This year is the composer’s 200th birthday. Bayreuth premiere guests were in no mood to celebrate. The director Frank Castorf seemed determined to stick it out, standing on stage for a good 10 minutes, bowing graciously and making thumbs-up gestures. The incensed audience was mostly on its feet. Only a handful clapped; most of the rest booed.
Castorf, a Berlin theater director, even returned for a second helping and appeared to be reveling in the scandal, pointing at his watch to suggest he had time to listen to it.
If he wanted to provoke, he succeeded, though few will have found his staging shocking. It was mainly incoherent, with rare flashes of wit, mostly in “Rheingold.” And that seemed a long time ago after 16 or so hours of opera, spread over six days.
Catherine Foster, playing Brunnhilde, won enthusiastic bravos for her singing. In a regal gold dress, she sparkled in the dingy set -- even without the horse Wagner gives her in his text.
We had just watched her dousing the ground around the New York Stock Exchange with petroleum and then inexplicably not set it alight, so the final conflagration of the last act of the opera never occurs. The ring is briefly dunked in a small fire before being carried off by the Rhine maidens. Brunnhilde, like the NYSE, survives.
Yet long before this point, no one can have been expecting what happened on stage to make much reference to Wagner’s opus - - or even to make any sense at all.
In “Siegfried,” two crocodiles creep across Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square, mating on the move, while Siegfried and Brunnhilde sing of their passion. One crocodile swallows a whole show-girl, live. Two disheveled gods, Wotan and Erda, eat pasta and tomato sauce and indulge in joyless oral sex.
Brunnhilde is woken from her long slumber by Siegfried, though who knows how he finds her. She goes to sleep in Baku, Azerbaijan, and awakes in a socialist utopia Mount Rushmore with the faces of Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Mao carved into the rock. A tunnel through the rockface grants access to Alexanderplatz, a home for vagrant gods and lost show-girls.
This is a disjointed, fragmented “Ring,” full of half-ideas and half-thoughts, none of them sustained. “Rheingold” focused on the staff and customers of a sleazy Route 66 Motel in the 1980s; “Die Walkuere” transported the cast and audience to Azerbaijan oil fields in the first half of the 20th century.
After Alexanderplatz and not-Mount-Rushmore in “Siegfried,” East German punks brawl near the Berlin Wall in “Gotterdammerung,” spilling and swilling a lot of beer. The other half of the rotating stage features the New York Stock Exchange and a vintage car.
Like all Aleksandar Denic’s sets, it is elaborate, ingenious and stunning. Yet it is never used to much dramatic effect. Wherever tension arises, it evaporates as quickly. Emotion, passion? Only in the music.
The program notes contain a history of the oil industry. While I now know more than I did about Rockefeller’s petroleum lamps and OPEC’s origins, they didn’t help decipher Castorf’s staging. The oil theme provides an excuse for the exotic settings, yet fails to serve as a unifying device.
It wasn’t just Castorf who earned boos -- Lance Ryan, singing Siegfried, sounded forced and wobbly, and the audience let its disapproval show. The singing in “Gotterdammerung” didn’t reach the heights of “Walkuere,” where Johan Botha and Anja Kampe shone. Other stand-outs were Burkhard Ulrich as Mime in “Siegfried” and Martin Winkler as Alberich.
The star of the “Ring” was conductor Kirill Petrenko, who earned bravos as thunderous as Castorf’s boos. Petrenko surprises and delights with his modern, transparent approach, and never is heavy-handed. Rating: **
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.