Monday, July 29, 2013

Bayreuth Festival, Siegfried

Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Jujly 29th, 2013

Siegfried - Lance Ryan
Mime - Burkhard Ulrich
Der Wanderer - Wolfgang Koch
Alberich - Martin Winkler
Fafner - Sorin Coliban
Erda - Nadine Weissmann
Brünnhilde - Catherine Foster
Waldvogel - Mirella Hagen
Conductor - Kirill Petrenko
Director - Frank Castorf
Sets - Aleksandar Denic
Costumes - Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting - Rainer Caspar
Video - Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

I'd been all set to eat my hat and concede that Frank Castorf is a genius, I really had.
But then in the final scene of Siegfried, two giant crocodiles crawled on stage, copulated and proceeded to eat the Forest Bird.

My initial reaction was to agree with someone behind me who complained that they really felt someone was "taking the piss." 
After a night's reflection, however, I hoped there could be more to Castorf's reading. But he certainly doesn't make it easy for the audience.

The first two acts had been superb, easily the most gripping and successful of Castorf's Ring so far. 
In the first, Mime brings up Siegfried in a caravan at the foot of Mount Rushmore. But it's not the heads of former US presidents that are carved into the cliff face, but those of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

Siegfried, who literally grows up in the shadow of the different faces of communism, has become a seedy little gangster (like his grandfather Wotan in Das Rheingold). He dresses like a pimp, has long, slicked-back hair and wears clunky neckchains.

He and Mime keep a slave chained like a dog to their caravan, reminiscent of Lucky in Waiting for Godot.

In Act 2, we encounter Der Wanderer and Alberich, easily recognisable as the two sleazeballs we first met in Castorf's Tarantino-like Rheingold. And Fafner is another ganglord, this time wasting money on tacky gifts for his hookers in Berlin, Alexanderplatz.
(That's actually where we briefly see the crocodiles for the first time,  But there is so much going on at the time that they go almost unnoticed.)

In Die Walküre,  Castorf  whisked us away to Baku, Azerbaijan. Here, we're back on more familiar territory, at least for those who had experienced a divided Germany and who recognised Alexanderplatz in East Berlin with the distinctive facade of the Centrum Warenhaus department store, the World Time Clock and the underground and suburban train stations.

(However, I did ask myself whether non-Germans would recognise and understand the very specific historical references.)

Communist East Germany was ruled -- Castorf was telling us -- by the same gangsters and small-time criminals.that we had seen in the Golden Motel on Route 66 in the capitalist USA in Das Rheingold,

The weapon that Siegfried forges in Act 1 is not Nothung the sword, but a Kalashnikov rifle, which he uses to mow down Fafner. And he stabs Mime to death with a switchblade.

Just as in the first two parts of the Ring, Aleksandar Denic's sets take your breath away, as intricately and meticulously designed and visually arresting as they are.
And unlike in Die Walküre, Castorf's direction was consistent and thoughtful, utterly believeable in its careful recreation of a gangster milieu.

I was hooked.
Even when Siegfried tries to hump the Forest Bird -- cast here as a dancer from the carnival in Rio -- and things then get really graphic in Scene 1 of Act 3 when Der Wanderer forces Erda, a whore, to perform fellatio on him.

Here, it seemed, Castorf was not merely the notorious shocker and provocateur, but a thinking man's director who could tell a good story with the fast, breathless pace of a gangster movie.

But then, suddenly, things got very weird. 
In their final love scene on Alexanderplatz, Siegfried gets drunk and practically ignores Brünnhilde -- who stands forlornly in her wedding dress -- and the two giant crocodiles appear.

The story had been  so grippingly told, the milieu so convincingly recreated that you could almost overlook the little inconsistencies that arose between the libretto, the music and Castorf's updating of the story.
But he then completely threw us all with this surreal, bizarre final scene.

For the first time in this bicentenary Ring, I felt like joining in the deafening chorus of boos (which I didn't, I hasten to add). 

I still wanted to clutch on to the hope that someone like Castorf doesn't introduce such elements for no reason. He was trying to tell us something.
On my daily morning run, I had plenty of time to try and figure out what.

On both occasions before the crocodiles appear -- in Act 2 in the scene with Fafner and in the final scene of Act 3 -- the hyper-realistic Mount Rushmore set is transformed into a line drawing.
It's as if Castorf is preparing to take the characters -- and the audience -- away from the gritty realism of the movies to a more abstract, symbolic level.
And the crocodiles symbolised greed, eating and devouring everything in their way.

Siegfried is a user. And he is already bored with Brünnhilde, in contrast to the heroine who really is in love with the hero and is prepared to  marry him.
But he just swigs back the alcohol, bored and arrogant, and throws morsels of food to the crocodiles.
High up, we see a projection of the bloodied corpse of a blonde, dirndl-wearing woman mauled by an old man. 
Is this perhaps the fate that awaits Brünnhilde at the hands of Alberich at the end of Götterdämmerung?

Musically, there was little to complain about.
The singers were much more convincing than in the first two Ring instalments, notably Wolfgang Koch as Der Wanderer, Burkhard Ulrich as Mime and Martin Winkler as Alberich.

I've never been a great fan of Lance Ryan, whose loud, barking voice has little do with Heldentenor to my ears. But here, he seemed much better suited to the role of small-time gangster.
Nadine Weissmann was as impressive an Erda as she had been Das Rheingold and Mirella Hagen excellent as the Forest Bird. 

Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde is turning out to be a real discovery, too, less dramatic and more lyrical than usual in the role, but singing with great beauty.

Kirill Petrenko continues to astonish in the pit with a wonderfully nuanced and skilfully wrought reading.

It will now be interesting to see whether Castorf continues along this radical, highly symbolic meta-level in Götterdämmerung. If he does, he is sure to lose a great many of the audience.
But I'm sure that Castorf, being Castorf, isn't too concerned about that. 

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