Route 66, familiar in the new staging of "The Rhine Gold," leads to Azerbaijan in "The Valkyrie." On the stage, Rick Fulker sees an antique oil platform and protagonists with nothing to do but sing beautifully.
The weather man was true to his word: it did get hotter, 38 degrees Celsius (100°F), but it feels more like 45 (113°).
The "Green Hill" is a bit less green this year. Below the Festspielhaus, to the left and in front of the bust of Cosima Wagner, there used to be pathways and a flower bed. Rather than trees, gravel now. Seems a shame. Something of the old charm is gone.
Media hype, motorcade, stars, politicians and receptions for official guests: that was an eternity (two days) ago. The few celebrities remaining mix unobtrusively with the Wagnerians. Strolling festival-goers and improvised picnics - the ambience is relaxed and cheerful.
"The Valkyrie" - the "first day" of the "Ring" cycle. Gracing the stage is a wooden oil drilling tower. Baku, Azerbeijan in the 19th century and the early days of oil exploitation. Photos and video sequences in black and white elucidate the scene and the action without dominating it.
Just close your eyes and listen
Director Frank Castorf staged "The Rhine Gold" the day before as a farcical comedy. But how will he turn around the grand moments, the long narratives and the tragedy about the end of the world? At this point the answer is: he does nothing. As I've heard, Castorf builds his direction around his singers and uses their talent for improvisation. Not all singers have that kind of ability though. The result: long stretches of singers just standing there and singing. The director doesn't delve into the story in any perceivable way.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are vocally brilliant in Act One but visually a poor match. They're supposed to be twins, but are so different physically that it almost looks ridiculous. Time to do something, Mr. Stage Director! But I don't mean putting Johan Botha on a diet. I, for one, am tired of hearing quips about the South African tenor's size. To me, as Siegmund, he's got the perfect volume.
Castorf's strength lies in the set and the video sequences. The sword fight between Siegmund and Hunding in Act Two takes place at the rear of the oil platform, invisible to most in the auditorium. But the episode is clear to see in the projected images. The video here doesn't complement the action, it's actually the main thing. Interesting.
Face the music
Christian Thielemann, the much-celebrated previous "Ring" conductor in Bayreuth, is a master of musical rhetoric, highlighting the thoughts and concepts contained in the notes. Kirill Petrenko, current "Ring" conductor, can do that, too, but he brings out more emotion in the music. Petrenko treates his soloists well, clearly respecting them, sometimes reducing the orchestral sound to the level of chamber music. Wotan's narration in Act Two is so delicate that bass Wolfgang Koch hardly needs to do more than whisper. Don't know if I've ever heard it done more beautifully and movingly.
Petrenko can serve up a big sound if he wants to though, almost up to the pain threshold. The nuance and drama in his rendition make the legendary "Thielemann Ring" fade in memory. A smattering of boos after the second act for British soprano Catherine Foster, the Brünnhilde in this production. But if her first big "Hojotohoh!" was a bit off the mark, she triumphed in Act Three.
In the good old days...
Something else I'm tired of hearing: laments about the crisis in Wagner singing. As though physiognomie and vocal chords are somehow different from the way they were half a century ago. That's bunk. Historic recordings show that there was much mediocracy in the so-called "golden era". Mannerisms like the famous "Bayreuth bark," more declamation than singing, are a thing of the past.
Actually, the level of vocal performance in the stretch of time I've been here has improved substantially. In der era of Eva Wagner-Pasquier (the festival co-director is responsible for staging), second and third-rate singers don't make it to the "Green Hill." A good level of musicality and a few glorious moments: what more could you ask for in the Wagner anniversary year?
I'm already looking forward to hearing the recording and to producing the radio broadcasts, which will be heard in the US in September.