The Rhine is a grubby swimming pool. Three bored, blowsy Rhine maidens absently down vodka and unpeg lacy lingerie from a washing line in “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in the “Ring” cycle, at the Bayreuth Festival.
In a sleazy motel off Route 66, the Rhine maidens cruelly tease Alberich in their sultry lassitude. They provoke the loathsome troll to renounce love, steal the gold and set off a chain of events that will culminate in the death of the gods and the end of the world.
That’s due on Wednesday (July 31). Among those sitting in the sauna-like theater watching as civilization lurches toward its inevitable destruction is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, taking a break from campaigning for September’s election.
She has promised Germans an “Energy Shift” to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The 2013 “Ring” cycle, which equates the fight for the gold with the historical struggle for control of oil reserves, offers compelling arguments for that.
This year is the composer’s 200th birthday and the town Richard Wagner made his home is in festive spirits. The Green Hill leading to his famous theater is scattered with brightly colored dwarf-Wagner statues. Shortly before the festival, Merkel’s government promised 10 million euros ($13.3 million) toward a renovation of the theater.
Storm of Boos
Yet some things never change. “Das Rheingold” met a storm of boos on July 26, almost par for the course at Bayreuth premieres. The composer’s great-granddaughters Katharina and Eva-Maria Wagner entrusted Frank Castorf, a Berlin theater director who has little opera experience, with the anniversary “Ring.”
In the trashy aesthetic of his “Rheingold,” the gods, giants and trolls become Quentin Tarantino-style low-life thugs and whores. Loge, the trickster god of fire, wears a red suit and flicks his Zippo incessantly.
The giants who demand the goddess Freia as their wage for building Valhalla for Wotan -- the king of the gods and sleazy manager of the motel -- are blue-overalled car mechanics, one wielding a baseball bat. The mysterious goddess Erda wears a glittery dress and white fur, and sips cocktails decorated with umbrellas and tinsel at the motel bar.
A camera team films the action and it’s all projected onto a screen, adding a reality-TV crime series element. It’s refreshing to see the expressions of performers close up for once, and the singers reveal themselves to be movie naturals.
It’s all fun to watch, even if it diminishes the breached contracts of the gods, the debts and hostages to the crimes of petty gangsters. A lady from Bonn in the audience told me that if she wanted to see a police series she could switch the TV on any night, and she doesn’t. She has a point.
Castorf’s “Walkuere,” though, is mostly static and dull. The setting regresses a few decades and Wotan is now running an oil well in Azerbaijan, where Stalin’s revolutionaries are rioting.
Aleksandar Denic’s set, as ingenious and elaborate as for “Rheingold,” rotates to reveal different rooms of the building. The flickering screens show black-and-white movies, switching to the action inside the bedroom as Hunding twists in a delirious sleep after taking Sieglinde’s drug.
The long incestuous love scene between the twins Sieglinde and Siegmund is projection-free and it becomes clear Castorf doesn’t have many other ideas. The Valkyries don’t ride as such -- they do a lot of milling around and chatting while peering over a balustrade to see what Wotan and Brunnhilde are up to.
Johan Botha as Siegmund and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde came to the rescue with some terrific singing. Wolfgang Koch as Wotan could have used more power on low passages, and Catherine Forster as Brunnhilde, unkindly and unfairly booed by the audience after Act II, was redeemed with bravos after Act III.
Kirill Petrenko’s fresh conducting brings transparency and a pliant strength to the music, and he was the star of both nights for the audience.
Castorf plans to take us to communist East Germany and Mount Rushmore before the ring returns to whence it came and all goes dark again. The end of the world is not yet quite nigh -- there are at least another 12 hours to go including intervals for bratwurst consumption.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** So-so ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars) Worthless
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night, Elin McCoy on wine, James Clash on adventure and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.