There aren't many opera roles where a bass can really take over the show, but Hagen in Götterdämmerung is one of them, and last night at Bayreuth, Attila Jun turned in a sensational performance. His voice, apparently, can do anything: deliciously phrased, smooth basso cantante, power notes in mid range, a growl from the depths or a messa di voce, all allied to the looks of a Bond villain. His declaration in Act I that “you shall all serve the Nibelung's son” was one of those “wow” moments that keep us coming back to opera, and the most riveting scene of all was Hagen's gathering of the Gibichung clans, a cataclysm of musical mayhem delivered with total commitment by Jun, chorus and orchestra.

Attila Jun as Hagen in act II gathering of clans © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
Attila Jun as Hagen in act II gathering of clans
© Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

The other big cheer of the night was for Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde. Her performance wasn't quite as flawless as in Siegfried – she didn't quite reach a couple of the high notes, some of the low phrases faded and staging distractions didn't do her any favours in holding our attention in the immolation scene. But her high range maintained its radiant quality throughout and she was able to project the full range of emotions from rapture to fury to the authority and yearning of her last scene. This was very fine singing.

Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde, Lance Ryan as Siegfried dressed as Gunther © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde, Lance Ryan as Siegfried dressed as Gunther
© Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
While I've been less impressed by Lance Ryan's Siegfried, he very much won me over in his final scene. Alejandro Marco-Buhmester as Gunther and Allison Oakes as Gutrune made more of their roles than you often hear and the three Rhinemaidens sang attractively. Claudia Mahnke, excellent as Second Norn, had good high notes but seemed to struggle with the low phrases when singing Waltraute.

As previously, Aleksandar Denić created a massive set which rotated to give a number of eclectic facets. The Gibichung kingdom was rendered as a kebab shop and fruit and veg stand at the base of a run down apartment block; Brünnhilde's dwelling by her rock was the aluminium trailer now familiar from previous operas; there were large neon signs for former East German chemical company Buna-Werke, the classical frontage of the New York Stock Exchange and a giant staircase down which tumbled a runaway pram à la Battleship Potemkin (although carrying potatoes rather than a baby). In their closing scene, the Rhinemaidens are stashing the bloodstained body of the “common man” into the boot of their black, vintage, open-top Mercedes, having evidently just mown him down.

Mirella Hagen, Jula Rutigliano, Okka van der Damerau as Rhinemaidens © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
Mirella Hagen, Jula Rutigliano, Okka van der Damerau as Rhinemaidens
© Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
So how to assess Frank Castorf's staging of the cycle as a whole? Firstly, a couple of caveats. For one, this production clearly assumes that the audience knows the operas well: this is not a Ring for beginners. Next, this is very German production: Castorf comes from German theatre with its distinctive approach, and the overwhelming majority of the iconography and political references are from East Germany and Russia. Castorf's political scientist of choice is Udo Bermbach, whose works are not readily available in English. Coming from a UK perspective, I'm starting from a very different place.

I'll first discuss what I believe to be Castorf's intent, and then describe my own reactions. Last caveat: for such a complex and eclectic staging, there can be no guarantee that my reactions will be the same as anyone else's.

First and foremost, Castorf is clearly trying to prompt us to think about oil and the politics of power. Sets are littered with cues to this and most actions on stage are those of the violent and powerful. Secondly, he feels that the Ring must be approached with irony. The programme notes contain several quotes from the 1936 L’Ironie, by French musicologist and philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, for example:

Irony is flexibility, is extreme consciousness. It makes us “pay attention to reality” and immunizes us against the narrowness and disfigurements of uncompromising pathos and against the intolerance of exclusionary fanaticism.

This is fairly opaque stuff, but here's my interpretation: we the audience must not be permitted to wallow in sentimentality or rapture; rather, we must maintain a sense of ironic detachment and expect some firm pricking of pompous Wagnerian bubbles.

Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde
© Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
With me, Castorf achieves his objectives, but perhaps not as he would have liked. I certainly did engage with the politics of oil and power, but I didn't feel in any way enlightened by the results. And as ironic readings of Wagner's politics go, I got a lot more out of reading George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite – written in 1883 – than I did out of this production.

When Castorf drilled into Der Ring, out came a veritable gusher of ideas, so this production has hundreds, possibly thousands, of visual details. In many of these, I spectacularly missed the point. I spent large amounts of this cycle feeling that I was trying to solve clues in a complicated visual crossword puzzle in a foreign language. To list a handful of the many clues that I failed to solve: the mixing of cocktails in Rheingold, the caged turkeys in Walküre, the bear/“common man” character adjusting the TV aerial in Siegfried, Alberich's continual putting up and tearing down of wall posters (illegible from my distant row), the use of a small human doll to represent the horse Grane, the small three-wheeler car in which Gutrune happily munches chocolates, The Viking-style watery burial of Hagen rather than Siegfried. I could go on.

So my overwhelming memory of this cycle will be one of cognitive overload. There was simply too much happening for me to make sense of it all while keeping concentration on the music, which seemed to be happening in parallel with the staging but divorced from it. And yet: the music was generally sung and played with excellence and the staging was watchable if confusing. The truth is, I enjoy crossword puzzles even when I can't solve them. And in spite of my many irritations and misgivings, I enjoyed the experience of this Ring.

 

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