Sunday 3 August 2014

Bayreuth Festival (5) - Götterdämmerung, 1 August 2014

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Gunther – Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester
Alberich – Oleg Bryjak
Hagen – Attila Jun
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Gutrune – Allison Oakes
Waltraute, Second Norn – Claudia Mahnke
First Norn, Flosshilde – Okka van der Damerau
Third Norn – Christiane Kohl
Woglinde – Mirella Hagen
Wellgunde – Julia Rutigliano

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)


We used to hear the final motif heard in the Ring described in Hans von Wolzogen-ese as ‘redemption through love’. Its ‘meaning’ has proved endlessly controversial; for my money, ‘redemption of love’, though still partial, perhaps comes closer. Carl Dahlhaus, having pointed is first hearing in Die Walküre, when Sieglinde hails the miracle of Siegfried’s birth as foretold by Brünnhilde, it now represents ‘an expression of the “rapturous love” celebrated’ in Wagner’s envisaged ‘1852 ending’ to his poem, subsequently omitted. (Dahlhaus is ever at pains to deny the importance of Schopenhauer for the Ring, whether in terms of anticipation or influence.) Thomas Mann makes a similar point, writing that Wagner’s ‘real prophecy is not goods nor gold not lordly pomp,’ a reference to Brünnhilde’s rejection of such in the ‘Feuerbach ending’. Nor does the composer prophesy ‘sad compacts of living bonds’. Wagner’s ‘real prophecy’, Mann claims, is ‘the heavenly melody which at the end of Götterdämmerung rises from the burning citadel of earthly power and restates in music the same theme as that of the closing lines of the other German poem of life and world: Das Ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.’ It certainly is not all about love, though. As John Deathridge has pointed out, ‘part of the final motif’s meaning lies in ‘one of Wagner’s perennial concerns …: the relation of the individual to the community’. In the first instance, an isolated appearance of the motif is sung by an individual; its frequent repetition in the presence of ‘a silent on-stage chorus’ in Götterdämmerung is ‘a striking symbol’ of the relationship. Its content thus involves both the widening of the circles of sympathy — and joy — and what Wagner would, in a late piece (Ausführungen zu “Religion und Kunst”: Heldentum und Christentum’), call the ultimate ‘oneness of the human species’. The motif does not, at any rate, as Dahlhaus claims, straightforwardly ‘express’ rapturous love, but offers redemption of a force both glorious and destructive. In the terms of the German Romantic æsthetics of music – here words of August Wilhem Schlegel, from his Kunstlehre to which both Wagner and Schopenhauer owed a great deal, it might be said of the motif’s catharsis that: ‘It purifies, so to speak, the passions of the material, of the dirt that clings to them, by representing the passions in our inner mind without reference to objects, but only in their form; and, after stripping them of their mundane shell, permits them to breathe the pure ether.’

Why start rather than end there, if indeed I were to mention it at all? Because none of these possible interpretations – or indeed many more: what of Bakunin-like pyromania? of the revenge of the natural world through the Rhine? of Wagner’s Schopenhauerian shift from eros to caritas, etc., etc. – is prepared or considered in Frank Castorf’s staging. That might not matter: perhaps he might have something new to offer. Not really, alas, though this Götterdämmerung is certainly an improvement upon the absolute nadir of his Siegfried, if not quite a return to the (relative) form of Das Rheingold. But if, as Castorf, at least at times appears to be hinting, there is something of a political meaning to be gleaned, might it not be worth considering what others have thought about the Ring in that or indeed in any other respect? Above all, how can a staging which apparently takes no interest whatsoever in the music – I am told that Castorf never so much as looked at a score, referring only to a yellow Reclam version of the poem: true or false, it has the ring of truth – possibly begin to consider such necessary questions as the contextual meaning, be that context of the work, the production, or better, both, of that culminating motif, to which Wagner once enigmatically gave the label, ‘glorification of Brünnhilde’? Why, even if we are concentrating one-sidedly upon the poem, discard any sense of the ‘watchers’ whose social being contributes so much? They need not necessarily be ‘moved to the very depths of their being’, as Wagner’s Schopenhauerian suggestion has it; they could be something more akin to the cloth-capped, almost Brechtian questioners of Patrice Chéreau. There might be good reason, in context, to dispense with them, but one would have thought that they might have appealed to Castorf’s ‘post-dramatic’ conception of theatre. Like so much, alas, it is difficult not to suspect that they, like the small matter of Wagner’s score, were never considered in the first place.


Instead, then, we see what seems, at least at times, to be an allusion to some of the revolutionary upheavals of the twentieth century. There is nothing wrong with that in principle: 1917, even 1989, alluded to European revolutionary tradition, not least that of the 1848-9 revolutions in which Wagner was an active participant, just as 1848-9 had alluded to 1830 and above all to the French Revolution. ‘Die Revolution’ was, as well as the title of a torrential revolutionary catechism by Kapellmeister Wagner, an abiding concept of Vormärz social and political discourse. Aleksander Denić’s once-again mightily-impressive sets – considered as sculptures – turn us between what seem to be West and East Germany, the sight of a GDR chemical works immediately evocative, I am told, for those who lived there, Chancellor Merkel (in the audience) included. It seems that at some point we come to die Wende itself, at which point, I presume, we fully glimpse the total victory of the now-unveiled New York Stock Exchange. The problem is that, for the most part, this remains little more than a backdrop, despite occasional promising treatment of the (revolutionary?) crowd. Quite why so many of them fly Union Flags I am not entirely sure. As for why we are treated to, or rather distracted by, film clips of our valiant director’s assistant – I was wrong in Das Rheingold; he does not survived quite until the end – chopping food at a kebab stall, and eventually splicing open his hand in especially gruesome fashion… (At least we were spared a return to Miss Fortune.)


Insofar as I can glean another theme, it is perhaps that of the power of visual, or rather filmed, media. It certainly comes, whether intentionally or not, quite to overpower Wagner’s drama, even if that were misleadingly understood simply to refer to his poem, let alone his music. Problematising that state of affairs seems to me again potentially a good idea, but if that happens, and I am genuinely not sure whether it does, it is occasional and sporadic. For the most part, Castorf – ironically, for a man of the theatre – seems to accept, or at least to present, quite uncritically the all-too-fashionable assumption prevalent at all levels of society of film’s superiority. And so, decontextualized references to film appear: a good example would be the second-act sudden appearance, pushed down the stairs by Castorf’s assistant, of a pram filled with potatoes. Yet, unless one knows that to be a reference to Eisenstein, it adds nothing at all; if the truth be told, it does not add a great deal even so. And why should one, particularly? It would doubtless be ‘elitist’ – or something – to presume knowledge of Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Aeschylus, let alone Schoenberg or Furtwängler; but film, for some reason, is considered necessary. If so, let us question that, as we should if it were any other medium. I am not at all sure that Castorf, whatever his intentions, does. Instead, he seems often to denigrate a form – opera, music drama, call it what we will – on which he is not necessarily in a strong position to comment. (Surely the undertow of much of Die Walküre and Siegfried is, chez Castorf: how on earth could you take this rubbish seriously? Well, to be able to say that, you probably ought to have tried to take it seriously in the first place.)   


What more might have been done, within the bounds of what I have read as a twentieth-century-revolutionary interpretation? Above all, this returns us to treating with the work in serious fashion, a sense of who the characters are within this setting? I realise that Castorf might disdain such ‘logical’ concerns, but in order to achieve something that is more than a mess, perhaps he should not. A group of thugs gathered around a kebab van, perhaps at best – or worst – some low-level members of an organised crime network: they are not real, revolutionary agents. Why are we not dealing with those in positions of real authority? The Gibichung court is bigger than that – and that is why its Nietzschean décadence matters. If Gunther, Gutrune, and Hagen are no one in particular, likewise Siegfried and Brünnhilde, then who cares (in this particular respect)? Wagner employed myth for reasons that largely remain sound; that certainly does not preclude specificity in terms of particular staging, but it seems perverse to be attempting something close to a political treatment, albeit an anarchic one in a decidedly non-Bakunin sense, and then not to look seriously at the political, economic, social, and religious nature of the society in which the myth is set. Just when one thinks that the director might, we have some irrelevant, puncturing silliness. Yes, doubtless that is partly ‘the point’, but again, I have to say that if that be so, the point is not a good one. It is a great pity, since here in Götterdämmerung, as in Das Rheingold, there are hints of interesting ideas; would that they were pursued. And above all, just to hammer the point home, would that the music were listened to – even just once or twice. A film of Hagen walking through a forest is not what, at any level, we need to see during Siegfried’s Funeral March. Better an entirely black stage than such irrelevant banality.


Musically, things were better – though, of course, if there is little sense of musical drama, then the music ‘itself’ will be sold short, reduced, as I commented in an earlier review, to the status of a troublesome soundtrack. Kirill Petrenko led the orchestra with considerable verve. I do not have a great deal to add to what I have said about his leadership before. There was not much in the way of metaphysical depth, although I doubt that there could be, given the production. But there was a strong sense of line, considerable ebb and flow, and perhaps above all, a sense of wonder, grandeur, and intimacy born of daring dynamic contrast, insofar as one were not distracted by increasingly ridiculous film footage. There were perhaps a few more orchestral fluffs, especially from the brass, than one might have hoped for, especially in Bayreuth, but these things happen. Choral singing was excellent, once again a great credit to all involved, and to Eberhard Friedrich.


Catherine Foster’s Achilles heel was her poor diction. Yes, those of us who know the text intimately could fill in the gaps, but that is hardly the point; with that logic, we might as well have a blank stage and empty pit. Otherwise, hers was in general a beautifully sung rendition of Brünnhilde. Foster certainly has the gift of making one sympathise, which counts for a great deal. Lance Ryan – well, though there were actually a few moments of decent, even alluring, tone production, most of this shouted performance might have been classified as ‘school of John Treleaven’ (remember him?) If Bayreuth has any sense, it will have enlisted the services of Andreas Schager as soon as possible. Ryan can certainly act, but much of what one heard was straightforwardly painful, perhaps particularly when in concert with others. Of the Gibichungs, Allison Oakes sang well as Gutrune, without making a huge impression; I liked, however, the idea of her initially rejecting Siegfried when she heard Brünnhilde’s accusations. Attila Jun certainly had the blackness of tone for a traditional Hagen, though his portrayal was somewhat generalised when compared with the (admittedly light-toned) likes of Mikhail Petrenko. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester was for me the brightest star in the cast: a Gunther I should happily hear – and see – anywhere. For once, one had a sense, even given Castorf’s production, of the charisma that such a character must have to have survived at all. It is a very difficult balance to present someone who is at heart weak and yet also has the political gifts to survive, even to an extent to thrive, in this decayed world. Words, music, and Wagner’s ‘gesture’ were as one here; frankly, nine out of ten Brünnhildes would have been more likely to choose this Gunther than this Siegfried. Oleg Bryjak made an impressive re-appearance as Alberich, more careful with the words than his son. (Quite why Castorf then had him repeatedly giving an unidentified woman oral sex is another open question.) Claudia Mahnke made a better Waltraute than she had Fricka, but it would be difficult to say that hers was a Valkyrie for the ages. As Second Norn, however, she proved a characterful part of a splendid trio of Erda’s daughters. The Rhinemaidens, called on to do more than one would usually expect here – a car-based orgy with Siegfried and Gunther swiftly became tedious – also proved to be excellent singing-actresses.

And so, I left the Festspielhaus, following prolonged curtain-calls – and, in the case of the production team, prolonged booing, to which Castorf responded with considerable, highly creditable wit – feeling sadness that a staging which, at its best, was not without interesting ideas, had been let down so badly by a director’s apparent lack of interest both in much of the work and in all of the music. Perhaps Castorf needs an editor, though such ‘authority’ would doubtless be rejected. More likely, as I thought at the very beginning, a ‘version’ in which he was free, somewhere other than Bayreuth, to treat with the text, perhaps minus the music, as he wished might have brought something more worthwhile to the table. As it is, and not disregarding its good points, this remains a directorial failure – and, it seems, in many ways a wilful one. To return to Chéreau, he wished, as stated in a programme essay from 1977, ‘that the orchestra pit be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles — the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message.’ Should one, he asked, ‘not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?’ Indeed, but first one has to hear it at all.