Bayreuth Festival 2014 (1) Castorf’s Texan Rheingold Sounds Excellent

GermanyGermany Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Bayreuth, Germany. 27.7.2014.

Das Rheingold Photo  credit Enrico Nawrath/ Bayreuth Festival
Das Rheingold
Photo credit Enrico Nawrath/ Bayreuth Festival

Wotan: Wolfgang Koch
Donner: Markus Eiche
Froh: Lothar Odinius
Loge: Norbert Ernst
Fricka: Claudia Mahnke
Freia: Elisabet Strid
Erda: Nadine Weissmann
Alberich: Oleg Bryjak
Mime: Burkhard Ulrich
Fasolt: Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Fafner: Sorin Coliban
Woglinde: Mirella Hagen
Wellgunde: Julia Rutigliano
Flosshilde: Okka von der Damerau

Director: Frank Castorf
Sets: Aleksandar Denić
Costumes: Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting: Rainer Casper
Video: Andreas Deinert & Jens Crull


Strangely it was London’s Fulham Opera that ‘Americanised’ Wagner’s Ring for the first time for me and explained how Wotan’s wealth came from ‘black gold’ … oil! I suspect that is where Frank Castorf – German theatre’s enfant terrible and a leading provocateur – is taking us in his Wagner bicentenary Ring production here getting its first revival. It caused a mighty furore in 2013 yet now was applauded very enthusiastically with only a very few boos. The director and his team did not take a curtain call and since this had been one of the best sounding Das Rheingolds I can remember, a thunderous ovation was the least that could be expected.

Of course you cannot please everyone and two Americans behind me in a queue for taxis were confused because nothing that they saw quite matched the story they were expecting. Regardless, apart from noticeable coughing during the quiet E flat opening it seemed I was amongst one of the most attentive Bayreuth audiences in 25 and more years being here. Coming to a new Ring in its first year was something I decided a long time ago I would never do at Bayreuth. In what little chance I have had to read anything about the build-up to this year’s performances, Castorf has apparently considered legal action because of dissatisfaction about casting and finance: perhaps if this Rheingold audience’s reaction is repeated during the other three operas of the Ring he should quickly reconsider his stance.

What we see thanks to Aleksandar Denić’s revolving set, Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes (involving much gold lame and Stetsons) and Rainer Casper’s evocative lighting is one of the most elaborate Rheingold stagings in modern times. The use of a large video screen – like that used in an arena concert – gives an almost cinematic veracity to Castorf’s version of events and throughout the evening Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull’s cameras (seen on stage) allow individual characters to reveal their innermost thoughts or are seen frozen in mid-action. More importantly, it allows the audience an almost spilt-screen glimpse of other goings-on at any particularly time. This device can be slightly distracting from time to time but I look forward to seeing whether it will be a recurring feature of this Ring.

So we are shown part of a Big Rich Texas­-style TV reality show being filmed in the seen-better-days ‘Golden Motel’ somewhere on America’s famous Route 66. The motel is actually apparently based on something called the El Dorado in Reno, Nevada, as one close-up seems to suggest. The action takes place in the rooms and corridors of the motel, the attached diner and gas station, as well as, around a small kidney-shaped swimming pool that contains lots of gold glitter where the Rhinemaidens – possibly some local hookers on their downtime during the day – are relaxing having a BBQ. We encounter Wotan initially ‘making out’ with Fricka and Freia in a first floor bedroom, Alberich – looking somewhat like a cowboy biker or someone who has been too close to cattle for too long – is also poolside with a largish yellow plastic duck that he seems inordinately fond of … don’t ask! The owner of the diner/gas station also plays a big part in what we see unfolding on stage and he is often being roughed-up by one character or another. There is also a very large black limousine driven on stage.

Donner initially brandishes a gun rather than a hammer that is until he uses one to fix the neon sign of the Golden Motel during ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’ toward the end of Das Rheingold. (There is a wonderful moment which actually really happened in Clint Eastwood’s recent Jersey Boys film when Frankie Valli and his group don’t know what to call themselves and a motel sign flickers The Four Seasons!) Fricka, Freia and Froh seem like trailer-trash made good. Loge seems intent on some pyromania but never quite succeeds despite continuously playing with his cigarette lighter. With their constant double-takes to the cameras, two Mafiosi, Fasolt and Fafner, appear to be hamming up their villainy like silent movie stars until the lovelorn Fasolt is beaten to death with a gold ingot. Late in the opera Mime replaces a state flag, probably Texas, with the rainbow one familiar from the LGBT movement and so must be Alberich’s gay younger brother. This is the closest we get to Wagner’s rainbow bridge and Castorf just leaves the music bridging sexualities. Erda looks like Wotan’s first wife who has done well from a divorce and now returns with her warning.

There is no descent to Nibelheim and – you will have gathered this by now – very little else that you would expect to see in a ‘normal’ Das Rheingold. After a couple of slightly confusing opening scenes – possibly my needing to adjust to what I was seeing – the drama becomes intensely gripping. Wotan drags in Alberich with a paper bag on his head and this was first seen with Brünnhilde in Richard Jones’s much-missed Ring for Covent Garden in the 1990s. We see a snake on video followed by a toad and that is all we get of Alberich’s transformations although camera trickery has him disappear quite ‘magically’ and it is all very effective. A lot of bedding is thrown from the bedroom window and Freia is covered with some gold bars recovered from the pool. This Das Rheingold ends after a close-up of Loge by focussing on the Rhinemaidens. This may not sound your sort of thing but it is mine and I cannot wait to see what comes next … ok yes of course I have some idea!

I suspect my reaction to Castorf’s unmusical approach – albeit something of a tour de force – would not have been so positive had the musical side of the evening been equally outstanding. 2014 Bayreuth is blessed with some wonderful singing-actors who make Castorf’s ideas live … as least as far as Das Rheingold is concerned. The Bayreuth Orchestra also played gloriously for Kirill Petrenko (general music director of Bavarian State Opera) during a masterly performance from the first hushed chords summoning the churning waves of the Rhine till the last falsely triumphant ones.

The singing was a throwback to days on the Green Hill when you could rely on hearing some of the best interpreters of their roles it was possible to hear on any of the world’s opera stages and – for this evening at least – there was not a weak link. Many of the singers will be returning during this Ring and I will comment further then.

Both burly men who could be twins (Licht-Alberich/Schwarz-Alberich) Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan and Oleg Bryjak’s Alberich had vocal weight and fullness of tone. Bryjak was the much broader actor though he brought over Alberich’s humiliation, anger and bitterness very well. Koch began rather introspectively and took a little time to establish Wotan’s innate authority, but did some fine things overall especially near the end as he becomes self-aware about his moral weakness. Norbert Ernst’s Loge embodied Castorf’s ironic view of all that was going on around him and sang splendidly. Elisabet Strid was attractive both vocally and physical and the rest of the gods’ contingent were equally impressive, Claudia Mahnke was sensually imperious, willing to share Wotan with Freia but much more concerned about what plans the equally domineering Erda (Nadine Weissmann) had for her man.  Lothar Odinius’s slightly self-absorbed Froh was a neat foil to Markus Eiche’s bully-boy Donner. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a touching Fasolt and was paired with Sorin Coliban’s creepily sinister Fafner.

And Mirella Hagen, Julia Rutigliano and Okka von der Damerau are perhaps the finest trio of Rhinemaidens to be heard for ages.

Jim Pritchard

Jim Pritchard will continue to review the Ring, as well as, Lohengrin in coming days from the 2014 Bayreuth Festival.