By Jens F. Laurson
BAYREUTH – When someone says “Regietheater” in that snooty, disdainful way this word seems necessarily to be pronounced, I usually stop listening. It’s a red flag and signifier that the person using it, more likely than not, is talking through their hat; that he or she is more interested in scoring an operatic-ideological point than discussing intelligently the merits of an actual production. It rarely means more than superficial deviation from tradition, a tradition itself dating back to what the sneerer-in-question first came to expect opera to be: Usually costumes and naturalistic settings, horns, and helmets, and candlesticks and such – in any case nothing that strains the brain too much.
There may be a point to that since opera, until not so long ago, really wasn’t made for thinking, but for enjoying. For background diversion, while the ballet girls from act two earned a bit on the side, taking shifts in the boxes during acts one and three, while downstairs much drinking and chatting went on, with the occasional glance at the stage, if a castrato was particularly insistent that night. In a way, that’s still pretty true for most operas. Most of the Italian and almost all the pre-Gluck repertoire was never made for thinking, and although directors have on occasion managed to inject intelligent thought into it, I can see how that’s not universally appreciated.
Wagner, however (and Strauss and Janáček and Britten and a good few others since and before), is a different story. Much like Shakespeare, Wagner’s work offers characters that are complex and developed well beyond the pages of either libretto or score. It prefigures psychoanalysis, and there isn’t a motivation that isn’t sound within its own universe. These operas cry out for brainy handling and revealing ever more, different, enlightening (or disturbing) facets. All this is by way of saying: For Frank Castorf’s production of the Ring cycle, “Regietheater” is absolutely the mot juste.
Two years ago, when it premiered, Castorf’s production gave Patrice Chéreau’s “Centennial Ring“ (since acknowledged to be one of the greatest productions ever, alongside only Stefan Herheim’s 2008-12 Parsifal as far as modern Bayreuth is concerned) a run for its money in voracious and vicious boos. Those didn’t relent over the subsequent performances. Frank Castorf, the Berlin theater director who took on this production after Lars von Trier jumped ship on short notice back when, seems to have taken the matter of the Ring too lightly for the audience’s tastes: He pokes fun at patrons, distracts from the essence, and had several colorful adjectives attached to him in the course of discussion. Color me interested – even after having seen and admittedly been baffled by his Rheingold in 2012.
Now, after two years of buckets of hatred being poured over it, Castorf’s production appears to have turned the corner. There were no boos at all for the super-busy Rheingold, which is dominated by Aleksandar Denić’s set of a Texas motel on Route 66, a gas station, and an adjacent bar as well as a vast video screen above. The video crews on stage follow most of the characters, most of the time, which means that you get close-up glimpses into those characters’ lives, whether or not they are currently active in the scene. With insufficient acting or bad make-up or cheap costumes, this would have been intolerably naff. But because this cast is made up of singers who are as talented dramatically as they are musically, it works. In fact, it works so well that one is permanently distracted from the music and liable to miss favorite moments. That can be annoying, and probably is, until the viewer realizes that what is lost in one quarter is offset by gains in another.
Interestingly, Kirill Petrenko’s cut-and-dried style of conducting lends itself to those elements of the music that just sort of flit by: He’s keen on providing perfect accompaniment rather than making the orchestra the star. This approach can leave one underwhelmed, but apart from striking me as a little more permissive, a little less rigorous, than my memory (prone to fault) of the 2008 readings suggests, it’s simply qualitatively too good, too detailed, too exact not to be fascinating. Denying the ritardando-induced focus on musical highlights, Petrenko is the diametrical opposite of the other great Wagner conductor at the Festival, Christian Thielemann (the new artistic director at Bayreuth, but of course beaten to the Berlin Philharmonic job by Petrenko).
The Rheingold-Gods aren’t very noble with Castorf. They’re more Tony Soprano and his sordid family, transplanted into Texas. Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan leads the bunch with his smarmy style, oozing moral ambivalence. His voice can be strong – and was, throughout the three operas he appears in – but was surprising only for being not particularly notable.
In character it was close to Albert Dohmen’s Alberich, which makes sense, since they are depicted here (with some reason) as two sides of the same coin, with Wotan and Alberich on par, but for Alberich’s misfortune of being on the receiving end of trickery. It’s Castorf’s first comment about justice for the victor’s justice. He throws a few more in, about manipulation of the media and such, not all of which were obvious. Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka (also Waltraute and a Norn) almost undid her fine singing by too-good acting, further covered by the busy production, so that the take-away was less than it might have been; ditto Allison Oakes’s Freia, who sparkled dramatically and pleased in an unobtrusive way and then re-emerged brilliantly as Gutrune at the end, where her playfulness was infectious, even if she temporarily stopped acting when she had to sing.
John Daszak’s Loge was a considerable upgrade over that of Norbert Ernst in 2013, not necessarily for the voice (which is confident, strong, and pleasant), but for the acting which, in Daszak’s case, might just be a projection of his own personality. Daszak’s a real operator, and his cool, bald looks took away the unfortunate elements of silliness (including minstrel-singer wig) that were forced upon Ernst.
The Rhinemaidens – Mirella Hagen’s Woglinde, Julia Rutigliano’s Wellgunde, and Anna Lapkovskaja’s Flosshilde (replacing Okka von der Damerau from the 2012 and ’13 casts) – were a terrific trio, extremely even and very good and saucy actresses all. Most impressive – certainly most surprising – in his way was perhapsFafner, sung by Andreas Hörl in as melodious a way as I have ever heard. He repeated the feat in Siegfried where he was even more impressive. Little wonder he will be upgraded to Fasolt and Hagen next year, even though his Fafner will be missed.
After coming off this all-out-action Rheingold, overloaded and exciting, weird and captivating, Frank Castorf’s Walküre must (and did) seem conventional. This first day of the Ring is dominated by a massive set depicting a farm in the Wild East that slowly turns into a Baku oil rig, celebrating “Oil Workers’ Day” in bold Azerbaijani lettering. We witness the beginning of the Russian and Soviet industrial revolutions and now, remembering the gas station (which Loge considered, for a delicious second, blowing up, with the Gods on it), we get that this Ring is about oil – oil, communism, consumerism. The quest for the black gold. But before we get there, Sieglinde and Siegfried have to work their way up from a farm replete with two live turkeys, the more talented of which stole the show from the Siegmund of Johan Botha, who is cast for his voice, not his dramatic talents. His preferred modus operandi is to stand there, arms stretched out to the sides, and let us have it – but it sounds good and we take it pretty gladly.
Sieglinde sounds even better: Anja Kampe is a magnificent, womanly-yet-girlish Sieglinde with lots of support in the pit as the orchestra was held to marvelous shades between pianissimo and mezzo-piano for most of the Ring. Her voice is lush and easy on the ears, with perfect enunciation that makes her the easiest to understand on stage during the first act.
Before the confrontation scene with Hunding, there’s a bicycle that leans against a fence during Siegmund and Sieglinde’s getaway scene. Johan Botha spots it, thoughtfully takes it into his hands, moves it back and forth a little, then carefully leans it against the tower again. He’s got to face Hunding (Kwangchul Youn, who has really come into his own as an actor and sounds unusually dignified for a Hunding) sooner or later, after all, and in fact, this is not a get-away vehicle suitable for him. Maybe next year’s Siegmund, Christopher Ventris, will get away with it.
Claudia Mahnke and Wolfgang Koch continued as a the superb godly, somewhat horrendous couple seen in Rheingold. Mahnke entered, carried by a strained muscle man. She’s a whip-wielding Cleopatra, modeled on historical portraits in Asterix comics, and she’s also a bit of a retro-Fricka, demanding and sounding unreasonable although Fricka is actually one of the few morally sound figures in the Ring. Wotan sounded a little brighter now and mercifully dispensed with wearing any sort of eye-patch – one of those props that are truly gratuitous by now, as everyone knows the bit about his eye.
The “Ride of the Valkyries” was superb: totally free of clichés, horses, motorcycles, and leather costumes. The Valkyries gather on the farm’s elevated porch for a central-Asian tea party in regional costumes and caring to varying degrees about Wotan having his reckoning with Catherine Foster’s admirable Brünnhilde. In the background, an Eisensteinesque propaganda film (which I assume to be a 1942 original about oil-exploration and impending Nazis, rather than a custom-made flick) is shown on the various surfaces, and it had me transfixed in some of the more crucial moments, like the Act I love duet and the farewell scene.
The qualities of the conducting struck me more obviously than on the previous night; either a matter of the ears getting used to the Bayreuth acoustics or the eyes being less distracted by the stage-business, or perhaps it was simply more interesting. The overture especially buzzed, and Petrenko projected a fine, clear line that carried one from start to finish. Only in the third act did the singers begin to fight with the increasingly lusty orchestra, whereas in the two previous acts they were supported by its subtle shades below mezzo-forte.
So far, there were few vocalized disagreements about this Ring. The audience lapped it up, loved the singers and Petrenko the most, and until Siegfried, there weren’t any boos in earshot. That changed after Castorf brought out the crocodiles for the finale of that opera: In 2012, two adult crocodiles had copulated on stage and roused protest. Now they’ve had babies, so each year, a baby croc is added to the show. Four this year; count on five next. During the ever awkward love duet upon the discovery of Brünnhilde under tarpaulin, Siegfried is more interested in feeding the raptors, whereas Brünnhilde is not so keen on the visitors (nor Siegfried’s lack of attention) and gives the larger of the reptiles a few over the beano with her parasol. The croc, not impressed, proceeds to swallow her weapon of choice whole. The Siegfried-Brünnhilde approach scene being a favorite moment in this opera for many audience members, they took the bait and took offense at the strong showing of Castorf’s irreverent streak.
I chuckled here but didn’t at first find Siegfried as successful as the demi-inspired whirl of a Rheingold; nor was it as tame as the rather conventional beauty of Walküre. Instead it combined too little of the wildness of the former opera’s set with the “oh-sorry-was-I-supposed-to-do-any-directing?” direction of Walküre. Denić’s sets, in this case, did most of the dramatic lifting: a communist Mt. Rushmore (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao) on one side; the scaffolding still in place. On the other side: Berlin’s Alexanderplatz! Subway station entry, department store, post office, revolving world clock, shopping girls in ostentatious consumerism mode: A slice of Castorf’s Berlin. I took it as one side standing in for reality with the other side representing the mythological world. In a lenient mood, one might even say that the action more or less corresponded to the side on which it was played out. But there was little that was novel or intricate, except perhaps Fafner – still that supreme Hörl,with his nuanced, melodic, voluminous singing – being gunned down by Siegfried with the submachine gun that the former had assembled in Act I while singing “Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert….”
Some scenes seemed downright non-directed: In the first act, Wotan sings most of his parts planted firmly downstage, projected right into the audience,which is odd when Castorf demands movement, movement, movement everywhere else, no matter how minor the character or how obscured from sight. Koch continued his seedy Wotan with most admirable gusto and believability and had plenty to do in the third act, when he summoned Erda. It’s perhaps the most touching moment of this Siegfried, when the washed-up Wotan, ex-lover, gets together with Erda, his aged, long-time favorite, for an impromptu spaghetti dinner and too much wine, in a scene full of recriminations and regrets and make-up sex. But we all have to pay up, and when the waiter materializes (catching Erda in flagrante), Wotan finds himself short of cash. But hey, isn’t that Siegfried approaching? With the words “Dort seh’ ich Siegfried nahn!” he’s off, leaving Erda behind with some humiliation, all of the bill, and the audiences in stitches. A little reminder that Siegfried is supposed to be – and can be – a comedy, and Castorf certainly has the cheeky streak that lends itself to eliciting laughs.
Mirella Hagen’s forest bird is highly memorable for the glorious, 30-pound costume (Adriana Braga Peretzki) with glittering golden wings that spread several feet to her left and right and above. Her Woglinde is superb and sexy; for the forest-bird, though still vocally agile and atwitter, she has lost some of the youthful innocence in her voice and showed patches of arguably unwarranted maturity. Siegfried’s attempts to duet with her took place neither on the flute nor a horn but on plastic boxes from the nearby trash and water-puddles. She’s a fine looking bird, all right, and game: She plays along, as part of a slow, eventually wild seduction scene that ends with Siegfried having his first carnal experiences with said bird pressed against a street lamp.
As Mime, Andreas Conrad, new to this production, sang with great enthusiasm, elevating his character above the inanity so often endured by Ring fans and overcoming inaccuracies in the process. Foster delivered Brünnhilde in fine, indeed still better voice; she sang beautifully and powerfully and wasn’t thrown off by a few flat notes in the moving optimism monologue “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,” perhaps prompted by an errant horn in the pit. Stefan Vinke, who sang the part of Siegfried at the Royal Opera House and in Seattle’s Ring in 2013, was new to me and to this production, and he fit in very well. Believably youthful and agile, with a strong voice less beautiful than earthy, not so much radiant as powerful, he was on top of all the notes and paced himself well enough so as not to drop off toward the end, even as he climbed up and down the rickety wooden scaffolding through half of the second act.
Finally, Götterdämmerung felt like a triumph! Never mind the boos when Castorf emerged. They were pre-determined. They ceased whenever the singers came out, and certainly when Petrenko shyly peeked from behind the curtain, and at the end, the bravos had it. Rightly, because what had taken place in the six-and-then-some hours (including intermissions) prior was spectacular in every way. The hours just flew by. Even the usually interminable first act was enthralling, and maybe for the first time no one minded Waltraute waltzing in to prolong matters by chatting with her sister, seemingly forever.
The Oil-Money-Communism-Consumerism arch continued by way of sets and props, but because this was integrated either into stunning vistas or the captivating story-telling, it certainly didn’t feel preachy. Half-baked ideas about political economics are the norm from directors and most other artistic folk; one learns not to worry and take them in stride. Certainly the sets impressed one more time: a Berlin kebab stand on the western side of the Wall. The stairs of Odessa (à la Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with descending perambulator) wrapped into one with a famous GDR industrial complex. Rhinemaiden-hookers cruising about town in a classic Benz. Late in the game, an effigy that first looked like the Reichstag wrapped by Christo revealed itself to be the NYSE instead.
Curiously Castorf resists the temptation to burn it down in the final pyre and rather neglects that bit of the set. Instead there’s a video of dead voodoo-master Hagen, being set out on the lake for his funeral. This is not exactly in Wagner’s stage instructions but it is a nod to the actual Nibelungenlied, wherein Hagen transmutes to hero.
Performed by Stephen Milling, who towers over every other singer, Hagen was indeed something of a hero that night. Milling is a menacing, forceful presence who can dominate the stage and the airwaves. Dohmen continued his very even and satisfying Alberich, Foster sang Brünnhilde with increasinglyouthful vigor, and Mahnke’s Waltraute was even more moving and notable than her Fricka. Vinke showed no signs of slowing down, Oakes played the heck out of the set that include a wedding gift of an Isetta for her, and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester’s Gunther, tiny next to Milling, gathered momentum as he, the betrayed betrayer, veered among tragic figure, shifty character, and wizened man.
Castorf’s assistant, chauffeur, man-for-everything, and essential instrument to this production is Patric Seibert’s non-singing character. He bartends in Rheingold, gets locked into the turkey cage in Walküre, plays the bear (and then some) in Siegfried, and is also the Turkish kebab and fruit-stand man in Götterdämmerung before he gets clubbed to death (amid the rising xenophobia and racism during the course of the production) – and then spends the remaining act in the trunk of the Rhinemaiden’s car. There is nothing this man won’t do for, and in, this Ring, so one must think of him as sort of a minor hero and a recurring theme, too.
After all had died or were killed, the curtain came down and said divide between cheering and jeering began. But whether this Ring incited pleasure or displeasure, it is inconceivable that it won’t be one of the more memorable, perhaps unforgettable opera productions for anyone who attended it. That alone is an achievement that can’t be overestimated.
Note: Jens F. Laurson also reviewed the four operas of the Ring as individual installments for Forbes.
Jens F. Laurson works in classical music – if necessary as a music critic. He has worked for the The Washington Post, most opera and CD review magazines, and currently writes a column on Forbes.com and contributes to Listen Magazine. If those don’t provide enough space, there’s always the trusty, long-running blog ionarts.org.