Two things have been constant so far in the first three operas in this Bayreuth Ring Cycle. The first is the uniform excellence of the orchestral sound, with the high level to which Kirill Petrenko has drilled his troops and especially of his timing and phrasing. I can't bring to mind a single note out of place, a mis-timed entry or an unwanted squawk or chirp from a wind instrument. And when the time comes to shift up a gear, the orchestra has been phenomenal. I've been particularly wowed by the way Petrenko has been able to use the low strings to give rhythmic impulse, leaving space for the lustre of held high brass notes.

The second constant has been the Aleksandar Denić's ability to produce visually striking sets that make full use of the not inconsiderable height of the Bayreuth proscenium arch. For Siegfried, he has created a replica of Mt. Rushmore, albeit with the faces changed to Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Various wooden staircases allow the performers to roam over different parts of the structure. Sometimes, the characters' faces are projected on top of the communist icons, while in Act III, a quite brilliant lighting effect sketches their giant features in cartoon-like strokes of light on a darkened stage. A logotype “S” on one side turns out to be “S” for “Schnellbahn”: when the set rotates for Fafner's death scene in Act II, we are in a reasonably photorealistic miniature of Berlin's Alexanderplatz with its iconic world clock. The importance of this may be lost on foreigners, but it was explained to me that apart from being a place immediately recognised by any German, the Alexanderplatz was a major location for the demonstrations leading up to the 1989 Peaceful Revolution, as well as having been the location of the head office of the East German state oil company Minol (whose initials are also emblazoned on the set).

One outstanding performance lit up this Siegfried: Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde. From the moment of her awakening, Foster's voice bathed us in a warm, radiant glow. Forget any caricatures of strident, shrieking Brünnhildes: this is a lush, luxurious voice that would persuade one of anything. Atheist that I am, if I ever hear Foster singing sacred music, I'm going to be a convert. Regardless of the religion.

Sadly, I was not similarly impressed by Lance Ryan in the title role. His interpretation is well enough characterised, very much on the casually ultra-violent end of the scale rather than the “high spirited, loutish teenager”, but there's little legato in the voice and a tendency to shout. On the other hand, Wolfgang Koch, who had not really lit my fire earlier in the cycle, sang a superb Wanderer: a rich, melodious, emphatic voice bringing to life a character who is urbane, cynical and utterly ruthless, the epitome of a once strong man who knows that he has nothing left to lose and has reached the release of no longer caring. The verbal duel at the beginning of Act II between Koch and Oleg Bryjakov's Alberich was electric.

Burkhard Ulrich isn't a typical Mime, either to look at or to listen to. To look at, because he is tall and very slim: the word “dwarf” is emphatically not the first one that springs to mind. To listen to, because his Mime is neither a figure of fun nor a cringer: this is a man with malice in his voice determined to overcome his limitations. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. 

I've been vaguely accepting of Castorf's production, if somewhat bemused by the intent of many of the details, up to the last two acts of Siegfried, at which point I started to get irritated by Castorf's wilful desire to subvert any possible feeling of sublimity. Regardless of how you analyse Wagner's politics, there are three critical passages in Siegfried where the music is noble and sublime: Fafner's death, Wotan's awakening of Erda and Brünnhilde's love paean very near the end. In all three, Castorf chose to ensure that we were thoroughly distracted from any sublimity. In Fafner's death, by having his non-speaking “common man” character (who has been the bartender in Das Rheingold and the bear cum TV aerial repair man in Siegfried Act I, amongst other things) scurry around tending to Fafner with a first aid kit. Nadine Weissman's Erda is portrayed as an Alexanderplatz whore, last seen failing to receive payment for the blowjob she gives Wotan just before he does a runner back to Valhalla, leaving Erda with the bill for his spaghetti. In Brünnhilde's love paean, a couple of giant snapping plastic crocodiles eat a restaurant umbrella and a showgirl respectively. 

I'm getting fed up with the notion apparently espoused by supposedly avant-garde directors like Castorf or Calixto Bieito that all women in opera have to be either virgins or prostitutes. For her final scene, Brünnhilde was made to change into in a white wedding gown of staggering naffness, while even the humble woodbird isn't exempt: wearing a carnival showgirl costume with ten foot wingspan, Mirella Hagen is last seen making sure that Siegfried's sex education is thoroughly complete by the time he meets Brünnhilde. If we really need drop-in female stereotypes to make an opera relevant, can someone please choose some different ones, just for a change?

Perhaps this is Castorf's sense of humour at work – and there are some bits that did amuse me, like Siegfried selecting his magic weapon of choice between a broadsword and an AK-47 assault rifle (perhaps wisely, when it comes to the fight with Fafner, he chooses the AK-47). Perhaps it's an attempt to prove that he has no need to pander to the bourgeois establishment (i.e. about 99% of his Bayreuth audience). Or perhaps it's an attempt at achieving Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (taking the audience out of its comfort zone and engendering a sense of curiosity). Whichever of these, and yes, m'lud, I accept that I'm guilty as charged of being bourgeois, I think it leaves Wagner's opera the poorer.

So I have no idea how Castorf will approach Götterdämmerung – the least politically charged and most traditionally operatic piece of the four, as well as being one where Wagner himself couldn't decide on an ending and what it should mean. I get to find out tomorrow...



For links to the other reviews of the cycle, see: