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Music

Bayreuth Diary: the Gods' Twilight

The stage direction a provocation, the music a revelation - and then there's the requisite scandal, says Rick Fulker. The Castorf-Petrenko "Ring" will fan the flames of discussion for some time.

"I've never seen anything like it!" was the comment I heard most often in the auditorium.

At the "Ring" in Bayreuth, it's the custom for the stage director to appear before the curtain only after the fourth opera in the tetralogy, "Twilight of the Gods," is over. The moment comes that everyone's been waiting for. Hans Castorf and his team are assailed by the loudest cascade of boos, screams and catcalls ever heard. Castorf smiles mildly - and stays put. Points with his forefinger to his head, as though to say, "Are you all nitwits?" The insult brings the hellish yelling to a further crescendo.

Motionless, slightly bent, a supercilious smile: Castorf doesn't budge - even after the curtain opens to let orchestra, chorus, cast and the complete team take their share of the ovations. It's like he's saying, "It's only about me." The fabulous conductor Kirill Petrenko and his musicians have to share boos with the director. For five very long minutes. Because Castorf won't leave, the audience stands up and starts to. I feel queasy.

After four days and sixteen hours of Wagnerian singing, it's clearly the public's turn to vocalize. That explains the hyped up emotion of the moment. But this emotion is pure hate.

That après-program to the new production of Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" at the Bayreuth Festival went on for a full twenty minutes. That's why I devote so much space to it here. Bayreuth now has its scandal. And maybe that was the festival directors' goal all along.

Second act: the villain Hagen makes his entry. Photo: Bayreuth Festival/Enrico Nawrath

Second act: the villain Hagen makes his entry

Making history

Not that it was all that bad. I applauded - for the director and his team too. They include Serbian stage designer Aleksandar Denic, whose images of great eloquence won't soon fade from memory. Nor will the costumes designed by Adriana Braga Petretzki from Brazil. And German video artist Andreas Deinert was responsible for some real added value. Not to mention the musicians.

But I will mention them: Kirill Petrenko has served up a "Ring" that outshines any of the four I've heard here before. At his Bayreuth debut, the Russian-born Austrian conductor combines the musical rhetoric of a Christian Thielemann, the opulent sound of a James Levine and the laser-sharp precision of a Giuseppe Sinopoli. And this guy, I get the feeling, hasn't reached the end point yet. Yes, he creates a riveting arc of tension from beginning to end. But he also brings out the crass contrasts, ruptures and ambivalent feelings in Wagner's music. That, in turn, fits the stage direction. Nothing I saw spoiled anything I heard in the least.

Serbian stage designer Aleksandar Denic. Photo: Bojana Denic

Stage designer Aleksandar Denic provided bold imagery

Point me the way to Valhalla

To recapitualte, "The Rhine Gold" was set in a Texan motel and gas station. In "The Valkyrie" we found ourselves at an antique oil platform in Baku, Azerbaijan and amidst the Bolshevik Revolution. "Siegfried" had a communist version of Mount Rushmore and cold-war East Berlin on display.

Now, "Twilight of the Gods" takes place in a big, decaying brick building: church and factory rolled into one, complete with vegetable stand and gyros cafe. The stage revolves to reveal a large structure wrapped up in plastic. But when unveiled, rather than the Berlin Reichstag (the seat of parliament was wrapped up by action artist Christo back in the days shortly after German reunification), it turns out to be the New York Stock Exchange.

Social critique of late-stage capitalism? History of oil exploitation? Nostalgia for old East Germany? That would be taking it too far. It's all anarchy and superficiality; Castorf tells no story and no sub-story.

Rick Fulker checks the facade of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a painted poster, with ongoing renovation of the structure going on underneath (c) DW / A. Boutsko

Rick Fulker taps the facade of the Festspielhaus, where renovation is underway

Perplexing moments

In "Twilight," for example, Siegfried sings farewell to Brünnhilde - he's off "to great deeds," but then lies down on a bench. Why? Or at the end of the story, after committing two brutal murders, Hagen (demonically portrayed by Korean bass Attila Jun) peacefully sails off in a small boat. Again: Why? Anybody asking that question seems to be the object of the director's spite. And that's what makes it so infuriating. Particularly because this "Ring" contains so many interesting elements, including play-acting by extras and video sequences. I feel duped, to put it mildly.

Beyond being irreverent, Frank Castorf seems to fear nothing but consistency and depth - and maybe the "Ring" itself.

Signer Catherine Foster in Bayreuth Photo DW/Hans Christoph von Bock

High praise for Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde in the "Ring"

Sound chamber in the head

At the very least, nobody will be crying out for the Bayreuth Festival to finally show something different. I, for my part, take leave of the Wagner city with fabulous music still resonating in the brain. And just in time. The past three cool days are giving way to a cloudless sky and more hot temperatures. I'm glad to pass the baton to my colleagues.

But one final word: in this very strong cast, I think we've seen the birth of a magnificent new Brünnhilde. With charisma, warmth, flawless delivery and a very big voice, English soprano Catherine Foster can stand comparison with the very greatest of half a century ago, like Kirstin Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson - no matter what happens onstage.

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