Friday 5 August 2016

Wagner - Das Rheingold (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Iain Paterson, Markus Eiche, Tansel Akzeybek, Roberto Saccà, Sarah Connolly, Caroline Wenborne, Nadine Weissmann, Albert Dohmen, Andreas Conrad, Günther Groissböck, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Alexandra Steiner, Stephanie Houtzeel, Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Sky Arts - 26 July 2016

Frank Castorf's controversial production of Bayreuth's current Ring cycle may look far removed from the traditional mythological settings of Wagner's epic, but in reality it's closer to home and to the intent of the work than you might think. At heart, the central theme of the Ring that purity of intentions in relation to politics and power (if there even is such a thing - now there's mythology for you) is often corrupted by the imperfections of what makes us all human comes as a timely reminder of where we are in the world today and how we've got there. I haven't seen any Ring cycle even remotely as relevant and powerful as this in the last few decades.

Although Castorf sets the Ring's opening prelude music-drama Das Rheingold in a motel on Route 66 in the USA (and subsequent parts are equally global in their locations), a German or European audience would easily recognise the parallels it has to much that has taken place recently in Germany and in Europe in relation to power and politics. It wouldn't happen until long after his death, but Wagner's vision of the fall of the gods and the flawed human forces that replace them would be borne out by later historical developments. Without making any direct reference to a period that is loaded with controversy, Castorf makes a daring parallel that extends the purity of Wagner's idealised dream of a united nation into the corruption of those ideals by Hitler. It's almost as if Wagner could see it coming.

So uncomfortably close to home is that subject that Castorf is forced to bury it in layers, but rather than obscure the intentions of the Ring, the layers instead build upon it and prove its validity. It might be hidden behind a parody of the corruption of the American Dream in Das Rheingold, but such is the strength of Wagner's framework and vision that a German audience might recognise a similar dream closer to home in the reunification of East and West Germany or in the dream of closer European union. Regardless of whichever level you relate to it, Castorf's production is one that cuts through the mythological trappings and makes the subject of power and corruption, gods and humans really meaningful and relevant in a way that hasn't been seen since Patrice Chéreau's production at Bayreuth 40 years ago.

For all the lengthy expounding over 18 hours or so of the Ring cycle, the questions of purity of motive and intention (whether socialist or capitalist) being quickly subverted for the love of power and money is established fairly quickly in Das Rheingold (to such an extent that I've always felt that there are limited returns from the lengthier subsequent works - but maybe that's just me). A small man fed up of toiling in an underground cavern, the dwarf Alberich here wakes up in this production on a sunbed at a motel and is unable to resist the lure of the glamorous Hollywood starlet Rhinemaidens relaxing by the pool. He soon abandons any hope that the rich bathing beauties might slum it with him and instead decides that he can do much more with the vast quantities of gold they possess. Off he runs with it, hoping to turn it into a product that will benefit the workers only to become someone who later exploits them, corrupted by the power of wealth and promise of influence.

Meanwhile, the god Wotan and his wife Fricka (enjoying a threesome with Fricka's sister Freia) are in temporary accommodation at the motel while the builders are in. His dream is about to be realised (a grand statement that testifies to his dream of a making a nation great again through reunification). He's so busy admiring the view of his creation from his hotel room that he has forgotten that it needs to be paid for, and the Giants have arrived as heavies presenting the bill. The threats of the purity of his family being corrupted (Freia) by these thuggish foreigners he has used as cheap labour is more than he can bear. Having been told by Loge of the vast quantities of Rhinegold stolen by Alberich, he's prepared to exploit the Dwarf's weaknesses and appropriate those riches for the greater good (himself). Loge takes pleasure in playing with his lighter to ignite those flames and it's done significantly in the proximity of a petrol station.

Further backed into a corner over how he rules, the 'human' failings, the personal and domestic problems of this god/politician/leader/artist/ industrialist/genius composer all too soon unravel any noble intentions he might once have had. The supposed infallible omnipotence of the gods is coming to an end as all giants - gods or human - are inevitably destroyed by the corruption of office, the trappings of power, the lure of money or just indulgence of personal lusts and drives. Wagner's Ring however is more than just an allegory and has many other elements to highlight and explore - love, honour, family - but even within itself it can be seen to be an equally flawed creation (its composer too) with its inflated self-importance. All of this however reflects the inherent problem in man's ambition to assume power for a personal ideology.

Castorf's production not only deals with those larger themes in an elaborately constructed revolving motel/poolside/petrol station forecourt designed by Aleksandar Denić - one that touches on some big American themes - but it is sensitive to the complexities of Das Rheingold and the Ring, using cameras and screens and other familiar imagery ingeniously to explore and illustrate the text, subtext and nuances of a work that is too often overlooked in favour of Die Walküre. Castorf shows (or convinces me anyway) that Das Rheingold is the key work in the cycle, one that establishes the tone to be followed, one whose roots and leitmotifs will go on to be developed later in other ingenious ways - but the whole heft of the work is already contained in this opening masterpiece. All too often smothered in mythological trappings and the ambition of conductors and directors as a work more concerned with gods than mortals, rarely has the richness of all the qualities of Das Rheingold and its meanings been so openly exposed and laid bare. This is just brilliant.

Its ambitions are matched by the quality of the musical performance under Marek Janowski. It establishes a tone and detail that allows Frank Castorf to make full use of the rich cast of characters, singers and actors who go some way towards bringing Wagner's masterpiece to life and endowing it with personality. I wasn't totally convinced that Iain Paterson has the personality to carry Wotan but he does however create a great double act with Roberto Saccà's brightly lyrical Loge. Sarah Connolly sang well although Fricka seemed to get lost a little in all the goings-on. She should assert herself more convincingly later. Elsewhere all the roles were wonderfully entertaining and fascinating in their characterisation, notably Albert Dohmen's Alberich, Günther Groissböck and Karl-Heinz Lehner's Giants and Markus Eiche's Donner, but even down to the Rhinemaidens all these wonderful creations just breathed life and exuberance and this Bayreuth Das Rheingold was consequently one of rivetting drama full of meaningful portent. 

Links: Bayreuth Festival