Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen is about oil. In case anyone missed this, the only two long programme notes are a 2008 treatise on energy security and a 1910 letter from the Baku oilfields written by none other than Joseph Stalin. In Die Walküre, the staging takes us back in time to the later years of tsarist Russia and in place to the Baku oilfields. As in yesterday’s Rheingold, there is a single rotating set which makes full use of the height of the proscenium: here, it is a complex wooden construction with steps and platforms leading up to the characteristic tower shape of an oil derrick. The use of live video projection is retained but reduced.

Say what you like about Wagner, but the man knew how to write an introduction that throws you straight into the action, and Kirill Petrenko released the orchestra out of their traps with a flourish. As Siegmund is being chased through the forest (the curtain remained down, allowing full rein to our imagination) never before have I heard the music played with such incisive accenting and such perfectly weighted changes of pace. It set the scene for a first act of real excellence, with three great singers. Johan Botha may not be the most heroic Siegmund to look at, but he brings a bel canto like lyricism to every line and no sound is ever strained, regardless of the pitch or duration of the notes. It’s the second time I’ve seen Anja Kampe as Sieglinde this year and she was nearly as impressive this time as the first, a voice with uncharacteristic warmth for a Wagnerian soprano. Kwangchul Youn was full and resolute as Hunding.

Castorf appears to have respected the intimacy of Act I of Die Walküre, in that the parallel oil story didn’t really start to make its presence felt until the very end of the act, where arrival of the magic weapon Nothung (a real sword, to my surprise) conincides with a flinging open of the doors to the railway that is to transport the oil, while video projections show newsreels of early industrial oil production in Baku (where, Wikipedia tells me, oil was being produced as early as the third century). Stalin also makes an appearance on the cover of Pravda, both in video projections and later in physical newspapers which get blown around the stage. By Act III, the stories become more fused: the heroes transported by the Valkyries are not quite dead yet, and they are carrying red flags as they collapse dead on the high platform of the oil derrick, which acquires a neon red star at its top, while the Valkyries enjoy a distinctly secular feast.

At the start, Act II didn’t quite reach the musical heights of Act I: to my disappointment, the chemistry between Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan and Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka didn’t reach the level of yesterday’s explosive brew. But Koch was sublime in Wotan’s more reflective moments, and Catherine Foster was a fine Brünnhilde. Petrenko had the pathos level turned up to full as the orchestra accompanied her duet with Botha’s Siegmund as she discovers the meaning of love and we in the audience discover the leitmotifs that presage the doom of the Wälsungs.

The set has been mutating through each act, and by Act III, it is a fully fledged oil installation. Overall, Act III was adequate without really enthralling. The Ride of the Valkyries was not particularly dynamic either in stage movement or musically, and in the intimate moments of the later parts of the act, my attention was distracted from the music by the showing of a series of silent film newsreels from Baku in 1942 (when the battle of Stalingrad prevented Hitler’s troops from accessing the Caspian oilfields). Important speech panels were written in Russian, which I don’t speak or read, but which would have been compulsory in Castorf’s education in the DDR. I was still able to enjoy Koch and Foster’s singing, but perhaps less than it deserved.

In sum, a mixed Walküre, with some real musical and vocal excellence, especially in Act I, and a production which remains enigmatic but about which no firm opinion should be formed before the end of the cycle...



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