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Music

Bayreuth Diary: a scenic Siegfried

Stage director Frank Castorf is always good for a surprise, says Rick Fulker after "Siegfried" in Wagner's "Ring" cycle. Following Route 66 and Azerbaijan, it's off to the communist Eastern Bloc in "Siegfried."

Seldom have I felt so manipulated. While Siegfried and Brünnhilde rhapsodize in Act Three of "Siegfried" in one of the most profound love scenes ever set to music, a woman (The Forest Bird, who 'd already taken Siegfried's virginity in Act Two) is swallowed by an alligator (pretty good stage trick). Earlier, two alligators copulated. What's this reptile thing got to do with the "Ring" saga, or even director Frank Castorf's announced agenda about telling the story in the context of the history of oil exploitation?

It seems so random. Rewind to the beginning of the act. While the prelude unfurls its thunder, the Earth Mother Erda is to be seen on a big screen applying lipstick backstage and choosing a wig and fur stole. But unlike the alligator episode, that didn't bother me in the least. It was the same euphoria I usually get with a fresh injection of the (habit-forming) Wagner drug. Maybe an even purer fix this time.

Mirella Hagen as the Forest Bird in Siegfried
Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Soon to be devoured: Mirella Hagen (r) as the Forest Bird in "Siegfried"

A welcome downpour

Usually that big Wagner music is set to accordingly big or tragic scenery and action. Director Frank Castorf seems to be saying: if the music is so strong, does it need to be obediently underlined by the mise-en-scene? I agree: it's not a zero-sum game. Discordant scene and action can enhance, potentiate or foil the music. Depending on the situation, maybe even on your energy level.

On the subject of energy level: after the hot first two days here, never have I been more grateful for a cloudy one. Friendly personnel guided me to the final remaining square centimeters of the parking lot up the hill from the Festspielhaus. The subsequent downpour meant I didn't have to execute Plan A this time: a Superman-swift clothes change in the restroom and subsequent outdoor footbath in shorts. Where, praytell, is that footbath? You won't hear it from me.

At the hotel breakfast this morning, only "normal" regional guests. The festival crowd departed after premiere day. I stay in a quiet village outside Bayreuth. At my table in a restaurant yesterday, I struck up a conversation. You quickly get the sense that the vast majority of Bayreuth residents are apathetic to their festival or even resent it slightly. They say that the municipal government pours its resources into sprucing up the city for the season but otherwise ignores its citizens.

Stormy inside

Frank Castorf loves to foil expectations. After setting "The Rhine Gold" as a lusty comedy, "The Valkyrie" was a yawn dramatically. Now, with "Siegfried," he vacillates between delighting and infuriating. Just when you think you've got him figured out, the long-serving director of Berlin's Volksbühne theater does something else to confound. Wager a guess that in the next four years of the Castorf "Ring" in Bayreuth, he'll devise different antics. Maybe something diametrically opposed to what we're seeing in 2013. Rats instead of alligators? Nope, wait - that gimmick has already been used in Hans Neuenfels' staging of "Lohengrin."

The faces of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao presented in Mount Rushmore style on stage in Bayreuth
Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao get the Mount Rushmore treatment in Castorf's production

For his efforts, Frank Castorf yielded equal amounts of boos and bravos in well over average decibel levels. What moves and fascinates is the powerful imagery: Mount Rushmore, but with the heads of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. The breathtaking scene loses none of its suggestive power over the four-plus hours of the music drama. It's girded by staircases on which the protagonists can position themselves. And they do, sometimes singing with a bird's eye view. At stage front there's a tinny camping trailer, where Mime the dwarf lives with a cantankerous young Siegfried.

But, as we already know from the first two operas of the tetralogy, it's a rotating stage. On the other side: Berlin's Alexanderplatz, not as we know it today but in the iconic imagery of former East Berlin. However, it's also not faithfully historic but spiced with elements of the here-and-now and the never-seen-before. The stage revolves I don't know how many times over the course of the opera. Say what you want about Castorf's "Siegfried:" boring it is not.

When Siegfried forges the sword in Act One, it's actually sometimes a sword, sometimes a kalashnikov. That's the weapon he uses to slay Mime. The bullets were blanks but the shots were real (wonder whether they blew out Radio Bavaria's microphones for the live broadcast?): I could smell the gunpowder all the way in row 26 at the back. A couple of rows further down, someone had to be helped out of the auditorium, upset or even worse after the ear-splitting machine-gun fire.

Rick Fulker in Bayreuth
Photo: Adelheid Feilcke, DW

DW's Rick Fulker has a warning for the Siegfrieds out there

To set the record straight

In vocal terms, the title character Siegfried is a big disappointment at this point - too much yelling - but I'll reserve final judgment until after "Twilight of the Gods." I know this dates me, but sadly, I've seen so many Siegfrieds come and go. They use their voices up in the number of years you can count on two hands, sometimes on one. Canadian tenor Lance Ryan is still in his early thirties, but I hope that he slows down a bit.

Brünnhillde á la Catherine Foster: her voice has it all - soft expression, titanic volume, beauty and force. She just needs to figure out how to use those things. But she's young.

Biggest bravos for the conductor. And now I realize my mistake. After "The Rhine Gold," I'd found myself wondering whether something had been technically manipulated in the Festspielhaus, somehow affecting its legendary acoustic. Wrong. Russian-born Kirill Petrenko brings out so much power in the orchestra that it can actually sound unnatural. His objective is not to make beautiful music, but music drama. So along with many delicate moments, there are those trumpeting fortissimos that burst the bounds of what we've heard before. And whereas Castorf seems to want to break the "Ring" cycle up into little parts, Petrenko provides the continuity. Hate to repeat myself, but I'm really looking forward to the radio production.

Three down, one to go…

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