Thursday 31 August 2017

Ideas and creative energy: the final performances of Frank Castorf's Ring cycle at Bayreuth

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen; directed Frank Castorf, conducted Marek Janowski; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 23-28 2017 Star rating: 5.0
The last cycle of Frank Castorf's intelligent and interesting de-construction of the Ring

Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, arrived on the Green Hill in 2013 and made his Bayreuth début with this Ring cycle in celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary. A renowned deconstructionist and a man for change, he poured plenty of new ideas and creative energy into his production which at first divided audiences but over the course of the production’s five-year life-cycle it seems to have won them over. Bob Dylan said the times are a-changin’ and Bayreuth’s right there! 2017 saw Castorf's cycle revived for the final time (seen 23-28 August 2017) at the Bayreuth Festival conducted by Marek Janowski with Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, Iain Paterson, John Lundgren & Thomas J Meyer as Wotan, Albert Dohmen as Alberich, Camilla Nylund as Sieglinde and Christopher Ventris as Siegmund.

Iain Paterson (Wotan), Nadine Weissman (Erda) - Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Iain Paterson (Wotan), Nadine Weissman (Erda) - Wagner: Das Rheingold
Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
But change, I feel, is necessary at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival. Castorf has seen to that. Wieland Wagner, though, came before him. He ushered in a new dawn on the Green Hill when he dumped the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day replacing them by minimalist affairs. But he faced forceful opposition in doing so. For instance, his Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 - the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War - was booed to bits in company with Patrice Chéreau’s politically-motivated centenary Ring in 1976. Surprisingly, today, they’re now hailed as masterpieces. So ist das Leben!

Wieland was also derided for his 1956 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Stripped of its pageantry, Bayreuth audiences saw it as an outrage and the breaking up of a most ‘sacred German Wagner tradition’. His niece, Katharina Wagner, followed in his wake and received more or less the same treatment for her 2007 production of the same opera. Unfairly so, in my humble opinion.

As for Castorf he was derided, too, mainly for brazenly shifting the scenario of his Ring from its traditional romantic Rhineland setting to the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting with scenes set in the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union. Therefore, ‘black gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard. But it was just too much for the Bayreuth ‘traditionalists’ to bear and the Bayreuth booing mafia came out in droves. However, the music and libretto remained as Wagner ordered. Nothing changes in this respect. It’s holy ground!

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Walküre (Act 3)- Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Castorf is artistically adventurous as they come and his productions often involve incessant screaming and garbage-littered stages. Therefore, a few discarded old tabloid pages (most probably those with bad reviews) found their way on to the sets of Die Walküre and Siegfried. However, I found Castorf’s Ring an invigorating and thrilling production not least by the colourful and detailed sets ingeniously designed by Serbian-born artist Aleksandar Denić and constructed on an extremely large revolving stage built on a variety of levels while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were strikingly colourful to say the least.

Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Camilla Nylund (Sieglinde) - Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Camilla Nylund (Sieglinde) Wagner: Die Walküre
Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
For instance, when Erda - the role so attractively sung by Nadine Weissmann - arrives on the scene at the end of Das Rheingold warning Wotan, authoritatively sung by Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson, of impending doom and gloom, she makes quite an entrance dolled up to the nines in a striking gold-lamé, tight-fitting dress attired in a white mink coat while Mime (Andreas Conrad) looked a picture of discontent flashily dressed in the style of an Elvis impersonator bullied and regularly shook up by Alberich, sung with great authority by a master of the role, Albert Dohmen. What a deuce - quick-witted, crafty and nasty as befitting their roles - they worked so well off each other to the great delight of the audience.

Rainer Casper completed the creative team and his flood of rainbow-coloured lighting in Das Rheingold hit the mark while Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull showed their stuff producing some intelligent video sequences thereby adding an extra dimension to the overall stage picture. Hand-held cameras, for instance, captured the stage action that was immediately projected on to large screens and used effectively throughout the cycle such as in Alberich’s boastful scene when he spouts off about the powers of the Tarnhelm. The moment he morphs into a giant snake and then a croaking toad, they’re caught close-up on camera and immediately beamed on screen.

The set of Das Rheingold was a minute-detailed realisation of a rundown and seedy American motel of the 1950s. Aptly-named ‘Golden’, it was located on Route 66 but up to date, though, as in Kansas City, with modern technology offering a free wi-fi service. Die Walküre transported itself to the oil-prospecting city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia and Siegfried shared the revolving stage with Berlin’s Alexanderplatz (monument to socialist dreams!) and the sculpted carved heads of Communist chiefs Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in a Mount Rushmore-style setting. Götterdämmerung, in stark contrast to socialist dreams, was given over to Wall Street with the façade of the New York Stock Exchange dominating the set counterbalanced by a ruined tenement block in a drab area of Berlin where Hagen and Günther were busy eking out a living from a Döner takeaway joint while Gutrune enjoyed the fun of whizzing about in a BMW Isetta bubble car, a ‘bribe’ from Hagen.

Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Portrayed as ‘grease-monkeys’ and kitted out in true Detroit style with blue dungarees, the giants Fafner (Karl-Heinz Lehner) and Fasolt (Günther Groissböch) exchanged Freia for the golden bounty in one of the upstairs rooms of the ‘Golden’ but, oddly enough, after slugging his brother to death with an ingot, Fafner - walking tall armed with a baseball bat - didn’t take the money and run. He left the hoard behind. The Rhine seemed a long way off. Not really! Suddenly there it was represented by the motel’s peanut-shaped aquamarine swimming pool (I nearly missed it!) complete with a large soft plastic play-ball and a yellow duck with Alberich splashing about diving for the ‘golden’ bounty as well as enjoying life on a sun-lounger looking happy as Larry biding his time as the Rhinemaidens teased and provoked him to bursting-point with their seductive charms and articles of underwear. The famed trio - who sang without a hitch and acted equally as well - comprised Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde) - she also sang Waltraute in Die Walküre and also Second Norn in Götterdämmerung - and Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde/First Norn) while Christiane Kohl sang Third Norn.

John Lundgren (Der Wanderer) - Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Jorg Schutze)
John Lundgren (Der Wanderer) - Wagner: Siegfried
Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Jorg Schutze)
The boss of the whole shooting-match was none other than Wotan (Iain Paterson) coming over as a Mafia-type character and in the opening scene of Das Rheingold he was enjoying a ‘threesome’ with his wife and sister-in-law, Fricka and Freia (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner/Caroline Wenborne) thereby keeping it in the family. He, too, turned up as the boss of the oil-field in Die Walküre, this time the role admirably sung by John Lundgren. The Russian mezzo-soprano, Marina Prudenskaya, fitted perfectly the role of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung and that moving and inviting scene where she comes to warn Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens to end the dreaded curse was brilliantly executed and passionately sung by Ms Prudenskaya while Markus Eiche and Allison Oakes proved a good pairing in the brother-sister roles of Gunther and Gutrune feeling the heat and the brute-force of Hagen, so menacingly sung by Stephen Milling, who chilled the air just by his presence let alone his actions and his actions in Götterdämmerung were raw to the core.

Christopher Ventris and Camilla Nylund stamped their authority on the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Nylund’s soaring soprano voice was simply pure delight and her deep sadness matched her brother’s fate while Georg Zeppenfeld’s strong portrayal of Hunding highlighted the character’s moody and suspicious nature. And Catherine Foster’s portrayal of Brünnhilde (the first English-born soprano to sing this major role at Bayreuth) positively hit the mark. Her strong (and tender) voice harbours so much tonal colour that it’s simply a joy to listen to while Stefan Vinke, radiant and athletic as Siegfried, brought out the youthfulness and naiveté of this unworldly character but in Gotterdammerung (in true Castorf style) he was seen beating up a homeless guy while trying to get lucky with his girlfriend.

Castorf spun magic and surprises all over the show and he added a nice quirky touch to the underground city of Nibelheim by putting it on wheels. After all America is a car-driven society so what better way to represent Nibelheim than by a silver-plated, Air Stream, double-wheeled, mobile trailer, which leisurely rode America’s iconic Route 66 but ended up in Götterdämmerung parked right outside of the New York Stock Exchange. And when Alberich pulled up on the forecourt of the ‘Golden’ in Das Rheingold he filled up at the same time as the Rhinemaidens pulled away on a full tank in a Mercedes-Benz, chrome-trimmed, black convertible, up to no good cruising the boulevards. And to sort out the Gods’ entry into Valhalla, a rainbow-coloured flag represented the rainbow-bridge and when the time came for Wotan to lead the Gods to their heavenly home, he was more than happy and contented standing alone with Fricka on the roof of the motel’s car-port enjoying the moment.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Andreas Conrad (Mime) - Wagner: Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Andreas Conrad (Mime) - Wagner: Siegfried  (Act 1) - Bayreuth Festival
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Brünnhilde and her Warrior Maidens (crazily kitted out for a hen night out) navigated some rather tricky stage directions in Die Walküre charging about on a variety of uneven platforms of the Baku oil-rig gathering the Fallen Heroes who, in this instance, were workers battling against all the odds after being overcome by toxic fumes following the Soviet’s decision to dynamite the rig to halt the great German advance of 1942. The Woodbird in Siegfried - heavenly sung by Ana Durlovski - proved a colourful scene as she was lavishly dressed in a gorgeous Rio Carnival-style outfit and in a rash moment of passion came down on a surprised-looking Siegfried while Erda, on the other hand, sought fit to perform an indecent act on Wotan/Der Wanderer (Thomas J. Mayer) in all such places as a pasta restaurant only to be rudely interrupted by the waiter presenting him the bill.

Stephen Milling (Hagen) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Stephen Milling (Hagen) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Bayreuth Festival
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
The part of the waiter was acted with great panache by Patric Seibert who also took the part of the ‘dancing bear’ in Siegfried, served as Mime’s general factotum, turned up behind the counter of a Döner kebab takeaway in Götterdämmerung and also worked as an assistant to Castorf. A busy person, indeed, but he wanted payment for his services just as much as the Giants did for theirs while Erda seemed bitterly disappointed with her tally for the night. Get the picture!

Fafner got the picture all right! He met his lot by a quick round from a Kalashnikov fired at point-blank range by the eponymous hero in true Tarantino style. Nothung, it seems, was not at hand. But a half-dozen mean-looking crocodiles were and they crawled about Alexanderplatz bringing the jungle to the city routing for their fair share of the spoils joining Siegfried and Brünnhilde as they rapturously sang their big romantic number that closes the last act of Siegfried: ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ A treat for one croc, though, was bagging The Woodbird who reappeared as an attractive young girl having a night out on the town. Siegfried soon took the grin off his face, stepped in at the very last minute and saved her. What a hero!

Overall, Gangland B movie world was rife in this production with gangsters and their molls replacing Nordic Gods and so forth. Markus Eiche as Donner (god of thunder) fitted his role perfectly looking a shady character wearing a Stetson and armed with a Colt 49 while Froh (god of spring) was tenderly portrayed by Daniel Behle and Roberto Saccà (Loge), suitably attired for pyrotechnical action in a flaming-red suit, incessantly kept lighting a Zippo. A customary trademark, I guess.

He could, however, have conjured up a bit more fire for Brünnhilde’s ‘lying-in-state’ on her rock other than a large oil-drum blazing away with Brünnhilde caught on camera looking somewhat bewildered about her situation. And when the time came for Siegfried to awaken her, he didn’t even have to fight through the flames to get her. She was there - her rock constituted from a swathe of recycled plastic-coated sheeting and, of course, a by-product of oil. No fire, be damned. A quiet affair all round. And Götterdämmerung hit the buffers rather quietly, too. Wagner’s music radiated round the vastness of the Graeco-Roman-designed Festspielhaus in a haunting and spiritual way with the Rhinemaidens shadowing Brünnhilde every inch of the way to get back the ring while Hagen, looking blank, disillusioned and forlorn, stared longingly into a raging-burning brazier (a representation of Valhalla burning) knowing that the game was up.

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Allison Oakes (Gutrune), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Allison Oakes (Gutrune), Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
After five years it’s up for Castorf, too! His Ring - which got off to a rocky start in some quarters - left a lot to the imagination but as Wagner explained: imagination creates reality! Indeed, it does! But taking everything into account, Castorf’s Ring, which, I think, will be fondly remembered for those crocodiles, was an intelligent and interesting production and one that you needed to come to with a fresh open mind while paying strict attention to every minute detail. There was a lot to take in. Some you got, some you didn’t! But what the hell, it was that sort of production.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Markus Eiche (Gunther), Allison Oakes (Gutrune) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Markus Eiche (Gunther),
Allison Oakes (Gutrune) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
I attended the last (and final) cycle of Castorf’s Ring and I can honestly say that Catherine Foster delivered a joyous and well-balanced performance that manifested itself in the brilliant finale in the famous ‘Immolation Scene’ where she tears her heart out realising the consequences of lust, greed and corruption that is tied to the holder of the ring is completely and utterly worthless. Incidentally, Ms Foster - who has conquered the most famous Wagner stage in the world - made her Bayreuth début as Brünnhilde to overall audience approval and, I repeat, she is the first English-born singer to sing the pivotal role of Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. Brava!

And as for the Bayreuth booing mafia, I remind myself of George Bernard Shaw waspish remarks. He said that the best way to enjoy the Ring was to relax at the back of a box with your feet up, eyes closed and just listen to the music. He was just as bad-tempered as Bayreuth’s ‘old guard’ is today! But give it a thought! Just think of what you would miss if you followed his cantankerous advice. I wonder, too, that if you clocked back to the days of Richard Wagner (whom I think would have greatly enjoyed today’s arguments about how his operas should be staged) what would modern-day audiences make of his style. I doubt very much if they would take to it. Wagner, of course, was very specific, determined and matter-of-fact about what he wanted his productions to be like. The same goes for directors today. But for Bayreuth to flourish and engage with new audiences change has to be at the forefront of the agenda. And this is exactly what’s happening.

Anyhow, what goes on the stage has to be well complemented by what goes on in the pit therefore full marks must go to Marek Janowski for such outstanding work with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, hand-picked from some of the finest musicians to be found in Germany. He energised his charges so well especially in the big production numbers such as the Gods’ Entrance into Valhalla (Das Rheingold), Siegfried’s momentous ‘Rhine Journey’ and the ‘Funeral March’ from Götterdämmerung underwriting what marvellous acoustic properties the Festspielhaus harbours and most definitely the place to hear, soak up and enjoy the music of Richard Wagner in all its consummate and radiant glory.

Another cycle comes round in 2020 - but that’s another story!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Der Ring des Nibelungen - Bayreuth Festival, 23-28 August 2017

Directed: Frank Castorf
Set design: Aleksandar Denić
Costume design: Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting: Rainer Casper
Video: Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull
Conductor: Marek Janowski
Wotan (Das Rheingold) - Iain Patterson
Fricka - Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Freia - Caroline Wenborne
Mime - Andreas Conrad
Alberich - Albert Dohnen
Erda - Nadine Weissmann
Fafner - Karl-Heinz Lehner
Fasolt - Günther Groissböch
Woglinde - Alexandra Steiner
Wellgunde - Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde - Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Donner - Markus Eiche
Froh - Daniel Behle
Loge - Roberto Saccà
Wotan (Die Walküre) - John Lundgren
Waltraute (Die Walküre) - Stephanie Houtzeel
Siegmund - Christopher Ventris
Sieglinde - Camilla Nylund
Hunding - Georg Zeppenfeld
Brünnhilde - Catherine Foster
Siegfried - Stefan Vinke
Woodbird - Ana Durlovski
Der Wanderer - Thomas J. Mayer
First Norn - Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Second Norn - Stephanie Houtzeel
Third Norn - Christiane Kohle
Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) - Marina Prudenskaya
Gunther - Markus Eiche
Gutrune - Allison Oakes
Hagen - Stephen Milling

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