When Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Bayreuth production of Der Ring des Nibelungen appeared last year, it generated howls of protest. That hasn’t stopped this year’s public from packing out the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. I’ll be here for the whole cycle and I’ll be spreading my thoughts on Castorf’s work over separate reviews of each.

Before that, I’ll start with the uncontroversial part of last night’s Das Rheingold, namely the singing and the musical performance. Topping the list has to be Oleg Bryjak, who was a sensational Alberich. Starting with a voice that is rounded and strong across the whole range, Bryjak produced an extraordinary piece of vocal acting, imbuing his voice with overweening pride, malice, raw anger and utter desolation. The outstanding female voice of the evening was Nadine Weissman as Erda, who projected utter authority allied to lush timbre.

Norbert Ernst produced a Loge that was musically fine without including the last edge of characterisation. The role of Fricka doesn’t offer much in Das Rheingold, but Claudia Mahnke made it unusually strong, offering good promise for Act II of Die Walküre this evening.  Within a high quality trio of Rhinemaidens, Okka von der Damerau impressed as Flosshilde. Wolfgang Koch gave a mixed performance as Wotan which seemed to come and go: his voice thrilled in many of the high notes but often seemed to lack power, especially in the lower parts of the register.

If I have one major cavil about the singing, it’s that diction was generally poor. Bayreuth doesn’t show surtitles, so one would hope that singers would make extra efforts to articulate their words, particularly since they’re getting a lot of help from the acoustic of the Festspielhaus which subdues the orchestral sound in favour of the voices. No such efforts were in evidence.

The acoustic is also known as being a difficult one for conductors trying to achieve good balance between different elements of the orchestra. That didn’t seem to bother Kirill Petrenko in the slightest as he led an excellent orchestral performance: pacy, exciting and clear.

So on to Castorf’s staging. Aleksandar Denić’s single multi-level set is certainly striking: the whole action takes place in a tawdry Texas motel which doubles as a filling station, bar and whorehouse: the whole thing is set on a turntable so that we see different angles at different times: the swimming pool at the back serves as the Rhine, with the Rhinemaidens as hookers; the gods are small-time gangsters, whom we first see through French windows of an upstairs bedroom; Fafner and Fasolt are garage mechanics who engage in wrecking the bar downstairs. Many of the costumes are gaudy, from Loge’s red suit to Freia’s pneumatic rubber or plastic creation to a gold lamé suit for Mime that would grace Terry Pratchett’s Moist von Lipwig.

Set atop the roof is a large video screen which mostly shows live close-ups of action in various parts of the stage, including those currently hidden to us but generally excluding whoever happens to be singing at the time. Some of the cameramen move around the stage – presumably, all the events are happening under the spotlight of an intrusive media.

An overwhelming atmosphere of sleaze pervades proceedings.

But what, you may ask, has any of this to do with Das Rheingold?

Reading some of the press about Frank Castorf, it’s clear that he considers himself as an anti-authoritarian bad boy – something he attributes to an upbringing in the former East Germany. His first instinct when approaching a piece is to deconstruct it and “to move a storyline through time and space the way I want”. For Der Ring, Kirill Petrenko made clear that this was not on offer: the score was to be presented intact.

And therein lies the problem. Clearly, approaching Der Ring has triggered a load of ideas in Castorf’s head. Apart from the basic setting, there’s plenty of extra action that you won’t find anywhere in the libretto, like the Rhinemaidens driving off in Wotan’s Mercedes while he chases behind, Wotan, Fricka and Freia frolicking in a three-in-a-bed scene, Loge tying Mime and Alberich to a pair of lamp posts, Mime taking down the Dixie flag and hoisting a rainbow one – I could cite many others. So Castorf has created a bunch of scenes that interest him and displayed them in a visually striking way. The trouble is, he’s severely limited in his ability to make these remotely comprehensible by the fact that there’s a performance of Das Rheingold going on in parallel.

So far, apart from the obvious Gods=Gangsters and Rhinemaidens=Whores equations, I haven’t succeeded in putting any of these scenic ideas together in a way that makes any kind of sense. But I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen some more of the cycle. More to come tomorrow...


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