Letter from Bayreuth

Wagnerians could be nowhere else this summer of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth but in Bayreuth for the new production of the Ring. This writer was one of the privileged few to have a ticket for one of the three Ring cycles presented at the Festival this summer (the second cycle, August 14-19). The brutal heat, topping 95 degrees in Central Europe, had finally abated, leaving cool evening air in its wake, making the atmosphere of the Festspielhaus at least tolerable.

Much critical commentary has already been written about the staging by Berlin director Frank Castorf. To characterize it as “Eurotrash” is almost a compliment. Rarely has such egotistical, willfully ugly, vulgar, and patently condescending staging been seen on any operatic stage, let alone one as exalted as Bayreuth’s. The staging was especially unfortunate in that Castorf has a virtuoso director’s facility for using props and movement on the stage for visual effect. Yet his staging reflected his contempt for the audience in the house. This production seemed to say “I want to see just how much crudity served up by my ego you can tolerate in the guise of service to great art.” That said, it speaks to Wagner’s genius and the commitment of the artists for this Ring that somehow Wagner’s mighty vision survived the offense visited on his creation by Castorf’s production.

To pick just a few examples, what kind of imagination could conceive of the Rhinemaidens as voluptuous floozies turning tricks in a rundown second-rate motel run by Wotan? This is, after all, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but where are the Nibelungs? Nowhere to be found, rendering the chorus of clanging anvils that accompanies the voyage of Wotan and Loge to Nibelheim completely pointless. In Siegfried the purpose of the forging of the great sword Notung is to give Siegfried a weapon with which to dispatch Fafner and seize the gold. Fafner is done in by a burst of fire from Siegfried’s Kalashnikov assault rifle! Thereafter Notung becomes nothing more than a pointless prop. To a red Berliner of Castorf’s generation, knee-jerk anti-Americanism comes with the territory, even though it has nothing to do with Castorf’s narrative, assuming that there is a narrative. wake, making the atmosphere of the Festspielhaus at least tolerable.

Fortunately, this Ring was saved from disaster by the performing artists. The singing, with few exceptions, was of a high order. Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan, while the voice is a bit light for the role, was lyrically sung. Sorin Coliban’s Fafner, while well sung, was eclipsed by the Fasolt of Günther Groissböck. He has a resonant bass voice and an appropriately menacing stage presence. Nadine Weissmann’s Erda was sung with a rich contralto voice, even though Castorf asked her to engage in stage behavior that was often unspeakably vulgar. Of the Rhinemaidens, Julia Rutigliano’s Wellgunde was especially well-sung.

Die Walküre was the only one of Castorf’s creations that had any coherence. His visualization of Hunding’s hut was convincing, as was the way in which the scenery and props were used by the characters to impart the action. The most consistently fine singing in this Ring was by Johan Botha and Anja Kampe, as Siegmund and Sieglinde. Botha’s acting can be stiff and with little nuance, but what singing! He has a large tenor voice which he employs with just the kind of bel canto sensitivity and warmth that Wagner, who admired Bellini’s operas, intended. If anything, Kampe was even better. She captured the fear and hatred she had for her husband, the brute Hunding (Franz-Joseph Selig), utterly convincingly. Her voice soared over the orchestra with a sweet tone and fine phrasing. Weissmann and Rutigliano distinguished themselves as Valkyries Schwertleite and Siegrune. Winterstürm and Wotan’s Abscheid, were high points of this Ring, and Castorf actually made the magic fire believable.

Castorf’s Siegfried was almost unbearably vulgar, even given his low standards. The conclusion of Act III, with the arrival of two mechanical crocodiles to see the lovers off, is probably the stupidest bit of staging I have seen in over 40 years of opera-going. But Koch’s Wanderer and Burkhard Ulrich’s slippery Mime were nicely realized, not to mention well-sung. Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde hit her stride in Siegfried. But Siegfried ultimately belongs to Siegfried, and Lance Ryan disappointed in the title role. He has great upper extension to his voice, and it has the bright edge needed for this role, but his voice has a leathery quality with little nuance. Everything he sang sounded pretty much the same.

Die Götterdämmerung, of course, is probably impossible to stage–how to stage the end of the world? Castorf’s effort, though, was particularly feeble. Having been given the Ring by Brünnhilde, the Rhinemaidens simply cast it into a charcoal brazier, while Hagen looks on helplessly, as the object of his affection goes up in smoke. At least Attila Jun looked and acted the part of the consummate villain Hagen, and he sang the music with conviction and a big, dark voice. Foster was at her best in the Immolation Scene, even though she was given no help by the staging.

I have saved the best for last. Conductor Kirill Petrenko and the orchestra covered themselves with glory. They were rewarded at the end of each opera with huge ovations, each one of which was richly deserved. Under his leadership the orchestra phrased with the singers, and despite a massive sound, rarely drowned them out, aided immeasurably by the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus. The brasses had a rich, dark sound that is so characteristic of the brass in the best of German orchestras. The sound of the lower strings was fat and lush, and the woodwinds played to perfection, especially the bass clarinetist, whose plaintive recurring solo lines so often signify a change in the mood throughout the Ring.

As bad as Castorf’s production was, this Ring was redeemed by the singers, Petrenko’s conducting, and the magnificent playing of the orchestra. As a concert performance, it would have been a first-class Ring, but even despite the production, it was well worth the trip to the beautiful city of Bayreuth in the summertime to honor the bicentennial of the birth of Wagner, Germany’s greatest opera composer.

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