Bayreuth Festival 2017: Das Rheingold (Castorf/Janowski)
Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele
And so, the time came for final check-in to Frank Castorf’s Golden Motel. It has been quite a ride, full of unexpected twists and turns: not entire unlike the history of our benighted late capitalist world since Wagner-Jahr in 2013 – although thank God, nothing like so far-fetched. I did not see the 2013 Ring; Per-Erik Skramstad reviewed it for this site that year. I did, however, see it in 2014 and 2016. As with last year, I shall not re-read my earlier reviews until after having written those for the present year. That is not because I believe in some unsullied, unmediated experience in the Festspielhaus, quite the contrary. Such is an experience entirely foreign to Wagner, whatever (very) occasional nods he might have offered to the contrary. What I see, hear, and write will undoubtedly be informed by prior memories, thoughts, and interpretations – and so it should be. The same will certainly be true of the performances themselves, and of Castorf’s – and his collaborator, Patric Seibert’s – understanding and critical vision. By the same token, however, I – like they, I presume – hope that I shall be open to new understandings and do not wish to be unduly weighed down by ‘tradition’. Tradition is present any case; how can it not be in this of all houses and festivals? There is no need for it to become, in Mahler’s celebrated phrase, Schlamperei.
Perhaps more to the point, this is a production concerned with, or at least unusually amenable to, ideas and criticisms of narration, of the construction, criticism, and disavowal of memory. For good and for ill, we are all, to a certain extent, postmodernists now. The rejection of totality, of grand narrative, was understandable, even laudable, for so many artists and thinkers in the wake of the Second World War. It certainly was for Castorf. Just as Romanticism inescapably changed us – no one any more, at least in the Western world, really finds unrequited love intrinsically amusing, no matter what – so has the awareness of writing and deconstructing narratives. One might say it was already there anyway, even in this, one of the grandest of all artistic narratives. Like the Bible, Wagner presents two myths of creation: one here, one in the Norns’ Scene of Götterdämmerung; he arguably offers scope for a good few more too. That despite his own, post-Hegelian insistence on, pursuit of, totality. One might say the same of Hegel too – or indeed Marx. Come Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Castorf does too, with his alternative Mount Rushmore. But let us not get too far ahead, whatever that quintessential Wagnerian temptation.
Narration and its unreliability come to the fore from the outset, both from Wagner and Castorf. We make the distinction, but should we, in performance, in the bringing of a work and far more than work into, as it were, dynamic form? Filming and reproduction, ‘live’ or otherwise, are at the heart of many a contemporary theatrical piece, not least Castorf’s own; I recently saw his Faust-ianVolksbühne farewell in Berlin. In lesser hands, such might merely be a gimmick, but we are no more concerned with lesser hands here than we are with Wagner, who is emphatically not responsible for bland, overblown, or merely offensive successors. We see things, via the cameras and the screen relay, that we would otherwise not see. But should we? There is the question of surveillance, of nowhere to hide, of course, not least in a society such as ours. (Theresa May, are you watching, courtesy of your Snooper’s Charter?) But should we, in another sense? Are we seeing things that are not even ‘there’, whatever that might mean? Some of the time, unquestionably yes, although it is often difficult to know. Just how many narratives or standpoints on narratives can we watch at the same time? It is no good just to throw up our hands in despair, and say we just want the one. The world does not work like that. Nor does being a ‘citizen of the world’ – which returns us to… Sometimes, then, we are certain concerning discrepancies. People are there who are otherwise ‘not’. What to make of Fricka’s brief, mediatised reinvention as ‘a blonde’ as Wotan (or another fun-loving, megalomaniacal, School of Playboy world ‘leader’) might call her. Gentlemen might not be the issue here, but power is; and being a ‘gentleman’, like all ‘manners’, is in large part a matter of power, of class and other conflict, however much we may feel the need to persuade ourselves otherwise. ‘No, you pinkoes are “constructing a narrative”; I am “telling it as it is”.’ Right…
Texas is where it all kicks off: on Route 66. The motel is a staging post, as motels are. So is wherever the gods ‘are’, before Valhalla. (So too will Valhalla/the new Golden Motel too, of course, for the gods are not, cannot be, immortal; we are all Feuerbachians now – or Wagner is, at least. We have even – most of us – now come to terms with the impermanence of capitalism, a few years ago a claim regarded as absurd by all save for a few of us ‘extremists’ who needed to recognise the Berlin Wall had fallen. Marx is back, as Derrida always insisted. But is it a postmodernist Marx we want? Who cares what we want, for is truth not anti-consumerist? And so on…
But back to Texas. The Confederate flag elicits more immediate resonances now; as does its ultimate replacement by the rainbow flag. Froh is pretty, after all, as Wagner seems to have intended in his creation of cipher gods and goddesses: Donner and Freia too, not really ‘characters’… A trashier Dallas remake seems in the offing: there is doubtless a closer reference to draw; but reader, I am afraid I am not the one to do so. There is certainly something of JR to our Wotan, perhaps still more Sue Ellen (of later years) to Fricka; in this narrative (whose?) there is, anyway. Some audience members – perhaps there is those whose mobile telephones do not go off en route to Nibelheim: an updating too far? – merely laugh whenever there is something a little post-watershed content to view. If Carry On be your narrative, carry on, I suppose; but Wagner and Castorf are deeper – yes, how Teutonic! – than that. (The scornful reaction from a man seated somewhere behind me to the appearance of the rainbow flag told its own story. Keep it in the family by all means: but please, between members of the opposite sex! What, as it were, would be the alternative for Deutschland? Fricka will offer him help in the next instalment.)
There has been no golden age. It is one of the most pernicious, yet perhaps also one of the most necessary, or at any rate, tenacious of myths. Wagner presents it and immediately undermines it. He had, he once said, every sympathy with Alberich, cruelly provoked as he was by the hedonistic Rhinemaidens. An ugly man in a ‘beautiful’ world: politics, as we quaintly used to say, is showbusiness for ugly people. (Are you there, Donald? Is this Götterdämmerung already?) There is delight to be had in the ‘Rhine’ waters, but they are really just a paddling pool. The ‘girls’ might almost be waiting for Melania to take her leave. Except not: they may not be moral – anything pre-culture, or post-culture, is not – but nor do they behave. Perhaps that affords us a little hope, illusory or otherwise. But we watch them, much as cameramen ourselves: sous-pornographers, perhaps. Wotan cannot do it all himself, nor can Wagner – or Castorf. The ‘girls’ do not depart the scene, not entirely. Indeed, they avail themselves of as much fun as they can in their room. They may no longer have a beach ball and water, but cocktails in bed may prove an upgrade. Our Everyman waiter/host, Patric Seibert would like to be part of their narrative, or rather would like to welcome them into his, but they banish him once he has brought them (yet more) drinks. ‘Do not Disturb’: the sign is thrust in his face. They seem even less troubled than usual by what happens in the world(s) of gods, giants, and dwarves. Do they know that they will, more or less, be all right? (What they tell Siegfried later on suggests so, at least at some stage.) But is that not to forget about oil? If theirs is the ‘natural’ world, their lot is rape. Alberich would like to, certainly. The petrol pumps suggest that in some sense he did. He renounces love, of course, and wins, if not the world, then at least a caravan competitor next door. The struggle between new and old money, even a sacerdotal order and capital, continues: perhaps not quite the main thing, as in Wagner or at least in many of our readings, but an important thing. Narratives are never tidy, neither here nor there. Let us no more be vulgar Wagnerians than vulgar Marxists.
Everyman looks ahead. We see him (on camera) reading a Sigurd comic-script. That is not Wagner’s narrative, though, is it? At more or less the same time, in Nibelheim, an earlier difficulty (deliberate or imposed?) more or less resolves itself; or is it that we understand better now than once we might have done? Alberich retreats into his van, and may partly be seen through the window all along. But a snake and toad appear on screen; they seem to be a reality in our Everyman’s world – presuming what we see of his reactions on screen is ‘real’, whatever that might mean. Do we identify with him? Should we? Is that all too easy, and if so, why might someone wish us to do so? And what did it mean earlier, for Alberich and Mime to be led into Nibelheim as hostages (paper bags and all, very much in ‘war on terror’ manner) by Wotan and Loge? We have not really left the motel at all; do those events have ‘meaning’, or are they a cynical divertissement in a world of ‘entertainment’? What, likewise, did it mean, shortly afterwards, for Everyman to have be presented with the ring and Tarnhelm? Why does Loge have the latter a little later, and what is his intention with it? Tenses conflict, depending where one is, or where one thinks one is. Do objects from the hoard have actual operative force, or is that just what some people wish us to think? Why always the either-or? The ring’s agency is, of course, a matter of obscurity throughout Wagner’s drama; whatever powers it may hold are rarely those its owners thinks it does. Wellgunde’s ‘measureless might’: well, one may not be able to measure it, but that is not quite what we usually understand by the phrase.
The final scene does not resolve, not really; nor should it. Wagner’s Entry of the Gods certainly does nothing of the kind, words and harmonies alike deconstructing not just this particular triumph, but the very notion and possibility thereof. Inclusivity seems to us and our ilk a definite improvement: in the pool and in the bar, Rhineboys (-boyz?) join our fun-loving ‘girls’. (Remember those tweets? There is one for every occasion, in any case; we hardly need remember them.) Whatever it is that Froh – or whoever is running ‘the show’ – accomplishes is clearly mind-altering, whether one had a mind before or no. Eye close-ups from the bar leave us in no doubt that something stronger than alcohol is being served, is in the air. They all claim to see a rainbow, after all – even walk upon it, to reach somewhere they probably were already. Freia’s ransom sort of happened, but everyone – even she – seemed to have lost interest: too many other narratives to write. The giants – undoubted sexual objects themselves, for a change – have left the scene; their deal has been concluded; and if Fasolt has paid with his life, it is all part of the game, the ‘show’. Our showstopping, fur-coated, deep-of-tone, Nadine Weissmann as Erda has left the scene too: her ‘deal’ with Wotan brutally accomplished – yet only partly seen, however much we voyeurs may have strained to see more. (The man behind laughed once more.) There will be other acts to come.
Things have changed, though. Questioning history, questioning stories, does not mean they have not taken place. One thing I should be reasonably sure of in my own narrative is that the performances have mostly become more accomplished, more sharply focused over the years I have seen the production. I shall offer no comparisons as such here, but perhaps they are implicit; they will doubtless fall some way short, too, of even a less naïve conception of ‘objectivity’. After all, I am not the same watcher and listener, spectator and interpreter, that I was. Marek Janowski certainly seemed more at home in Bayreuth than last year. What sometimes had come across as uncertain – that acoustic? – and at times unduly peremptory now seemed much more grounded. It was still a relatively, though not excessively, swift traversal of the score; or so it seemed. (I never trust the narrative of the clock; or, to put it another way, I have no interest in it.) The proportions sounded ‘right’, though, and there was dynamism to the form: sometimes in tandem with the stage action, more often questioning and being questioned, constructing a properly critical relationship. (It is almost impossible not to ask, given earlier remarks Janowski is on record as having made concerning contemporary opera stagings, what on earth he is doing here conducting a Ring with Castorf. But that is not necessarily the point.) The orchestra was responsive, capable of depth, within a largely lighter, earlier Romantic framework. Those great natural world frescoes might have registered more immediately, or catastrophically, but then, they do not necessarily do so on stage either. Barring the occasional corner, Janowski offered developmental fluidity and continuity, which is more than one often hears.
The Rheingold Wotan is a tricky one: we lose something – probably – should he seem no different from the character we see and hear in Die Walküre, let alone from the Wanderer. There will be no such problem here, I suspect, for Iain Paterson’s thoughtfully sleazy portrayal staked out a claim for the chief of the gods in the all too familiar here and now. Paterson’s way with the text – for the nth time, that does not simply mean the words – was shared by his estimable consort, newcomer Tanja Ariana Baumgartner. Her facial expressions on screen, suffering as she does, yet possessed of strength and a far from negligible Trump card (sorry!), were almost worth the price of admission alone. Daniel Behle was another new addition to the cast, and much the same might be said of the beauty of tone and intelligence of delivery he offered. Albert Dohmen was faced with an unusually tricky task, given the uncertain status of Alberich vis-à-vis Wotan; he navigated his particular demands impressively, even if his tone were not so black as ‘tradition’ might prescribe. Roberto Saccà’s wheeling and dealing as Loge had him very much the incarnation of instrumental reason – or perhaps a bargain, Route 66 approximation thereto. If I have seen and heard a more rounded portrayal of Fasolt in the theatre than Günther Groissböck’s, then I cannot recall it. Torn between the darker, perhaps simpler impulses of his brother, Karl-Heinz Lehner’s Fafner, and something not so very far, perhaps, from the genuine goodness Wagner divines in him, he brought all aspects of the text to memorable and – unusually, for this frigid, showy world – moving life. The splendidly un-pigeonholed Rhinemaidens and all other members of the cast brought intelligence, individuality, and – just as important – common company purpose to a truly collaborative piece of theatre.
Postmodernist modernists, then, as historians, interpreters, musicians, dramatists, participants? Yes, of course. We always were, were we not? Or were we? Is the Ring more cyclical, more Schopenhauerian, than we sometime allow? Yes, no, and maybe – or maybe not; for the struggle between Hegel(ianism) and Schopenhauer remains as strong, as real (wirklich?), at any rateas dramatically all-consuming as ever. But then, having constructed the narrative of my first book in just such terms, perhaps I would say that…
Wotan – Iain Paterson
Donner – Markus Eiche
Froh – Daniel Behle
Loge – Roberto Saccà
Fricka – Tanja Ariana Baumgartner
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)
Patric Seibert (assistant director and dramaturgical collaboration)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)
Iain Paterson (Wotan), Albert Dohmen (Alberich) and Roberto Saccà (Loge) in Frank Castorf vision of Nibelheim.
Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele
Mark Berry is Reader in Music History 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 http://boulezian.blogspot.com.
The Ring on DVD and CD
The Bayreuth Festival, 2016
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Articles and Reviews