Bayreuth Festival 2017: Götterdämmerung (Castorf/Janowski)
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde.
Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele
All good things must come to an end. All bad things too, I suppose, or at least hope, although looking at the world outside the Festspielhaus… But then the Festspielhaus has always looked to the world outside, nowhere more so than in the Ring. I have no idea how one would measure – yes, neoliberals still wish to do so, however many years after the Frankfurt School, after Romanticism, after anyone possessed of any intelligence and/or humanity ever… – degrees of the ‘political’ in an artwork, but if one could, it is difficult to see what, all things told, and many, many things are told here, could beat the Ring in that respect. Nothing could be less ‘faithful’ to Wagner’s intentions, let alone to our own needs, than some idiotic Disney ‘experience’ such as that purveyed by the likes of Otto Schenk. At least, I think, we have been spared a Zeffirelli Ring. (Should that sound like a contraceptive device, there may be good reason for that.)
Bayreuth in particular is and always has been a workshop, a place for experimentation, tendencies towards sacralisation (Bühnenweihfestspiel, anyone?) notwithstanding. That was what attracted Boulez to Bayreuth in the first – and second – place; that was thus what brought Patrice Chéreau there, for what must surely remain, bar the very first, the most celebrated Ring production in history. The Boulez-Chéreau films remain a miracle: as watchable – and as listenable – as when they first appeared. Moreover, and without slight, say, to Harry Kupfer’s estimable successor – let us draw a veil over Peter Hall’s contribution – Chéreau’s staging changed the work forever. Arguably, there was a good deal in it, coincidentally or otherwise, presaged by Joachim Herz in Leipzig; but at least in the West, and indeed worldwide, given its filming, it was the ‘Centenary Ring’ that informed and reminded so many what the work was, or might be, really about. Having come to the end of my viewing of Frank Castorf’s Ring for the third time, I am happy to put my neck on the line and to say that, for all its problems and imperfections – not unlike the Ring itself – this is a production which, like Chéreau’s, Herz’s, and Kupfer’s too, has changed the work forever. I recoiled from some of it the first time I saw it, and freely admit that I was, in many cases, quite wrong to have done so, although I think it also fair to say that many of the performers have grown into it during its progress and also that it has itself grown in stature following revision. For that reason, it would be hypocritical of me to condemn too harshly those who found themselves lost or bewildered.
Let us hope, though, that there will be another opportunity for them, and for others who have never seen this Ring, to experience it, on DVD. Some of Bayreuth’s recent choices in that respect have frankly been bizarre: still no Herheim Parsifal, but an instant release for Laufenberg’s miserable successor. Wagner may have died owing the world a Tannhäuser; Bayreuth would do much to stave off any such demise by giving the world a Castorf Ring. Marek Janowski’s conducting has had its ups and downs, the first two acts of Die Walküre the nadir. Yet here, if still lacking much of the epic scale and dramatic thrust, let alone the critical stance, of what we see on stage, it acts well enough as a foil. Bar a few inevitable brass fluffs – I am not sure I have ever heard a Götterdämmerung in which that did not happen – the orchestra was excellent on its own terms. Moreover, the vocal and dramatic performances on stage have surely been better this year than in any of the previous instalments.
Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele
For Götterdämmerung, the cast was identical to last year’s – except for one partial, unforgettable exception. Wagner is and remains theatre, which entails a great deal of contingency. In this case, we were treated to our first – well, certainly my first – trans Brünnhilde. Having injured her leg during the curtain calls at the end of the first act, Catherine Foster, awe-inspiring in both her artistry and her professionalism, sang the part magnificently: on crutches, from the sidelines. Meanwhile, production assistant, Andreas Rosar donned a dress, wig, and so on, and acted the role on stage. Both deserve the highest of praise, not just ‘in the circumstances’. What deserves unmerited scorn and outrage is the small contingent in the audience that booed Rosar. Seriously: what piece of subhuman scum would act in such a way to someone who, at almost no notice, quite literally saved the show? It is not as if such is an unheard of practice in the theatre, and if, for some reason the AMOP delegation did not like it, why did they not just leave? If, somehow you have managed to escape the sound and sight of resurgent fascism all around us in ‘the real world’, here it was, frighteningly and sickeningly present, railing at the mirror Wagner, Castorf, and their performers held up to that world. I should love to have it revealed that the substitution was actually all along part of Castorf’s Konzept, but I think we can assume otherwise. At any rate, the same people booed his indefatigable assistant – in many ways the greatest star of the entire four-part show – Patric Seibert. His Everyman, surely unique in direction and participation in such a piece, has clearly both been on quite a journey and taken us on several others.
Back, anyway, to Castorf ‘proper’, whatever that may mean. The cosmic tittle-tattle (Thomas Mann) of the Norns takes place in an appropriately exhausted, end-of-the-world setting. Aleksander Denić’s set designs, Adriana Braga Peretski costumes, and not lest the gloomy lighting of Rainer Casper are very much in tandem with those world-weary E-flat minor opening chords; this is not a production that always criticises or works against the musical drama, far from it. Exhaustion in a well-nigh Beckettian sense rules: Fin de partie? A weird shrine, almost Marian, yet anything but, continues to draw attention and repel. But to what is this little room into which not only the Norns but many of their successors, canonical characters and others, continue to enter and, perhaps just as important, from which they continue to attempt to leave? It suggests exhausted consumerism, replete with plastic refuse, born, of course, of the oil that has run through the entire cycle. It advertises a deadly contemporary far-right politics, which, as the poster puts it, prefers ‘Oma’ to ‘Roma’. We also see glimpses of an eternally televised non-revolution such as we endure in our own late capitalist lives: as witnessed Andreas Deinert’s and Jens Crull’s video footage, both on the particular television screen within the shrine, and elsewhere onstage. East and West both led here: state capitalism as well as the still worse neoliberal variety. There is no escape. This is a world that takes its leave from Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung, or at least may be read as having done so: a world of rituals in a post-religious society that knows no morality, indeed finds it impossible even to ‘know’. Yet still, in this nihilist hell, it must somehow continue to ‘do’ something – just as the second act will offer up desperate, pointless evocations to gods who are already dead in any meaningful sense. The Norns are all dressed up for a ball to which they know they are neither invited nor capable of attending; but what else is there to do? They can sing, of course, and all three of them do – magnificent both in solo and in blend.
The Gibichungs, heirs in many ways to the ‘minor gods’ of Das Rheingold, are a still more desperate bunch. (Ultimately, the Norns need not care that much.) Gunther’s self-love, in a commanding, yet never too commanding performance from Markus Eiche is immediately apparent, vanity and insecurity two sides of the same black leather coin. Allison Oakes’s dolly bird Gutrune is certainly the victim of misogyny, but she is happy in her little smart car and would doubtless recoil, except again through the agency of song, from any feminist accusation that she should have attended to weightier, or at least different, matters. Stephen Milling’s powerfully sung Hagen has had her number all along; indeed, in a less common suggestion of incest than the usual Gunther-Gutrune one, his agency is confirmed in gaining her attention to participate in the plot in the first place. He does not need to do very much; Hagen rarely does. But what he does reminds us that he, or perhaps the mysteriously still-with-us – or is he? – Alberich of Albert Dohmen, in perhaps his finest performance here, is pulling more of the strings than anyone else; which is not, of coruse, to say that there are not forces beyond anyone’s control at work here. Wotan may have dismissed Erda as Fate, but what does that mean? Not very much, perhaps, in a world in which chemical works and Wall Street (both featured, both crucially, undefeated, even at the last) continue to rule.
Siegfried is no better. He may even be worse. It is, after all, only at the last in Wagner’s drama that he seems a character remotely worthy of the hopes invested in him – whether by Brünnhilde to Sieglinde or by the newly-human ex-goddess to herself, or indeed by us as bystanders (‘men and women moved to the very depths of their being’) to a revolution that fails. Humping Gutrune quickly, brutally, before asking Gunther his sister’s name is horrible enough, but the reality of his rape of Brünnhilde, video projections both clarifying and intensifying the horror of what is going on, and of who, via the Tarnhelm, is who, chills as rarely before. The brutality of Wagner’s score here does much of the work, of course – so too did Foster’s frighteningly imperious impassivity before Marina Prudenskaya’s heartrendingly imploring Waltraute beforehand – yet it can so readily be partly undone by an uncomprehending staging. Siegfried is leader now, his demeanour, his costume, the projections tell us: and what good has it done us? None.
What I said about Stefan Vinke in Siegfried counts doubly here: the voice may not ingratiate, but should it? He is tireless, almost inhumanly so, and that is surely a more important thing to register. That Gunther and Siegfried make their oath of blood brotherhood in the kebab stall kitchen, none too careful with hygiene, serves to underline not only echoes of Wagnerian Palazzo Vendramin decadence but the sheer bestial depravity of the world within and without the theatre. All the while, Wall Street, carelessly concealed in cloth, awaits its deliberately underwhelming revelation. No one really bothers to hide who is running the show any longer.
The second act is thus set for another attempt at revolution that fails. Think, perhaps, of the ‘anti-capitalist’ protestors who neither know nor care what they want, but like a bit of attention. There is real crisis here, real hunger. Or is there? Do the members of the crowd putting up posters to that effect, and acting as if their lives are at stake in their pillaging, really mean what they say? Or are they just engaging in desperate rituals, whose meaning – again, like those evocations to the gods – has almost passed from memory? There is certainly no doubting the brutality of their behaviour, sons of Siegfried and Hagen, to Seibert’s character, desperately trying to cater to their demands. Or is he ‘just’ an actor too? His ‘death’ at the beginning of the third act is certainly stage-managed. The video shows him smear himself in ketchup (from his stall, perhaps?) and leave himself for dead, awaiting the Rhinemaidens – like the Norns, equally fine individually and in ensemble – to bundle him into their car, prior to their cavorting with Siegfried and his subsequent brutal attack upon them. (Shades of Alberich in Rheingold, but in semi-reverse? To return to the second-act crowd: does it have any revolutionary potential left in it, when Siegfried clearly does not? Try as we might, it is difficult to find. A good few of its members seem more preoccupied with culinary and sexual excess; still, fake radicalism is a good way to win a girl, is it not? The shots Seibert serves to many – Gutrune included – only make matters worse, but he is hardly in a position to argue.
And so, when Brünnhilde threatens to set Wall Street alight, nothing really happens. Everything is even worse than we had feared. No more has the end of this miserable world come than a revolution has saved us. Various participants go through the motions; someone even pops a Picasso out of the window for safe keeping. Or is it just to put it on more brazen display to the plebs below? The Rhinemaidens survive – or at least they do on screen. They even give Hagen a kitschy Rhine funeral, or at least see him off. Video, as it had in Das Rheingold, both comments on, elucidates, and frustrates the action; it has done so in the Funeral March too, Hagen marching back in a ‘Romantic’ landscape such as one might always have wished for until, jarringly, one saw it – and thought ‘what a load of rubbish’.
It is all, perhaps, a bit Heimat 3: which, the more one thinks about it, the more appropriate it seems. As Herbert Marcuse put it, in his self-reflexive critique of Marxist aesthetics, The Aesthetic Dimension: ‘If art were to promise that at the end good would triumph over evil, such a promise would be refuted by the historical truth. In reality it is evil which triumphs, and there are only islands of good where one can find refuge for a brief time. Authentic works of art are aware of this; they reject the promise made too easily; they reject the unburdened happy end.’ Rejecting the catharsis unburdened tragedy, or gnawing away at it out of post- or non-revolutionary ennui, twists the dialectical screw further. What a world is ours.
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Markus Eiche
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Hagen – Stephen Milling
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster, Andreas Rosar
Gutrune – Allison Oakes
Waltraute – Marina Prudenskaya
First Norn, Flosshilde – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Second Norn, Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Third Norn – Christiane Kohl
Woglinde – Alexandra Steiner
Frank Castorf (director)
Patric Seibert (assistant director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
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.
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The Bayreuth Festival 2017
The Bayreuth Festival, 2016
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