Frank Castorf’s staggeringly intelligent, symbol-laden Bayreuth Das Rheingold is revived on DG Stage

GermanyGermany Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Marek Janowski (conductor). 2016 performance from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and reviewed when streamed on DG Stage. (CC)

Iain Paterson (Wotan) & Nadine Weissmann (Erda)
(c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

Stage Director:  Frank Castorf
Stage Design – Aleksandar Denić
Costumes – Aldiana Braga Peterzki
Lighting – Rainer Casper
Video – Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull

Wotan  – Iain Paterson
Donner – Markus Eiche
Froh – Tansel Alzeybek
Loge –  Roberto Saccà
Fricka  – Sarah Connolly
Freia –  Caroline Wenborne
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Mime – Andreas Conrad
Fasolt – Gunther Groissböck
Fafner  – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Woglinde – Alexandra Steiner
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Weibke Lehmkuhl

Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring cycle premiered in 2013; this is from the 2016 performances at Bayreuth. The contemporary setting equates oil to gold, hence the Vorabend is set at a gas station on Route 66; Die Walküre is set in Azerbaijan, as Baku was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1929 for its oil and later was a tempting target for the Nazis. Siegfried finds itself at both Mount Rushmore and Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, while finally Götterdämmerung is somewhere in the GDR, before closing at the New York Stock Exchange.

We start with a film of Marek Janowski extolling the delights of Bayreuth, and its uniqueness, from performers, place, and sometimes ‘comic, touching, and sometimes unimaginable’ audience of Germany’s ‘worldwide festival’. He talks about the difficulties of coming to terms with the Bayreuth acoustic, the brass very much underneath the conductor, and who don’t hear anything of the singers; the wind, who can hear some of it, and the strings who can hear and even see some of what’s happening on stage. This, plus the problems of co-ordinating chorus/orchestra in Götterdämmerung.

To say Janowski is no stranger to the Ring is an understatement. People of a certain age will remember his LP Europadisc cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden, with its fabulous sound (that brass!) and (personal preference here) Jessye Norman as Sieglinde. This resurfaced most recently I think on Sony RCA Red Seal. Then there’s the Pentatone Ring (for whom he recorded the complete Bayreuth-authorised music-dramas) with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and a Siegmund who more recently has released not one but two Lied von der Erdes, Robert Dean Smith  (Vladimir Jurowski with the Berlin RSO, again Pentatone, and with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics). And here is Janowski again, with singers of today at the very top of their form.

Castorf’s Ring begins innocently enough: a semi-lit curtain which parts as we hear the sounds of the depths of the Rhine. We find ourselves at a crummy motel, the very epitome of garish sleaze, on Route 66 (the ‘Golden Motel’). Not too long ago, as a sign proclaims that wi-fi is available. Rhinemaidens lounge about, drinking, smoking, hanging up their smalls. Cameras on stage allow us to see them in black-and-white also, projected above (and as the cycle progresses, we see characters with hand-held television cameras, an omnipresent eye, distancing, offering new perspectives).  There is a swimming pool (there had to be water, surely, although remember the Glyndebourne Pelléas (review click here)? Maybe it’s not a given after all …); there is even a rubber duck for Alberich.

So much, so sleazy. It all fits, of course, the greed of the Gods and Alberich could hardly find a more apt setting. Wotan is something of a gang leader; this could as easily be a spin-off of The Sopranos with the greatest soundtrack ever (sometimes it veers towards Goodfellas), or with its cowboy hats (Donner) it might be a particularly malicious series of Dallas that occurred in a parallel reality. And Dallas did have oil rights at its centre, Garish hardly covers this production, and yet it transfixes. The gold glows from below the swimming pool; there appear to be slivers of cheap gold leaf (or even imitation gold leaf from Poundland) floating in the water; a swooping ledge in the pool perhaps suggests the winding trajectory of the river.

In this first scene, it is the first time, too, we can appreciate the excellence of the orchestra. In both the Europadisc and Pentatone cycles, the brass had been resplendent; here, too. The strings’ depth of sound, too, was a wonder in both, and we hear it again here everywhere, perhaps most impressively underpinning Alberich’s cries of ‘O Schmerz! O Schmerz!’.

For Scene Two, Fricka opens the curtains to the Gods’ apartment in the top left quadrant of the stage (remember that one can see inside in intimate detail thanks to the cameras). But it is not just the two of them there; Freia makes it a threesome (literally: keeping it in the family is, after all, just around the corner in Die Walküre), with the obligatory cameraman a fourth. The clear arrogance of this Wotan (brilliantly projected by Iain Paterson) is almost there to act as Fricka’s trigger, for it was Dame Sarah Connolly who trumped everyone and everything (including the concept, perhaps) around her. Interestingly and parenthetically, she joins Robert Dean Smith on that Jurowski Mahler Lied. Vocally majestic, she is also the consummate actress, anguished, anxious, powerful. Behind each God there is a more powerful Goddess – many would have it they have been the powerful ones all along – and Connolly presents the most powerful of all, the force that attempts at least to bring balance and a modicum of sanity to her ego-ridden spouse, who thinks it is cool to wear shades even at night. Together, vocally, Connolly and Paterson make a dream team.

As to the giants Fasolt and Fafner, mechanic-thugs in denim, they are every inch of this world where violence seems to be continuously just under the surface. They encounter Wotan at a gas station; thugs they may be (plenty of wanton violence – Fafner has a whale of a time), but agile their bass voices are (Fafner’s ‘Gold’ne Äpfel’).  And in total contrast comes the fine, clarion tenor of Tansel Alzeybek’s Froh (‘Zu mir, Freia!’), the youngest mafioso of the Sopranos clan, perhaps.

Loge was always going to be dressed in fire red, and so it is. This bourbon-swilling orchestrator of misdeed could hardly find a better interpreter today than Roberto Saccà, whose enunciation of German at speed – a key part of this role – is superb. ‘Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn’ is a tour-de-force, as Loge-isch as they come.

For all this stage cleverness, the real depictions are in the orchestra: the ageing of the Gods once deprived of the golden apples is heard as much as seen; Fricka just has a lie-down. As all descends into chaos, and the Rhinemaidens invade Wotan’s bedroom to steal what they can (later, the steal his car), a caravan arrives onstage.

As we move to Nibelheim, Wotan and Loge are shown in film asking directions with a map, planning their route. Wotan arrives and deposits the Tarnhelm – a metal scarf – in the cash register of a gas station. Mime and Alberich are initially shackled to posts, Andreas Conrad is the most vocally agile of Mimes. But, importantly, we definitely feel Alberich and Wotan are cut from the same cloth, the one mirroring the other. Film gives us the solutions to the transformations: a film of a snake is easy to produce and arrive it does. When Alberich puts on the Tarnhelm and goes into the caravan, we see a projection of a toad. Later, a multicoloured, rainbow flag is hoisted – the closest we are to get to a rainbow bridge, it turns out.

The final scene finds Wotan in pink suit with those ever-present shades. Sat in deckchairs, both Wotan and Loge could not care less as Albert Dohmen delivers one of the finest curses – vocally firm, emotionally believable. As Loge plays with the flame on his lighter, the taps of the timpani and the slowly crawling string figures, exquisitely controlled, from Janowski prepare the way perfectly for the arrival of the Giants, the horns’ imitations (joined then by woodwind) perfectly scaled. Freia arrives, too, dressed as a cheap sex doll, the plaything of the giants. No surprise that Froh looks even more like a young pimp, Wotan’s errand boy (or perhaps whipping boy given what we saw in the motel room).

The wall of gold instead comprises the bed in the hotel room being stripped of everything (including mattress), Freia placed on it and then literally buried beneath gold bullion. Dressed in completely decadent, surely dead animal, furs, the Erda is fabulous, both in a vocal sense and in a gay icon sense. Nadine Weissmann might not have the most contralto of voices, but she exudes the aura of a Mafiosa Ur-Mother (there could be a film, perhaps, The Godmother); the camera affords us a prime view of Wotan’s wandering hand as she sings – more intones – her lines. As the Ring is handed over to the giants, we see Froh and Donner in the background celebrating with the over-zealous enthusiasm of youth mixed with pure greed and power. Inevitably, the death occurs in violent fashion, Fasolt battered by a gold bullion.

At the close, we see the logic of the set, with Froh on the roof above the bedroom where so much has happened. Fricka hugs Donner on the roof the level below, above the gas station. It is Markus Eiche ‘s big moment – and his 1980s moustache’s as well, in close-up – and he works it superbly, swinging the hammer over and over in rehearsal for the clap when he strikes the wall.  As we hear the music for the ascent to Valhalla, we see the characters strategically placed around the set, like pieces on a bizarre Star Trek 3D chessboard, the Rhinemaidens projected on a screen. How noble and dignified is Wotan’s ‘Folge mir, Frau’; Loge is superb, on the verge of incinerating the lot, stopped at the last moment by the distant sound of the Rhinemaidens.

A staggeringly intelligent, symbol-laden Das Rheingold; the audience reception is a perhaps predictable mix of cheers and boos. The orchestra is vast of sound, yet capable of the most mute nuances; the singing includes some of the finest Wagner singers around. This does not yet appear to be on DVD/Bluray, but surely it is only a matter of time …

Colin Clarke

For more about DG Stage click here.

Leave a Comment