Archive for August, 2014

The second installment of Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring takes us to an oil drilling station in Azerbaijan. As in Das Rheingold, Aleksandar Denic’s complex revolving set does not admit changes. Therefore, Sieglinde and Hunding live in it, and Wotan and Brünnhilde just need to cross one door to find them, while a bunch of extras are drilling and a group of women in ethnic costumes sing ho-jo-to-ho amid the convolutions of the establishment of the Azerbaijan SSR and its oil industry (the Berlin clubber costumes wouldn’t help you to get that right). At this point, it is clear that the fact that this production has realistic scenery does not mean that the action taking place in it is realistic too. The question involving the reason why Wotan and Fricka were transferred from Texas to the Caucasus is also an idle exercise – one could say that this Wotan and this Fricka are not the same Wotan and Fricka from the Rheingold, they are just ideal types in this study. One can realize by now too that the videos projected on stage do not happen to be distracting, but were rather conceived to the very purpose of being distracting: whenever the composer appeals to the emotions of the audience, you can be sure that Mr. Castorf is going to find a way to prevent you from this annoying mistake committed by Romantic artists such as Richard Wagner: while Siegmund and Sieglinde confess their love for each other, we are shown comic gags involving Wotan and one of his many lovers; when Wotan describes his disgust about the world and his secret desire for the end of it all, one extra places a cart full of explosives exactly in front of him. I am sure that my 7 or 9 readers may imagine how much this approach contributed to boost the level of expression in the musical performance.

It seems that Kirill Petrenko intended to create a Karajan-like chamber-music atmosphere for act I, but the results could be described rather as extremely recessed strings, lack of pulse and blurred articulation – plus a high level of mismatch between soloists and orchestra. I used these same words yesterday, I know. Sad, isn’t it? The good news is that act II brought about more orchestral sound, even if that involved squawky, erratic brass. At first, I had the impression that the conductor had finally achieved firmness of accent and beat, but it soon became clear that fast tempi were the only context in which he could exert some pulse. When this music required a slower pace, things would invariably sound pointless and disjoint. After an awkward Walkürenritt, the third act did feature some efficient moments – and yet true coherence has never been achieved.

One great difference in this Walküre (compared to yesterday’s Rheingold) is the fact that the cast could improve the level of interest with their contribution. For instance, a Johan Botha in great form sang with such ease, sense of line and vocal poise that the fact that he had very little backing from the pit in Act I only seemed an opportunity for the audience to concentrate on his singing alone. Since 2011, his tenor has gained in volume and color in its lower reaches. The part of Siegmund now finds no uncongenial spot in his whole range. Anja Kampe’s soprano too seemed to have a lower Schwerpunkt these days. At moments, she sounded more mezzo-ish than these evening’s Fricka. This could have meant that her high notes would sound a bit pushed, but singing over a matte orchestral soundscape gave her more than enough leeway to spin her high notes and gain momentum, what made her Sieglinde more lyric and vulnerable than usual. Although it seems that are still some overtones to be discovered in Catherine Foster’s voice, once past a bumpy ho-jo-to-ho, the British soprano sang with restraint and some poise. Low notes were often left to imagination and her acuti lacked the ideal focus, but her middle register is pleasant and spontaneous. Her Todverkündung was sensitively and appealingly sung. Claudia Mahnke’s voice is a couple of sizes smaller than the role of Fricka, but she deserves a C-plus for effort: she sang her scene with purpose, clear diction and passion. Kwangchul Youn is, as always, an ideal Hunding.

When it comes to Wolfgang Koch, the tonal lightness was a liability in act II. He lacked the resources for his long recapitulation scene, where the lack of volume, faulty intonation and restricted tonal palette made it sound as if he was speaking rather than singing. Act III showed him in great shape, producing heroic high notes and delivering a firm-toned farewell to Brünnhilde, even if a rather monochromatic one.


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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.

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