started thinking about the quality of his artistic work? I don’t think it’s dishonest to refuse to worry about politics, even if one occasionally has to enter the political arena to get some things done. Otherwise, we’d have to draw a lot of funny conclusions about David Oistrakh, for example, who was a member of the Communist Party in some of its nastier moments. (Incidentally, Ross– or his editor– further pushed toward a particular conclusion by choosing the photo that he did. Effective, but not necessarily supportive of sound reasoning.)

    Comment by Camilli — August 23, 2014 at 12:03 pm

  6. Mr. Whipple and Sam together drew a vivid illustration of America’s broad anti-intelligence movement, in which critical thinking ability gives its way entirely to perception, peers’ perception.

    “I’m not enough of a musician to be able to tell who’s an okay conductor and who’s great. It’s just that the glowing reviews and …” Does cheer leading need any real heart felt artistic experience? Isn’t it dangerous to repeat what the so-called authority says without even trying to use one’s own judgement. Is a man proven to be a murderer, just because the gov and everybody else say so? Can’t you simply say don’t know? Unless you have a sincere opinion like mine: Honeck’s Beethoven at symphony hall was not good at all.

    “but I can understand how someone apprised of the details mentioned in the article might have difficulty listening to Cappricio without thinking of the 1800 Jews that arrived at Auschwitz on the day of its première.” Essentially, this is replacing real artistic experience with story reading. Of course, a background story is much easier to follow than the (emotional) music sound wave. A not-so-smart person would hardly find difficulty identifying hero and villain in a TV episode, yet he usually has little idea of good and bad people around himself. Most people would feel very confident in their moral judgment ability while reading such background. In fact, in most cases, people are just being told by the narrative. There is little thinking involved in the process. One of the great things as a result of the downfall of the 3rd Reich is that there are much fewer people who pretends that they love the great genius Wagner.

    Without critical thinking, what makes you think that you are smarter than people under reich/soviet power?

    Comment by Thorsten — August 28, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  7. Critical thinking is, no doubt, a good thing. I wonder if Thorsten imagines that he exhibited it when he wrote, “The second half is so insignificant. I knew it before entering the hall. Lee and others seemed to be over-excited by the interview. However, if you listen with your ear and heart, Honeck’s Nr.3 is very very awful, no matter whatever story he could tell.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 23, 2014 at 7:57 pm”
    Is the unexplicated assertion that the prejudgement he he brought to Symphony Hall was validated — in his opinion — when he listened with his ears and heart an example of critical thinking?

    Is listening with one’s ears and heart the same thing as critical thinking?

    Does he think that expressing a “sincere opinion” and “critical thinking” are the same thing?

    Will he see it as critical thinking if I tell him that when I wrote “Seriously, though, I was very pleased with the ‘Eroica’ in the Hall on Thursday evening, and even more so hearing it a second time over the radio,” I was expressing my sincere opinion, after listening with my ears and heart, that Honeck’s “Eroica” was good?

    Can anybody point to anything in his comments on Honeck’s Beethoven 3rd that shows any evidence of critical thinking? (Compare, for evidence of critical thinking, the analysis and explanation provided by the reviewer and many of the commenters on this review

    To me, it seems more valid to modestly make a tentative suggestion based on a favorable opinion gleaned from reading about someone, personally enjoying his work, and having the favorable impression affirmed by a number of articulate analyses of the work than to expect anybody to pay attention to unexplained and unsupported assertions that something was “very very awful,” “not good at all.”

    Nor do I think that Sam W’s words which Thorsten ripped out of context can justify, in their context, Thorsten’s complaint. As I read it, Sam was merely acknowledging that knowledge of circumstances can, and often does, in fact color many listeners’ reactions to music. This may be unfortunate, but it is how things are; and it does not seem to me that acknowledging it is part of some “anti-intelligence movement,” — much less one that can be characterized as specifically “American,” as if people elsewhere e.g., in Europe, didn’t react similarly.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — August 29, 2014 at 5:10 pm

  8. Goodness, boys. Stay on topic.

    Comment by Rlhevinne — August 29, 2014 at 7:46 pm

  9. Nothing really could be more on topic. The subject was Wagner, and whether the ideas and activities of an artist in the real world can be entirely separated from their art. If you wish to argue that they can, your worst possible example is Wagner, who loudly demanded that they not be separated, who claimed for himself the role of oracle and aesthetic dictator. He refused to let his music stand alone, but insisted that it embodied the very highest ideas and ideals. It is because of, not in spite of, these claims that some elevate him from fine composer to great genius, while others regard him as a fine composer who was also a vainglorious jackass.

    Comment by SamW — August 30, 2014 at 10:09 am

  10. A ‘fine composer and a vainglorious jackass’? Listen to any of the following: Tristan, Acts 2 and 3. Die Meistersinger, all of Acts 2 and 3; All of Walkure, most of the Ring, all of Parsifal. Who, in your estimable estimation, would be a ‘great genius’ if not the mind who imagined this music? Without this music, there would have been no Strauss, Mahler or Debussy.
    Rather than assign Wagner to a dump of flawed geniuses, (along with Monet, Picasso, Shakespeare, Joseph Campbell, Richard Strauss and countless others of flawed character), admit that his greatness is unquestionable, and that his association with Nazi Germany is unfortunate, but posthumous. Look at the photo of Strauss with the Nazi propaganda minister. That is an undeniable truth. The Wagner-Hitler ‘relationship’ is speculative and deductive. W died 50 years before Hitler came to power. Guilt by terrible association, yes. Guilt by collaboration? No. His legacy is some of the very greatest art of western civilization; Hitler? Not so much.

    Comment by rlhevinne — August 30, 2014 at 9:48 pm

  11. “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.”

    This is appalling, either way. I am still waiting to get a ticket but wish not to wait for that long. And I also don’t want to see a trash staging full of distractions …

    I heard that various Wagner societies no longer have privilege in tickets, however those tickets may not go to the fans in public. Rather, they may be in other special interest groups’ hands.

    Comment by Thorsten — August 31, 2014 at 10:20 am

  12. I didn’t mention the Nazis, and in my opinion Wagner bears no responsibility for them. It is entirely on his own merits that he qualifies as a vainglorious jackass. Even if Hitler had been enormously influenced by him (and as you say it appears he was not), that would not reflect on him. The Cao Dai sect of Vietnam regards Victor Hugo as a saint, but that does not make him responsible for their somewhat unusual ideas. I only said that separating the music from the man and his ideas is particularly difficult with Wagner, because he does not want them separated, and he and many of his acolytes will resist you all the way if you try.

    As for his influence on others, it is unquestionable, but the “without X there would be no Y” argument is useless, because it can be multiplied without limit. It is like saying that for the want of a nail the war was lost, and thus the nail is the crux of history. Of course Mahler and Debussy would be different composers without Wagner’s influence, but would they necessarily be lesser composers, or even non-composers, as you seem to suggest ? If you are only saying that without Wagner, Debussy would not be the Debussy that we know, well then, without Meyerbeer there would be no Wagner.

    I am glad you brought up Debussy, however, because I think that former acolyte should have the last word on the influence of Wagner on later generations of composers:

    Wagner, if one may express oneself with some of the grandiloquence that belongs to him, was a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.

    – Claude Debussy, 1903

    Now I must go back to listening to the “Tribulatio et angustia” of Nicloas Gombert, who spent six years in the galleys for molesting a choirboy. Great stuff.

    Comment by SamW — August 31, 2014 at 10:34 am

  13. “Now I must go back to listening to the “Tribulatio et angustia” of Nicolas Gombert, who spent six years in the galleys for molesting a choirboy. Great stuff.”

    You mean the music, right?

    I also appreciated the rest of your comments, SamW, and agree that Wagner earned every iota of your characterization ‘vainglorious jackass’ while alive.

    As for Debussy: along with that marvelous comment is his wry quotation from Tristan und Isolde, grafted onto Golliwog’s Cakewalk, its solemnity dissolving into gentle laughter.

    Comment by nimitta — August 31, 2014 at 5:04 pm

  14. “I only said that separating the music from the man and his ideas is particularly difficult with Wagner, because he does not want them separated, and he and many of his acolytes will resist you all the way if you try.”
    This line gives people the impression that Sam receives his MUSIC and ideas so well and then rejects Wagner as ‘a vainglorious jackass’?

    Please tell the readers where exactly the jackass moments happen in his music, in ‘Tristan, Acts 2 and 3. Die Meistersinger, all of Acts 2 and 3; All of Walkure, most of the Ring, all of Parsifal’. In fact, I was surprised it was listed in this way by rlhevinne. Why not the entire Tristan? Why not the entire Meistersinger? Why not the entire Goetterdaemmerung as equal of (if not superior, in some way, to) Walkure?

    As I said earlier, people are often too confident with their moral judgments. Seeing through the morality using one’s mind is as difficult as listening through the music using ones’ heart. I think the ‘vainglorious jackass’ statement is too hollow (yes, I read somewhat and know the cliches). Even if Sam were to fill it with ‘substance’, the judgment would still be very questionable, because not everyone sees things in the right way.

    Debussy’s quote means nothing, because he has a lot of wrong ideas of Wagner. Just listen to Pelleas. It is a special and great work, but noehere near as GREAT as Tristan.

    Comment by Thorsten — September 2, 2014 at 12:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.