Regietheater is supposed to be an exercise in extracting the underlying truth in a libretto and bringing it to the fore by a radical revaluation or re-appropriation of its symbolic framework. In the big picture, Frank Castorf’s staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold for the Bayreuth Festival does that – it claims to propose a discussion on politics, its manipulation of the natural (both in the sense of Nature and in the sense of what is true) and of irony as a means of resistance. All that has been tried before, but maybe not all those elements together. In any case, as the Feldmarschallin would say, “und in dem Wie, da liegt der ganze Unterschied”. And that’s exactly what happens when you want to stage concepts – even if you have very profound and revelatory ideas to share in a staging, if it just doesn’t work on stage, then all the exciting concepts are just noise to the communication.
If I had to use one word for Castorf’s Rheingold, it would be “messy”. If I had to use two, then I would add “pretentious”. First, it updates the action to something somewhere in Texas. In hindsight, I see this must have to do with the beginning of the oil business in America, but costumes and sets are so anachronistic that it is really impossible to say anything. We can infer that from the scenery, but not from the costumes and the Personenregie – for the characters look and behave in a way that probably someone from Berlin would imagine as being “Texan”. For me, they could be Russian mobsters in a movie by Quentin Tarantino. This alone makes all the references very confusing.
Second, the staging involves cameramen who film the cast (especially in parallel actions) and project the images on a big screen on top of the set. While it is praiseworthy that the very complex blocking involving all singers and extras is perfectly timed and everybody acts extremely convincing, it generally has the consequence of sardine-boxing the whole cast in one very small area of the set in a huge stage. More than that, while the parallel action involves detailed acting, those who are singing basically stand and deliver facing the audience. It is often basically very distracting.
Third, the concept of irony here turns around adding an Almodovar-esque vertiginous subplots with lots of German heavy-handed humor about clichés that require that Wagner’s original characters adapt to them rather than having them adapted or fit to what Wagner intended. When the plot or the characters don’t go along with the cliché, then the libretto is just overlooked. This brings about lots of poorly staged important parts of the plot. The first scene would only make sense if Alberich had some sort of paralysis given his inability to deal with Rhinemaidens who are just ordinary girls. The whole episode at the Nibelheim makes absolutely no sense: Alberich and Mime just show up in Wotan’s Motel in a trailer; then they are tied to poles; Alberich is tied just next to Mime, but the latter says that the former has disappeared and is beating him; then Mime takes the gold from Wotan’s home and brings to the trailer and, when Wotan demands the gold, he just returns it – Alberich’s transformations are here the very definition of underwhelming. The final scene shows the gods’ evolution in status by making everybody sing standing in different points of the roof. Maybe all this is going to develop into something in the next installments of the Ring, but the director will have to run the extra mile to compensate the lack of structure, coherence and purpose that plagues this introductory opera the idea of which basically is providing you with key ideas to understand what comes next.
Even if the “energy”-approach has already been seen in Bayreuth when Harry Kupfer had it standing for nuclear power, the idea of relating the Rhinegold to oil is powerful if you bear in mind the complex and ambivalent events in international politics around this theme. However, as far as this staging of Das Rheingold goes, you would need divinatory powers to see this: there is a swimming pool with small golden squares and a golden blanket on it. OK, the pool is in a motel with a gas station… Do I need to say more?
This is my third season in Bayreuth and I was able to see Christian Thielemann conduct the Ring here. It was an unforeseeable disappointment this time for me to hear undernourished strings, unclear articulation throughout, imbalance between sections, inability to build up tension out of lack of pulse. I have seen Kirill Petrenko conduct before too and I could only guess that he lacks experience with the peculiarities of the pit in Bayreuth or that he fell asleep in the first three minutes of the performance. This alone made the whole evening pointless to me.
When it comes to the cast, none of these singers offered anything to write home about. If I had to single someone out, this would be Wolfgang Koch. His bass baritone is light for Wotan and he took a while to warm his middle and low registers, but the voice is big and noble and the high notes are exciting. However, what makes his Wotan interesting is the way he inhabits the texts and relates it to the dramatic acting IN THIS STAGING. Oleg Byjak has the right voice for Alberich, but – without the help of his conductor – in order to create the necessary impact, he forced it, with different levels of distortion of tonal quality, intonation and clarity of phrasing. Claudia Mahnke sang a glitch-free but anonymous Fricka and if Norbert Ernst’s Loge was fluent, it was also basically monochrome and faceless. Nadine Weissmann is no contralto, but her good technique and beauty of tone clearly made her the favorite of the audience. Among the other roles, Okka von der Damerau deserves again praises for her firm-toned and voluminous singing as Floßhilde.