Custom reconciles us to everything. At the final curtain, the solitary audible boo in my vicinity was overwhelmed by a torrent of applause for Frank Castorf’s Das Rheingold. To say that this production of the Ring was controversial when it opened in the bicentenary festival two years ago is to understate matters considerably. I can recall a torrent of vituperation in the English-language press. A Bachtrack colleague, my near namesake David Karlin, was critical but not entirely unsympathetic when reviewing the first revival of the tetralogy in 2014. After seeing (the verb choice is deliberate) the first part yesterday for the first time, I am as yet in no position to pronounce on the success or failure of the whole, but one thing seems clear: this is a production designed for our visually saturated age. This gains it points for relevance, but comes at a huge price – the music takes something of a back seat.

Set for <i>Das Rheingold</i> © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Set for Das Rheingold
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

In his “Beethoven” essay of 1870, Wagner maintained that hearing allows the perception of the essence of things whereas seeing is caught up in the deceptions of multiplicity. Admittedly this was written after his life-changing encounter with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and arguably is a poor guide to how he envisaged the various media working in the much earlier Rheingold. Nonetheless, it would be foolhardy to deny that even in this opera, his strictest experimentation with drama-centred rather than music-centred art, the musical aspects are the single most crucial aspect. The core reason why Wagner’s works have survived is because listeners have found his musical storytelling so compelling.

If my experience is anything to go by, the sheer density of Castorf’s imagery occupies virtually all one’s attention. Not only were the actors always on the move or performing some business (and Rheingold has a large cast) but in addition there was a large roof-top screen streaming live close-ups of some of the stage action. The use of hand-held cameras reminded me of the aesthetic of the film-maker Lars von Trier, once appointed to direct a Bayreuth Ring himself, although it never came to fruition. The effort of trying to stay on top of everything was not just distracting: it was frankly exhausting. Das Rheingold is at once the shortest part of the tetralogy (Wagner himself envisaged it as a “prefatory evening” (Vorabend) before the three “days”), and the longest unbroken listening experience, since the four scenes unfold in a single 2 hour 20 minute shot. The virtually relentless pacing of the visual elements turned it into something of an endurance test by the end.

Wolfgang Koch (Wotan), Albert Dohmen (Alberich) and John Daszak (Loge) © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Wolfgang Koch (Wotan), Albert Dohmen (Alberich) and John Daszak (Loge)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

I was less troubled by the desacralizing aspects of the production: for one thing, this is nothing new in Wagner stagings. Chereau’s now celebrated centenary Ring was deemed blasphemously unmystical in 1976, but how mild it now seems 40 years on! Castorf obviously revelled in the vulgarity and tackiness of his scenario involving hookers and gangsters, but then Wagner’s gods are a pretty shady lot, headed by a dodgy-deal-doing adulterer and his nagging wife. Here Wotan was revealed cavorting not just with his wife Fricka, but also his wife’s sister, Freia; at least there are Wagnerian precedents for keeping it all in the family. Wotan was especially seedy in this production: aside from his opening three-way, he disappeared briefly into a room with the three Rhine-floozies at one point, and later made out with Erda.

The staging, a cheap Texas motel from c.1970s, brilliantly designed by Aleksandar Denić, meant that the Rhine became a small swimming pool, Valhalla a dingy upstairs bedroom, and Nibelheim not represented at all (Alberich and Mime were instead captured by Wotan and Loge before Scene 3 began). The rotating stage was used to good effect, and there were some topical gags, such as replacing the Confederate flag with the Rainbow flag at one point. Curiously, some of Wagner’s most important physical objects were not represented at all, or not adequately woven into the new scenario: there was no spear, no golden apples (since these are supposed to keep the gods youthfully vigorous, they could have been 'uppers' supplied by Freia), and the “gold” Alberich stole was just a metallic blanket fished from the pool. Lighting designer Rainer Casper created some attractive effects, such as the kaleidescopic evening sky towards the end, which was some substitute for the absence of the Rainbow bridge.

Mirella Hagen, Anna Lapkovskaja and Julia Rutigliano (Rhinemaidens) and Albert Dohmen (Alberich) © Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath
Mirella Hagen, Anna Lapkovskaja and Julia Rutigliano (Rhinemaidens) and Albert Dohmen (Alberich)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Among the most outstanding performers on the night was John Daszak as Loge, who actually sang the notes in the score (not always a given in this role), and conveyed a relaxed cynicism appropriate to his character. The three Rhinemaidens (Mirella Hagen, Julia Rutigliano and Anna Lapovskaja) were also excellent vocally, while Wilhelm Schwinghammer, whose name suggests he ought to have been playing the hammer-wielding Donner, was the more impressive of the two giants. There was good character acting from Andreas Conrad as Mime, and Albert Dohmen was a sound Alberich. Wolfgang Koch was intermittently impressive as Wotan. Nadine Weissmann had both the presence and the voice necessary for a memorable Erda. The remaining roles were at least adequately filled. Kirill Petrenko led the orchestra with élan, and won the largest round of applause at the curtain call.