BAYREUTH 2014: THE CASTORF RING AND ITS ISSUES

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by Kyriakos Loukakos[1]

        It is always a special occasion being in Bayreuth. The 72,576 (2009) inhabitants “festival and university” capital of Upper Franconia has long been invested with its own heavy load of history. Being endowed with a magnificent Markgräfliches Opernhaus, incidentally object of restoration as UNESCO Weltkulturerbe since 2013, it was chosen by Richard Wagner as the place where his dream would come true. It was a total and unitary vision about a theatre where his canon of approved works would find a space specially designed to define, in performance terms, his Gesamtkunstwerk ideal, respecting its unprecedented unity of concept, poetry, music, as well as philosophical, social, aesthetic and technical challenges. A theatre which, although financed by a king who risked and ultimately lost his kingdom’s financial goodwill pursuing these ideals, would be directed by the composer himself and, after his premature death (Venice 1881) by his family, led by his strong willed widow Cosima, no other than Franz Liszt’s daughter. It was to remain so not only till 1944, when the Festival ended temporarily its existence in the flames of world war II with the additional burden of being one of Germany’s institutions most closely associated with the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler himself, but also in the era of the so called Neu Bayreuth, that dawned over the Green Hill in 1951, providing one of the most interesting «dynastic» stories in modern history.

Conservatism and reformism seemed to struggle ever since the (new) beginning, but the years 1951 – 1966 were dominated by the visionary and sensitive talent of Wieland Wagner, a luminary of sustainable transition to an abstract way of producing his grandfather’s works. It was a time that inspired a whole new generation of Wagner singers gracing the memories of the elders and whetting the appetite of the novices to the Master’s music theatre through their recordings.  For nearly half a century after Wieland’s passing, his younger brother Wolfgang led Bayreuth’s fortunes in a way that, although it supported the illusion of continuity, failed nevertheless to establish a guideline of principles for safeguarding Wagner’s legacy.  These principles should prevent leaving things at the occasional disposal of every new Bayreuth monarch, but should have provided the organizational and institutional means for serving and communicating Wagner’s cause to the world in a uniquely authoritative way. A way which, in the meanwhile, seems to have been further lost among family disputes and provocative but far from genial productions that ultimately deprive Bayreuth’s seal of its foremost privilege, coherence and credibility. Emblematic of this strategic disorientation seems to be the bicentenary production of the Ring des Nibelungen by Frank Castorf, Berlin Volksbühne’s enfant terrible, a choice that raised additional doubt, already since its first announcement.

It was not without intent that we avoided to attend this Ring cycle during the Wagner bicentenary year, since we assumed that we could form a fairer idea about it after the eventual reworking of certain points as part of a constant Werkstatt Bayreuth process, such as we already have witnessed in the course of Sebastian Baumgarten’s equally disputed and still running Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Assessing others’ experiences of the Ring production’s first airing, back in 2013,  one has to note the way in which Castorf is reported to have reacted onstage to the vociferous disapproval of many spectators after the end of the premiere, a way prone to lead to more generalized conclusions regarding contemporary opera production worldwide. In view of the indirect way for which ever more critics opt in their reviews, in order to avert the public without jeopardizing a sensitive relation to the Festspielleitung, as well as the positive initiatives of the current directorial duo of half sisters Mmes. Eva Wagner – Pasquier and Catharina Wagner (especially its courageous coming to terms with the Nazi past, their offer of performances for public viewing or the equally welcome children’s opera project), one cannot nevertheless avoid to mark the absence of strategic policy for the Bayreuth Festival to regain its status as referential to the Wagner research and performance, a goal so diligently served in the course of 35 seasons by the Rossini Opera Festival in the historic little town of Pesaro, incidentally the cradle of Barbiere’s composer. This strategy should be urgently formed in an impartial and deeply considered way, where questions about loving Wagner (or not), such as the one posed to Catharina Wagner in a Thalia Festspiel – Magazin interview[3], should be irrelevant and indisputable, as Wagner is not only Bestandteil of the great German culture but also part  of the world cultural heritage as well.

The main issue that Frank Castorf’s Ring production raised in an almost dramatic way is a well known one in our operatic reality, i.e. whether anybody should be entitled to impose on the Wagner (or for that reason any other’s) works one’s own views, if these views ascertain little coherence or even relevance to the works themselves, and that irrespective of the (financing) public’s dissent. And, further, whether a festival, so special as indisputably the Bayreuth one has been for more than a century, should endanger its global status by so overtly overlooking its primary cause of establishment,  that is the presentation of Wagner’s works in ways conforming to his explicit intentions. Lastly what could be evaluated as an ethical matter is whether Wagner’s own descendants should host so provocatively alienating  an adaption of his plots in “their” theatre, long considered a Mecca like destination for Wagnerites all over the Planet.

From Route 66 to Kreuzberg

In this sense and with all due respect to Castorf’s DDR experience, a regular Bayreuth visitor, joining the Festival from every corner of the globe, is intended to face the Wagnerian creation in its own terms and should not be expected to have run through lengthy producer’s notes in order to realize details referring from USA’s Route 66 and the New York Stock Exchange to the Azeri capital Baku or Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and Kreuzberg, all anyway largely irrelevant to the Handlung. We therefore object to this sort of bankrupt Verfremdung in our firm belief that facing a composer like Richard Wagner, fully aware of his idea(l)s, methods and aesthetic as well as philosophical aspirations, should be a process of long study, selfless dedication and a considerate underlying humility towards the precious material.

Castorf’s production evidently suffers from insufficient familiarity with the original text and music and limited faith to its tremendous and lasting impact. His few interesting ideas remain unrefined throughout the epos, while his many instances of uncertainty are stated with oppositional aggressiveness towards his own public. So, even his daring staging of this immense cosmological yet deeply human and social drama in 4 totally different topoi remains largely unexploited, showing no narrative quality that would at least present his Erzählung as conclusive even to his own (let alone Wagner’s) stage action. What perhaps sticks in memory is the imposing scenery materialized with scrutiny by his Serbian Bühnenbildner Aleksandar Denić, by which this production is likely to retain at least some visual reference for collectors of Bayreuth performances on video.

Rheingold without essentials

Unsuspected readers should be warned that Castorf’s  Das Rheingold depicts no Rhine at all (just a swimming pool caricature), no Walhall, no oppressed Nibelungen, let alone aspects of divinity as a noble albeit not flawless identity of the Gods. The superimposed action takes place in a motel of the emblematic Route 66 of the USA, running between Chicago and Los Angeles “over two thousand miles all the way”, with morally questionable (Rhine)maidens inhabiting the ground floor.  Alberich is just a loser playing with his duck toy, obviously meant as some kind of psychoanalytical allusion. As for the “Gods”, they live upstairs and form part of the most decadent Luben Proletariat with no moral inhibitions whatsoever, as Wotan is being introduced to the public lying in bed not only with his wife Fricka but also with her sister Freia. As if that were not enough, even the venerable Ur – Goddess of the Earth Erda becomes a prostitute as well and is implied to have sexual intercourse with Wotan almost on stage during what was meant by Wagner to be the entrance of the Gods in Walhall!

The way that the producer handles the work is further revealed in his choice for a total withdrawal of any Personenregie in the most intense scene of the opera, that of Alberich’s captivity and curse: despite text’s and music’s dramatic urgency, the interpreters are called to sing lying impassively on their chaises longues. Not that the loss to the plot of the suffering Nibelungs helped to alleviate the scene from unnecessary personnel: to the contrary, details of the superimposed action were being filmed by a crew on stage and directly relayed on parallel giant screen, a further distraction of the poor viewer from the concentration to the musical content.

The Soviet and GDR elements

The plague of live video projection persisted in Die Walküre, at least as soon as Siegmund launched his act 1 narrative. Gradually we became accustomed to the disturbing procedure of crew members unfolding a veil screen at any moment of the action, in order to impose Soviet (and/or soviet like) footage recalling the 27 April – 11 May 1920 Red Army

«Sovietizasion» of Azerbaijan, after the first oil had been detected near the port of Baku. The Soviet element became more obvious in Siegfried with its allusion to some kind of Mount Rushmore that, instead of the American presidents Washington, Jefferson, Th. Roosevelt and Lincoln, depicts the recognizable deities of Communism, i.e. Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. The scenery has a back side referring to Berlin (DDR) Alexanderplatz, complete with U– and S – Bahn as well as Post signings and a typical shop of the period. The implied lack of consumer products seems to act as a further incentive for Walhall’s female inhabitants’ prostitution. In act 3 for instance, Erda, as a lady of low repute, while joining her pimp Wotan on stage, has her cosmetics removed from her bag by her working colleague, while this allwissende Wala furnishes an implied blowjob to Wotan, in her knees and faced with his zippers, both happenings duly projected on the ubiquitous giant screen. But even these «ideas» do not evolve in Castorf’s narration. They remain circumstantial and superficial, with no evident clue. Equally inconsistent remains his use of symbols, such as Wotan’s spear, failing to establish their intended mark, while Siegfried’s sword gives its place to a riffle, by which Fafner, no dragon anymore but a drug dealer instead, is being shot in the back by the not so innocent Siegfried, who furthermore is provided by his woodbird comrade not only with information about sleeping Brünnhilde’s  rock, but also with his (first?) sexual experience, an event transforming Siegfried’s learning of fear in front of the sleeping Valkurie to nonsense, at least as Wagner intended it. As for the love duet it was rather disturbingly accompanied by a  three – member family of crocodiles. The woodbird was devoured onstage by one of them, before Siegfried freed it from the beast’s teeth.

Even Götterdämmerung in Castorf’s production opens with the Norns, deities of fate,  extending their prophecies from some basement serving as a voodoo shrine,  Rhine remains totally absent despite its depiction in text and music, the Gibichung Königskinder become «Döner» and vegetable entrepreneurs in the backyard of a West Berlin (Kreuzberg) Hochhaus and so on. Last but far from least, Brünnhilde’s immolation brings a singularly uneventful end of the world  with even the New York Stock Exchange thrown in for good measure but with no real visual effect corresponding to the apocalyptic power of the music. In sum a handling of Wagner’s ewiges Werk in equally boring and infuriating proportions.

The Petrenko and singers compensation

The tendency to productions which deviate from the Wagnerian archetype or even totally ignore it, as does the current one,  already obvious in such milestones as the late Christoph Schlingensief’s Parsifal or Sebastian Baumgarten’s Tannhäuser, has already deprived the Green Hill of many renowned singers, reluctant to appear (anymore) at the Festspielhaus. One of the most lamented absences remains the one of Nina Stemme, perhaps the foremost Wagnerian soprano of our time. The fact that Bayreuth does not anymore represent the pinnacle  of  Wagner singing (conducting is altogether another matter thanks to the reassuring commitment of Christian Thielemann) has never been widely accepted as self evident by its followers, so it seems an optimistic sign that, contrary to the spectacle, we have better tidings to report about the musical part of this year’s Ring.

           Kirill Petrenko’s indisputable triumph, in connection with his recent appointment as Generalmusikdirektor at the nearby Bavarian State Opera,   established him overnight as a hopefully key figure of the festival’s next steps. It may seem highly risky on his part to have accepted a debut in Bayreuth with the exhaustingly demanding Ring cycle, but Petrenko (b. 1972) had already fastidiously done his homework back in 2001, when he had conducted for the first time the Ring cycle on 4 consecutive evenings with impressive results during his brief tenure at the Südthüringisches Staatstheater Meiningen. The Russian born Austrian conductor with the uneventful presence further raised expectations of an extraordinary competence in a memorable 2013 concert performance of Das Rheingold, followed by two

further concerts comprising highlights from the other 3 «days» of the Cycle, at Rome’s Parco della Musica. It was an event of enormous drive serving as a test for last year’s first showing on the Green Hill, both events coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. Although it took him some time to settle during his first Bayreuth Rheingold, at least as transmitted by the Bavarian Radio, his pacing for the 3 following “days” of the drama was simply magnificent, despite the burden of a highly contestable production and singing considered by many as mediocre.

Nevertheless, if called to summarize the impression of our first viewing of the current Ring as presented between 10th and 15th August 2014, the verdict would be contained in the triptych unsatisfactory production, well schooled singing and unfussy, seamlessly glorious conducting. Petrenko’s measured, reflective and utterly natural way of unfolding the drama acted as a welcome reminder of what Wagner conducting has always stood for. In his sinewy way, Petrenko managed to provide an attentive ear to dynamics belying the generalized prejudice about the presumably loud Wagnerian orchestra. On the contrary, it remains astonishing what he managed through sensitive pacing, an unerring sense of symphonic argument and an innate feeling for Wagner’s unendliche Melodie, keeping the explosions of sound to a minimum and proving a cunning ability for well judged culminations. In all these, but also echoed in singers’ interviews to the Bavarian Radio during the radio broadcasts, one could sense the charismatic operatic conductor, generous to his singers’ limits, but also anxious to establish a homogeneous vocal emission and Textverständlichkeit, in any case not detrimental to the singing line. As for the cast itself, although perhaps not comprising individual stars, it proved as consistent and all round satisfying as one is likely to be reckoned with  in this world.

Three well integrated and healthy voiced Rhine maidens (Mirella Hagen as Woglinde, Julia Rutigliano as Wellgunde and Okka von der Damerau  as Flosshilde) launched  our journey, praising the eponymous gold and mocking an unusually strong Alberich. The Kazak Oleg Bryjak, seemed initially somewhat dry – voiced, but soon attained the dramatic and vocal stature of the tragic dwarf, bringing in welcome Neidlinger-isms to his robust vocalism. As his brother, the enslaved Mime who later leads Siegfried and himself to their respective destinies, tenor Burkhard Ulrich excelled in characterful word pointing, his plaintive address to Loge and Wotan being a model of its kind. A characterization that further deepened and grew in stature in the course of Siegfried’s initial acts. Loge, the mischievous God of fraud and fire, as impersonated by Norbert Ernst showed evidence of yet another character tenor of distinction, keeping away from expressive exaggeration while contrasting well with Lothar Odinius’s sweet – voiced Froh, a kind of Nordic mythology Apollo. Causing the tempest that forms the rainbow bridge for the Gods to enter their new Walhall residence, Donner is often allotted to a lesser singer. Not here though as the distinguished baritone Markus Eiche proved a strong – voiced and youthful God of lightning and thunder.

For all their worth, though, the other Gods yield to the powerful character of Their father figure Wotan. Sadly deprived of his godly dignity, Wolfgang Koch’s vocal interpretation of this character, so central to the drama, seems to have deepened considerably since his first assumption of it, with text enunciation of the utmost clarity and shaded phrasing, but showing some weakness in the deep end of his vocal range during the Die Walküre act 2 monologue, which failed to come to life effectively despite Petrenko’s urgent tempo and Koch’s own gift for vivid declamation, so evident in his confident Wanderer in Siegfried. What Koch amply deserves is a production more considerate to his considerable stage talent.

As Wotan’s lawful consort as well as Waltraute and 2nd  Norn, Claudia Mahnke used her well focused mezzo voice to a warm and noble effect, even without the tonal bloom that ladies from other eras of Wagnerian tradition brought in for Fricka’s  Die Walküre scene. Elisabet Strid was a somewhat fruity Freia and Nadine Weissmann as Erda pronounced the famous warning in an objectively effective way, doing her best to reconcile clear diction with singing line. It is a tribute to her artistic integrity that she kept her singing composure even while implying on stage the performance of acts unspeakable beyond any reasonable doubt, at least in this context.

An unexpected felicity proved the juxtaposition of giants Fasolt and Fafner, the former, sung  by Wilhelm Schwinghammer in warm – toned, fine basso cantante legato for this lovelorn, softhearted giant, contrasting nicely with the latter’s black voiced greediness in Sorin Coliban’s sturdy portrayal. The Bucarest – born bass’s tone seems to have grown darker since his early bassbaritone days, back in 1996,  when he  had the chance to perform the title role in Don Giovanni by Mozart, in a unique production directed by the famous Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi, at the Athens Megaron Moussikis Concert Hall.

The nearly perfect trio of singers who engendered act 1 of Die Walküre was a further unalloyed vocal pleasure of this Ring cycle. Tenor Johan Botha and soprano Anja Kampe,  as the Wälsung lovers, brought blissfully euphonious lyricism to their overpowering love music. Both of them though rose also with sufficient power to individual tasks, such as Siegmund’s act 1 dramatic narratives and Sieglinde’s act 3 “O höchstes Wunder!”. Kwanchul Youn’s already widely known Hunding enlarged this unpleasant character’s appeal by purely musical means.

The only female dramatis persona appearing in all three days of the Ring is Wotan’s beloved daughter Brünnhilde, requiring a dramatic soprano combining extended vocal range, considerable stamina and declamatory power, but also reserves of youthful lyricism. In this respect the Bayreuth Festival had the fortune of hiring Catherine Foster. Once past her initial “Hojotoho”s of Die Walküre, the British soprano met most of these requirements, excepting perhaps the cruelly exposed, and incidentally missed, concluding note to Siegfried (but then Frida Leider no less considered the Siegfried one as the most tricky of all Brünnhildes, in spite of the role’s short timing). Foster rose mostly to the occasion through singing of remarkable steadiness and warmth, accordingly solemn in the Todesverkündigung, defiant and tender in her duets with Siegfried, moderate in histrionics for Götterdämmerung’s act 2 vengeance oath and with ample reserves for a dignified Immolation scene.

Siegfried acquires the degraded Valkyrie through  Mirella Hagen’s benevolent intervention in form of a silver – voiced and extravagantly costumed Woodbird. As the fearless hero, handsome and reliable tenor  Lance Ryan brought, besides a somewhat tight vocal emission, welcome experience to this difficult and stentorian role. Attila Jun did not make us forget the towering performance of Hans-Peter König as Hagen, but he managed better than many in a not too crowded global family of the basso profondo category. The handsome but generic Gunther of baritone Alejandro Marco – Buhrmester and the rather plain Gutrune of Allison Oakes corresponded to their more or less weak characters as the Gibichung royal humans. Well organized Valkyries (Gerhilde: Allison Oakes, Ortlinde: Dara Hobbs, Schwertleite: Nadine Weissmann, Helmwige:  Christiane Kohl, Siegrune: Julia Rutigliano, Grimgerde: Okka van der Damerau and Roßweiße:  Aleksandra Petersamer), a solemn trio of Norns (Okka von der Damerau, Claudia Mahnke and Christiane Kohl ) and the exceptional men’s chorus as well as the select  orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival rounded up a well considered musical whole. But the journalist’s insidious question to Frau Wagner about loving her great – grandfather’s work  or not persists. Hopefully it is neither meant nor  evaded as a merely rhetorical one[4]…



[1] First published on www.critics-point.gr
[2]Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.
[3] Bayreuth 2014, page 18.
[4] All photos by courtesy of Bayreuth Festival Press Office