Bayreuth Festival (1) - Das Rheingold, 20 August 2016

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold (Frank Castorf), Bayreuth Festival - Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold (Frank Castorf), Bayreuth Festival - Der Ring des Nibelungen

Roberto Saccà (Loge), Caroline Wenborn (Freia), Iain Paterson (Wotan), Nadine Weissmann (Erda) and Karl-Heinz Lehner (Fafner) in Frank Castorf's production of Das Rheingold, Bayreuth Festival, 2016. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

And so, two years after my first viewing, I am returning to Frank Castorf’s Ring. I shall not re-read my first reviews until afterwards: not because I entertain some absurd fantasy about coming to the production anew, for my present experience will clearly be coloured by prior experience; yet, by the same token, I see no especial reason to have the former over-determined by the latter. One’s memory can play tricks, of course, and what I perceive as difference may or may not so; I may be misremembering, or indeed may simply not have noticed certain aspects before; I may also be viewing them in different contexts, the world – mostly to its disadvantage – having ‘moved on’ considerably since 2014. That, after all, is part of the message – at least part of the message I have taken – from the video work in this production. No one, perhaps, is so unreliable a narrator as the person convinced of the absolute truth of his or her recollections. Even if ‘correct’, that correctness is of limited use: few things are so pernicious as anti-historical elevation of the momentary to the permanent; one has only to think of the runes inscribed on Wotan’s spear, or, more generally, the bourgeois universalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Any Hegelian and/or Marxist – perhaps more to the point, any historian or philosopher of history – could tell you that. However, for anyone wishing to read my previous reviews, they may be found here: Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung.

Back, then, to the Golden Motel: the trashy Texan (Route 66) location for the action. On first glance, like much mass culture, it might seem to be all about sex. Like the first scene of Das Rheingold, one might say, for what Wagner called Alberich’s liebesgelüste (‘erotic urge’ he was at that time disdaining traditional capital letters for nouns). In both work and production, though, things are far more complicated than they might seem. How might we characterise that liebesgelüste? It may – as I have argued elsewhere – be understood partly, at least when considered from the standpoint of the history of ideas, as an important precedent for Nieztsche’s will to power. But Wagner is not Nietzsche – even if Nietzsche is far closer to Wagner than he ever, even earlier on, wishes to admit. For the question is social too: Alberich’s proto-Nietzschean ressentiment is born of his lowly place in Wotan’s society. That is the psychological – and, in some senses, socio-political – impulse for the challenge of capital to the established political order; or at least it was in Wagner’s time. The relationship between Valhalla and Nibelheim is not entirely different in the age of neo-liberalism, but nor is it the same.

The ressentiment is also æsthetic, of course: Wagner once remarked that he had every sympathy for Alberich’s turn against the Rhinemaidens. Hedonists reject and scorn the dwarf because he is ugly. Yet the relationship between the social and the æsthetic – and this is just one relationship amongst many in this complex world – also needs to be considered. (Rhine)gold is here crucial: as itself; as the oil that powers so much of what we see, petrol pumps in the forecourt; as the shiny stuff of hegemonic trash culture (think Donald Trump, on whom, more soon); as the agent of the motel’s ‘rainbow’ rebranding in the fourth act; even, perhaps, as something hallucinogenic, narcotic, when Froh’s mysterious ‘clearing’ of the air leaves the pleasure-seekers in the bar – something now, as the rainbow flag and tight-fitting costumes for all genders and orientations – in a state of trance-like animation. But the complexity of the web of power relations, not only between characters, but between forms of power, is really the thing.

Rhinemaidens in Frank Castorf: Rheingold

Intriguingly, it is the Rhinemaidens who take occupation of the gods’ room once they have vacated it to deal with the giants. Will they relive what has gone on between those crumpled sheets, or will they – hollow laugh! – put things right? Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde) and Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde). Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

Returning – or perhaps better, again trying to return – to the beginning, then, the hedonism of swimming pool, beach ball, sun loungers, of a supposed ‘golden age’ is lain bare, again both in work and production. It is a construction; it always was; it creates more gold for some, takes away that gold from others. Wagner makes it perfectly clear that the world into which Alberich intrudes is no idyll, no ‘natural’ state of affairs; so does Castorf. The Rhinemaidens, just like the gods and goddesses who come after them – in the hierarchy, do they come before or after? Intriguingly, it is the Rhinemaidens who take occupation of the gods’ room once they have vacated it to deal with the giants. Will they relive what has gone on between those crumpled sheets, or will they – hollow laugh! – put things right? There are, of course, many more options than that. It is, rightly, unclear, or at least complicated – are already social beings. They are clad, and they behave, in ways that many would consider attractive, others would consider exploitative and/or exploited, others ‘whorish’, and so on. They have agency, yes, but only up to a point – like the rest of us. ‘Men make their own history,’ as Marx, writing at the same time as Wagner, and under many similar influences, tells us, ‘but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ So too, of course, does the weight of those with greater power – and so too does the source of that power itself.

Frank Castorf: Rheingold

Welcome to (late) capitalism. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

What might seem initially arbitrary, and did so (at least to me) more, although not entirely, two years ago, now speaks of complexity: when Wotan and Mime initially bring Alberich and Mime onto the scene in Nibelheim, we are asked to consider who is ensnaring whom, and, when we think we have an answer, that answer is immediately called into question. Welcome to (late) capitalism. Similarly, the Trump-like – how prescient! – depiction of Wotan, as we initially see him, a pleasure-seeking playboy who has, we might guess, inherited power, whilst claiming to have earned it, a vulgarian who yet exercises brute force, whilst allegedly (at least to Donner) renouncing it, two constructed ‘blondes’ – what a custom that is, to refer to women simply by hair-colour! – not only on his arm, but in his bed: that poses still more questions than it might ever answer.

The video work to which I referred adds another crucial dimension. Often we see in close-up what we would see on stage, were we closer. Sometimes we see what we could not otherwise see, that action taking place in a space not otherwise at the moment visible. Sometimes we suspect that what we are seeing is different; at certain points, we know that it is. And there are stills too; where did they come from? Did those events, those scenes ever happen at all? We learn a great deal – and truly acclaim the magnificent acting of the cast (and their detailed direction). We appreciate the complexity of the action. But we are also, like the characters in Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin, like the viewers of the ‘reality television’ that seems to be being made before our eyes, being directed. There are interests, powerful interests, at stake here. And just as Trump-Wotan does not make history as he pleases, however much he might insist otherwise, nor do we, as spectators-cum-participants. Patric Seibert’s Everyman offers us almost conventionally dramatic opportunity to empathise – but, as soon as we do, the situation is again rendered more complex. Post-dramatic theatre actually seems to encompass that which it has negated; but is the dialectic Hegelian or Adornian? Brecht, it seems, has more Aktualität, even in opera, than we might have given him credit for.

Sarah Connolly’s Fricka. Frank Castorf: Rheingold

Sarah Connolly’s Fricka was a tour de force of vocal acting; her disquiet, yet her need at some point to reconcile herself with what was going on, whatever her distaste (her character’s distaste, that is) for the sub-Dallas antics around her, were powerful, provocative, partly on account of their lack of exaggeration.  Photo: Jörg Schulze / Bayreuther Festspiele

That detailed direction is really worth saying a little more about. (I am afraid there is much I shall have to miss out, for there is far too much to say.) Whether it is the Rhinemaidens taking occupation of and apparently driving the flashy car on stage, the heartrending – pretty much stage-direction-literal – covering of Freia with gold, the truly shocking, yet utterly to the point, penetration of Erda by Wotan in the shower cubicle as giants and gods settle their accounts, or, to take a very different example, the extraordinary acting by facial expression of Sarah Connolly’s Fricka (on camera): there is so much to see, to think about. It is more coherent than one might initially suspect, irrespective, I suspect, of intention; and when it is not, the incoherence now seems far more a matter of policy, of criticism, than it did last time (to me).

Few, if any, Rheingold productions have for me so convincingly, completely combined vocal and acting skills. In that, this is an utterly Wagnerian, or neo-Wagnerian essay. The Rheingold Wotan is always a tricky one, often rendered comprehensible, or more so, by what comes afterwards, yet needing nevertheless to make a strong impression of his own in the here and now. Iain Paterson would always have had a good many balls in the air; in this production, he had a good few more. They were kept in motion with great conviction; it will be very interesting to see how things turn out. Connolly’s Fricka, as previously mentioned, was a tour de force of vocal acting; her disquiet, yet her need at some point to reconcile herself with what was going on, whatever her distaste (her character’s distaste, that is) for the sub-Dallas antics around her, were powerful, provocative, partly on account of their lack of exaggeration.  Tansel Akzeyebek’s Froh was beautifully sung, equally well acted. Markus Eiche’s Donner came into his more conventional own with the storm; his portrayal of the crazed, clearly dangerous playboy earlier on, was – even if one were to dislike the directorial concept – equally impressive. Caroline Wenborne’s Freia elicited as much as sympathy as the post-Brechtian framework permitted; again, her marriage of singing and acting – on stage and on camera – was worthy of the highest praise. Roberto Saccà offered a sardonic Loge, careful with his words, yet free with them at the same time. Nadine Weissman’s deep-toned Erda – what an entrance, in that joyously vulgar white fur coat! – proved as much a vocal pleasure as her character’s greater role was a provocative dramatic development.

Karl-Heniz Lehner and Günther Groissböck, and Freia (Caroline Wenborne, in latex(!)). Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

The giants, Karl-Heniz Lehner and Günther Groissböck, and Freia (Caroline Wenborne, in latex(!)). Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

Albert Dohmen, as Alberich, grew in stature – quite rightly – as the performance progressed. The earth-shattering moment of his curse was strikingly well prepared: as much verbally as musically. Andreas Conrad did a great deal with the relatively few lines that Mime has: his evocation of old Nibelheim struck an excellent balance between genuine sentiment and alienated narration (reliable or otherwise). The giants’ journey, not the least striking part of the production, was marked as powerfully in vocal-dramatic terms by Karl-Heniz Lehner and Günther Groissböck as it was in their costume upgrade: local thugs to (relatively) expensive-suited Mafiosi. Both performances were sexually charged (which takes us back to that liebesgelüste starting-point), and highly differentiated, especially as time went on. One would certainly not have blamed Freia at all had she opted for Groissböck’s Fasolt, whether on grounds of physical allure or acuity of response to Wagner’s alchemic blend of words and music. Alexandra Steiner, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl offered both excellent blend and, where necessary, commendable differentiation of character as the Rhinemaidens; their acting skills were, again, outstanding.

Marek Janowski rehearsing at the Bayreuth Festival

Marek Janowski. Photo: Jörg Schulze / Bayreuther Festspiele

In this, in some ways, perhaps the most radical of all Wagner’s scores, the orchestra has a very particular role, or roles. It offers exposition, commentary, wonder, dialectical development, emotional and conceptual depth: all that and much more. Marek Janowski’s conducting often seemed – at least by comparison with the multivalent drama elsewhere – to be a little too concerned to keep the score on a tight leash. It was fast-paced, which is fair enough, but there is more to be revealed when the work relaxes too. Some balances were also peculiar; the conductor appeared to have a bizarre fascination with the composer’s clarinet lines, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. It was fascinating to hear the work almost as if from a clarinettist’s standpoint, but again a little odd, and one-sided. Perhaps it was an acoustical quirk. Against those reservations, of which I do not wish to make too much, Janowski clearly knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. His neo-Mendelssohnian persuasion has a degree of historical warrant, and there was no denying the ability of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra’s ability in that respect. In Wagner, however, at least for me, there is never one single answer; one looks forward as well as back. Certain intimations of Schoenberg (Pierrot, and not only on account of the clarinet!) were most welcome. More standpoints, reconciled by the slippery conception of the Wagnerian melos, might have been brought to our attention in certain other performances, but this had coherence of its own.

Das Rheingold - Cast

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

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)


Mark Berry

Mark Berry is Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously taught and lectured in History at the University of Cambridge. He has written widely on intellectual, cultural, and musical history from the later seventeenth century to the present day. He is the author of Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner's Ring (2006) and After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono (2014). He will also co-edit the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Ring'. Further reviews may be found at




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