Exclusive: first look at Bayreuth's radical new Ring
Monday, July 22, 2013
Forget Verdi, Britten and The Rite of Spring. In Germany, 2013 is above and beyond all else the Wagnerjahr. Germany’s most influential and controversial composer has been honoured for his 200th birthday with new scholarly books, magazine cover stories, postage stamps and, naturally, the hundreds of productions of his 13 operas, including his rarely-seen early works, that have been whirring about the opera firmament like so many Valkyries since the beginning of the season.
The most hotly awaited of these is the new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuther Fespiele, the month-long summertime festival that the composer founded in order to perform his monumental quadrilogy and has served as a site of pilgrimage for Wagnerians since 1876. Frank Castorf, the Regietheater enfant terrible who is artistic director of Berlin’s Volksbühne, is in change of the cycle, which he has had to put together in somewhat record time. Castorf was the last in a long line of directors that the festival – currently led by the composer’s great-granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier – either courted or considered, including the filmmakers Wim Wenders, Tom Tykwer and Michael Haneke. The last Ring at Bayreuth was Tancred Dorst’s tepidly received 2006 production.
Castorf is something of a legend in Berlin for his staunchly political and deconstructive approach to theatre. His most famous – or infamous – production is arguably his five-hour-long stage adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (based on the modernist novel by Alfred Döblin), which was an endurance test for both the performers and the audience. His blend of savagery, humour and complete irreverence is matched by a visual aesthetic that celebrates the trashy, ironically appropriates productions of mass consumer culture. Given his pronounced fondness for raging against conventions, it is hardly surprising that he is known here as a Stückezertrümmerer or ‘play-smasher’.
Prior to the Bayreuth Ring, Castorf has had no professional experience with opera save a very loose adaptation of Meistersinger at the Volksbühne. He is fond of inserting radical texts and amending works at will, refusing to treat any play as a canonical text. Naturally this penchant runs contrary to the spirit of Bayreuth, which treats Wagner’s works as holy and unalterable. For this reason, Castorf’s contract with Bayreuth prohibits him from making any cuts or changes to either score or libretto. That aside, Castorf has carte blanche to take his dramaturgical wrecking ball to Wagner and German mythology as he sees fit.
Already a year ago, Castorf hinted to the German press that he would recast the Ring as the worldwide scramble for oil, the gold of our times. He also tantalized when he said that there would be a revolving stage, video and sets of both Wall Street and Alexanderplatz. Since then, however, the festival has been extremely tight-lipped about the new cycle and neither Castorf nor Kirill Petrenko, the Russian maestro who will conduct, has been giving interviews. Aside from a hand picked group of 10 journalists that attended rehearsals of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre two weeks ago, this new cycle has been completely off-limits to the press. In fact, the few interviews that Castorf deigned to grant were cancelled at the last moment (including one with the respected German weekly Die Zeit, who humorously decided nonetheless to print their 99 questions without Castorf’s answers). The air of secrecy has only intensified as the start of the festival, on July 25, nears. The official media preview of Götterdämmerung last Tuesday, July 16, was closed to the press at the last minute at the express wishes of the production team. Despite this, however, I managed to score a ticket to Thursday’s final dress rehearsal for Das Rheingold. While I am naturally unable to give a review, here are some impressions of what I saw, bearing in mind that, as Peter Emmerich, the head of the Bayreuth press department, helpfully reminded me, additions and alterations to the production are ‘not uncommon’ during the rehearsal phase. In the description of the main dress rehearsal that follows, I will follow Mr. Emmerich’s directives to the elect journalists who were admitted to the previous week’s rehearsals. First, I make it very clear – in fact, I really can’t stress this enough – that what I saw was a rehearsal: that is, a work in progress (most probably right up until opening night) and not a finished product. Secondly, I shy away from qualitative evaluation of what I saw and certainly I will not pass judgment on the musical performance, except perhaps for a remark or two that will not tip this report in the direction of a review.
Inside the packed and notoriously uncomfortable confines of the Festspielhaus – an airless barn with wooden-backed seats – the curtain rose on a sleazy roadside inn along Route 66 called The Golden Motel. The stage swiveled to reveal a Texaco petrol station and a convenience store/bar. The flag and emblem of the Lone Star State put to rest any doubt about where we were supposed to be. The Rhine Maidens lounged by the motel pool, drying their laundry and barbecuing. Alberich dove into the shallow water in speedos and cowboy boots to retrieve the gold, but not before munching on a Bratwurst (he didn’t so much as eat it as spit the chunks out into the water) and squirting himself with yellow mustard. Much of the onstage action throughout the evening was simultaneously filmed and projected onto a large video monitor: a voyeuristic technique that suggested reality TV or a soap opera. The gods were up in their motel room, rolling around in bed. Wotan might have been a gangster or pimp and Fricka and Freia, busty, blonde and caked with makeup, could have been Divine’s slimmer cousins. Generally speaking, the costumes and wigs would not have been out of place in a Saturday Night Live sketch about Las Vegas hustlers in the 1970s. Donner, with his cowboy hat and moustache, faced down a tattooed, crowbar-wielding Fafner with a pistol while the goddesses barricaded themselves in their room. At one point, it seemed that the giants were going to put a dent into Wotan’s vintage black Mercedes, which was easily the swankiest prop of the evening. But despite a general sense of menace early on, there was little actual violence, which I take to be restraint on Castorf’s part.
There was quite a bit of action in confined spaces, such as the motel room or the convenience store/bar by the petrol station, with most of the interior details only visible via the video screen. The counter bar, for instance, was decorated with posters from B-movies that had the word ‘gold’ in the title, a pinball machine and a jukebox that a bunch of presumably drugged-out extras danced to (silently, of course) in the final scene. Mime and Alberich were the only Nibelungs in sight and they both appeared to have been kidnapped by Wotan and Loge (the fire god was a hustler who couldn’t stop playing with his lighter) before or during the descent to Nibelheim, which was nothing more than the cramped confines of Alberich’s camping trailer. Even so, Mime jubilated when Alberich was outsmarted and replaced the Texan flag with a rainbow flag that could either be the symbol for the peace movement, LGBT pride or the Indian mystic Meher Baba. It was one of the many open-ended symbols in this intricately detailed and ironic staging.
What will the successive installments look like? The rumour mill is surprisingly quiet. According to an interview with Sven Friedrich, director of the Wagner Museum at Wahnfried, the end of Götterdämmerung is set at Mount Rushmore, where the American presidents have been replaced by socialist heroes.
This admission appears to be confirmed by black and white photos of Aleksandar Denic’s sets for the cycle published in the 2013 Year Book of the Society of the Friends of Bayreuth, among which appears a Mount Rushmore-like grouping of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. Other images reveal sets of the former East Berlin centre Alexanderplatz (with the first two letters of the name missing), the main building of the New York Stock Exchange and a wooden drilling rig and massive shed.
As luck would have it, a friend of mine was seated next to Friedrich during the rehearsal. Friedrich confirmed that each installment has a separate locale: Texas (Das Rheingold), Baku (Die Walküre), East Germany (Siegfried) and Wall Street (Götterdämmerung). It will be interesting to see how Castorf develops the oil motif alongside a critique of market capitalism in the remaining installments. A certain degree of scandal and controversy seems inevitable. At the very least, however, the musical component seems to be in very good hands. Petrenko, who replaces Kent Nagano next season as General Music Director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, is very kind to his singers. He did, in fact, spend five years (2002-2007) at the Komische Oper Berlin, where he routinely contended with directors with similar radical sensibilities.
AJ Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. He also writes for The Wall Street Journal, Opera New Magazine and The Forward.