With Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth staging of the Ring back for its fourth season, the initial focus of interest and newsworthiness this year fall on changes to the musical side of the production. Most importantly, the conducting has passed from Kirill Petrenko to the veteran Marek Janowski. It’s indicative of the lure of Bayreuth, and the chance to make a belated debut there, that Janowski, who is on record for saying he’d never conduct any staged opera again because he didn’t like modern productions, should find himself back in the opera house and in league with one of the most controversial Wagner stagings in the festival’s history.

Iain Paterson (Wotan) © Jörg Schulze
Iain Paterson (Wotan)
© Jörg Schulze

He is no stranger to the music, of course, and is, I believe, the only conductor to have recorded the whole Ring cycle twice, in the studio in Dresden in the 1980s and in a series of concert performances in Berlin just a few years ago. Aided by the Festspielhaus’s famed acoustical blending, the orchestra in this opening Rheingold sounded inspired. Janowski’s approach is a mixture of energy and litheness and if the sunken, hidden pit tends to blunt the fullest dynamic impact of the orchestral sound the music instead glowed with an intensity and beauty of detail sometimes lost in more forceful hands and more analytical acoustics.

The Rheingold cast has been refreshed, too, for this revival. In come Iain Paterson as a somewhat bluff Wotan and Sarah Connolly in firm voice as Fricka. Back from previous years are Albert Dohmen’s vocally un-exaggerated Alberich and Nadine Weissmann’s lustrous Erda – her curtain call rightly drew the most enthusiastic applause. The other gods – Markus Eiche’s Donner, Tansel Akzeybek’s Froh and Caroline Wenborne’s Freia – along with Roberto Saccà’s detailed charactisation of Loge had their match in the workers’ world of Andreas Conrad’s Mime, Karl-Heinz Lehner’s Fafner and Günther Groissbock’s sympathetic Fasolt. Alexandra Steiner, Wiebke Lehmkuhl and Stephanie Houtzeel made a feisty trio of Rhinemaidens.

Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde) © Enrico Nawrath
Alexandra Steiner (Woglinde), Stephanie Houtzeel (Wellgunde), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Flosshilde)
© Enrico Nawrath

Castorf’s staging frustrates as much as it enlightens. There’s always an awful lot going on, with maybe two groups of characters in view and a third relayed from the interior of the set by live camerawork, to the extent that it can distract from the music itself. But if any audience deserves to be challenged in Wagner it is the experienced Bayreuth one, and the overriding impression of a superimposition of layers of irony – pricking the pomposity of the music and its stage history – probably adds as much as it takes away.

Sarah Connolly (Fricka) © Jörg Schulze
Sarah Connolly (Fricka)
© Jörg Schulze

With its relocation to the Golden Motel and gas station on Route 66 in 1960s Texas, where black gold is the currency, Das Rheingold takes on the sense of a gritty, ultra-realist thriller movie – one almost expects Marlon Brando to make a cameo at the seedy bar at the heart of the rotating set. Aleksander Denić’s rightly acclaimed designs are phenomenal in their eye for detail and realism – as they need to be to cope with the ever-present cinematic, close-up eye of the roving cameras, whose images are shown on a large screen at the top of the set.

Amidst all the goings-on there are plenty of insights and ironic commentaries – the neat segue between scenes one and two by way of a phone-call between one of the Rhinemaidens and Wotan in his motel room; Mime’s claiming of Alberich’s domain when he hears his brother has been abducted; Wotan’s quick work with Erda in fathering the generation of Valkyries while the giants fight over the ring. All these things add to what is a clear presentation of the plot, but one can’t help feeling the loss of the grander emotions and natural scene-setting that is there in the music.