It is said that a writer is supposed to write about what he knows from experience – and one could think that stage directors seem to follow that rule too. In its big picture, Frank Castorf’s Ring is very well organized – Rheingold takes place in the US, Die Walküre in the USSR until we finally reach Berlin, where both worlds meet and where Siegfried and Götterdämmerung take place. Castorf is from Berlin and it is no wonder that the last two installments in the Ring are far more consistent than the early two operas. Once we reach the Berlin part of the Ring, the whole concept becomes clear and you are ready to see where this is heading to – and there are many possible, valid and interesting directions to go to – but then the staging just looses steam and it basically goes nowhere. One might say that the whole idea was an open staging etc, but, really, here this just sounds like an excuse. Since Germany is shown here as a passive actor in a scenario where the Cold War superpowers are exclusively to blame for Germany’s absence of a national project, the Berlin characters of the story cannot take the lead in the big-picture events in the Ring’s original plot: whereas Wotan and Alberich are shown as characters involved in some big picture geopolitical events around global energy security etc, Siegfried and Hagen are just small-time crooks in Kreuzberg. When Brünnhilde is supposed to do something, we discover that the structure wrapped as an intervention by Bulgarian artist Christo is not the Reichstag, but the New York Stock Exchange. So, basically: blame someone else and plead innocence. No wonder this Brünnhilde doesn’t jump into the fire. Why should she?
Although Götterdämmerung is by far the most coherent staging in this Ring, it still has many structural problems, such as “why Brünnhilde is obliged to marry Gunther”? or “Why does Hagen is powerless to take the ring from the Rhinemaidens?”. All that is secondary to the fact that Castorf had so far deleted all reference to magic or supernatural from the plot: there is no Magic Fire, no dragon, no Grane, no woodbird. However, when he reached Götterdämmerung, he decided that he likes witchcraft and, voilà, santeria is imported from South America and, suddenly, you have people doing voodoo in East Berlin. Hmm. My final comment: this could have been an important Ring, as much as Herheim’s Parsifal was a key staging for the Festival, but silliness, pretentiousness, superficiality and conceptual dishonesty made it just a peculiar footnote in the history of Wagnerian staging. Maybe it is going to be remembered by Aleksandar Denic’s truly amazing scenery and Rainer Casper’s lighting.
When it comes to Kirill Petrenko, Götterdämmerung is a baby step further from Siegfried: if he had indeed intended to produce Karajanesque chamber-like sonorities, he gave that up for a very brassy sound picture with finally present strings, the articulation of which remained foggy and imprecise. Tempi stayed on the fast side, what, in principle, is a fine idea: the opening scene sounded unusually intense and forward-moving; Siegfried and Brünnhilde parted in athletic disposition and the Gibichungenhalle brought about restless, coloristic sounds. But the impression remained faceless and unfinished. This would develop into an act II without the necessary crescendo in intensity and drama, before an act III without chiaroscuro, as heard in an unsubtle and inexpressive Treuermarsch and the most lackadaisical Immolation Scene ever performed in an important theatre. Of course, the subpar cast shares a great deal of the responsibility for this debacle. Although Catherin Foster has a beautiful voice, her technique is erratic and she cannot operate when things get too low or too high – and they often do. She has a placid natural disposition and responds a bit stolidly to the great interpretational challenges of the role of Brünnhilde. Intonation too is very problematic. I have found it extremely unfair that Lance Ryan alone was booed, for he was not below the level of any other singer seen this evening. It is an ugly and unwieldy voice, with little sense of line or purity of pitch, but he has enviable stamina and worked hard to offer a varied death scene. Moreover, he does produce once in a while some excitingly powerful top notes. And he is a good actor. To say the truth, Oleg Bryjak would be an exception to this rule – his bass-baritone is very powerful, well-focused and has a raw edge that fits the part. I have seen Attila Jun in better shape in other occasions. This evening, his Hagen sounded a bit soft-grained and lacking menace. In any case, he was really superior to the ill-focused and barely hearable Gunther and the frankly miscast Gutrune. Claudia Mahnke again is light-toned for Waltraute, but again she sang with animation and good diction. Okka von der Damerau, here seen both as the First Norn and as Flosshilde deserves praise – she offered immaculate performances since Rheingold. The fact that she has been careful and is giving herself time to develop in secondary roles is only an evidence of her good judgment. I am sure we are going to hear even more exciting performances from her in the future.