Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bayreuth Festival, Götterdämmerung

Festpielhaus, Bayreuth
July 31st, 2013

Siegfried - Lance Ryan
Gunther - Alejandro Marco-Buhrmeister
Alberich - Martin Winkler
Hagen - Attila Jun
Brünnhilde - Catherine Foster
Gutrune - Allison Oakes
Waltraute - Claudia Mahnke
1st Norn - Okka von der Damerau
2nd Norn - Claudia Mahnke
3rd Norn - Christiane Kohl
Woglinde - Mirelle Hagen
Wellgunde - Julia Rutigliano
Flosshilde - Okka von der Damerau

Conductor - Kirill Petrenko
Director - Frank Castorf
Sets - Aleksandar Denic
Costumes - Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting - Rainer Caspar
Video - Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus

How does a director stage 16 hours of opera and yet have nothing much to say about his main protagonist?

Frank Castorf can certainly spin a good yarn.
His Rheingold and Siegfried are breathlessly told, even if Die Walküre, set in faraway Azerbaijan, is much more static.

The cast of thieves, gangsters, whores and pimps who peopled the first three parts all reappear in Götterdämmerung.
This is a Ring for the cinema generation, for audiences brought up on the films of Quentin Tarantino, with breathtakingly detailed, Oscar-worthy sets by film designer Aleksandar Denic.

Castorf's exposé of the violent underbellies of both capitalism and communism is splattered with blood and sexually explicit, not a reading for the faint-hearted.
But there are plenty of flashes of the surreal, comical and bizarre, too.

There are copulating crocodiles in Act 3 of Siegfried. And earlier, the bear chased by the eponymous hero in Act 1 dons a bridal veil, briefs and high heels.
That same figure subsequently reappears in Götterdämmerung, this time to push a pram full of potatoes down a flight of stairs at Brünnhilde at the bottom.
It seems to be a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin but there is no dramatic or poetic logic for it being there.

For the finale of Wagner's tetraology, we're back in the now familiar gangster milieu somewhere in East Berlin, where Siegfried is again a small-time criminal with golden lamé jacket and the court of the Gibichungs a fruit and vegetable store and adjoining kebab stand.
Hagen is a punk with Mohican haircut, Gunther a biker with peroxide hair and Gutrune wears a 50s-style flower-print dress.

The idea may not be entirely original, but the characters are drawn effectively enough.
All except for Brünnhilde, that is, who doesn't seem to fit into Castorf's story at all.

It had been the same problem in Siegfried.
The first two acts were grippingly narrated.
But as soon as Brünnhilde comes on the scene, everything unravels, and Castorf suddenly veers off the edge to an absurdist world of Forest Bird-eating crocodiles.

The director's  own disinsterest in the heroine and his inability to connect with her appear to be mirrored in Siegfried's blatant boredom on stage.

In Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde similarly has no discernible function whatsoever. She is no whore, no gangster's moll. In fact, Castorf doesn't seem to have  much idea who she is at all -- or any real interest in finding out.
She remains a dramatic blindspot, an enigma, which is unfortunate, given that she is possibly the single most important character in the entire Ring. Without her, there can be no serious interpretation of Wagner's opus magnum.

In his defence, Castorf had warned people in the run-up to the festival not to expect too much, certainly not a new Ring of the century, arguing he had  had insufficient time.

But to be honest, now that the staging is complete, I have a nagging suspicion that the result wouldn't have been much different even if he had had four years instead of two.

There are many visually striking moments -- for which set designer Denic must take most if not all of the credit. But Castorf's heart never really seemed to be in it. The staging lacks cohesion and a unifying Über-concept.
He'd claimed that his Ring would be about the battle for oil as the modern-day equivalent of Wagner's gold.
But oil appeared only fleetingly, almost tangentially.

His critique of capitalism and communism is not especially biting or trenchant, either.
Gang warfare and petty crime flourish under both systems.
Big deal.

In fact, on closer examination, many of his ideas reveal themselves to be rather facile and seem to have occurred to him on the spur of the moment, rather than being part of a deeper, wider scheme and pre-occupation with Wagner and his oeuvre.

The Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, for example, slaughter chickens in a voodoo ritual.
And more voodoo appears later on in Castorf's ubiquitous use of video projection.
That might sound original.
 But is the fate of the gods and of humanity dependent on nothing more than a bit of witchcraft?

The fall of Valhalla, too, is no Armageddon, but one huge  anti-climax.
Brünnhilde throws the ring onto a burning oil drum. And if Alberich really wanted, he could easily fish it out again. But he just sits there, staring at the paltry flickering flames.
Denic had conjured up an exact replica of the front of the New York Stock Exchange for the final act.
If Castorf had been interested in a critique of capitalism, why not blow it up?

Of course, Castorf had explicitly said in an interview with Der Spiegel -- whether he was being disingenuous only he can  know -- that the whole enterprise shouldn't be taken too seriously.
And when he and his team finally showed themselves at the end of the fourth evening, the director started to insult the booing, whistling and jeering audience by gesturing that they had a screw loose.

He is entitled, naturally, to think what he likes about Bayreuth audiences.
But if he regards opera and Wagner in particular with such disdain, why take on the bicentenary Ring in the first place?

Vocally, too, the last of the four evenings was not particularly festspielwürdig.
Lance Ryan's voice, no Heldentenor, is sounding increasingly frayed and worn at the edges in the role of Siegfried and Attila Jun's Hagen is mostly gruff and gargly.
Both were booed at their curtain calls.

Alejandro Marco-Buhrmeister, on the other hand, was a towering Gunther and Allison Oakes excelled as Gutrune.
The Norns and the Rhinemaidens were all well sung.

Catherine Foster is hugely impressive as Brünnhilde with her beautiful, well-rounded soprano, lyrical with a dramatic edge, but never shrill or forced.

But the real star of the entire cycle -- and surely the Bayreuthers' new darling -- was Kirill Petrenko, whose astonishingly wise, endlessly shaded and tautly-paced conducting really made this a Ring to remember and one which will surely be talked about for a long time to come.

We've had the Chéreau Ring and the Kupfer Ring in Bayreuth.
This new cycle will definitely not go down in musical history as the Castorf Ring.
The Denic Ring? Perhaps. But above all, it will be remembered as the Petrenko Ring.



  1. Thanks for your timely and informative reviews! You have been our window into Bayreuth!

  2. I'm seeing the last cycle and definitely looking forward to it.

    1. Cool! Would be really interested to hear your opinion afterwards!
      Enjoy Bayreuth.