Friday, 12 August 2016

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Markus Eiche, Albert Dohmen, Albert Pesendorfer, Catherine Foster, Allison Oakes, Marina Prudenskaya, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel, Christiane Kohl, Alexandra Steiner

Sky Arts - 31 July 2016

You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination ever call Götterdämmerung anti-climatic. As the final part of one of the most ambitious works of opera ever written Götterdämmerung is nothing but climatic on an epic scale, but it can still often feel like a bit of a chore to sit through after the long haul of Siegfried. As controversial and divisive as Frank Castorf's Bayreuth Ring production has been, the prospect of this Götterdämmerung however is an intriguing one. If the finale of Siegfried is anything to go by, you know it certainly won't be climatic in the conventional sense, but it's certain to have many more surprises and insights into the Ring as a whole.

And sure enough, straight from the first scene, the three Norn maidens are not terribly mystical agents of time and wisdom, but Macbeth-like witches dressed like bag-ladies. Back in what seems to be Castorf's East Germany, the Norn ladies cast spells and spin visions at the back lot of a tenement block, just around the corner from Hagen's Gibichung-managed kebab emporium. It's wonderfully sinister and atmospheric at the same time however, as it perhaps can't help but be with Wagner's writing at its most ingenuous and musically creative. Bringing the gods down to earth - established in Das Rheingold as much as in Die Walküre - is again to the fore in Götterdämmerung, as of course is the famous climax that we are heading towards.

It's in this down-to-earth place that we also find Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Traditionally legends perched on a rock surrounded by fire, they are depicted here sitting on a bench outside a mobile home like an ordinary couple. And as far as love, jealousy and betrayal are concerned, they are an ordinary couple, much like Wotan and Fricka in Die Walküre, with the same balance of power, authority and propensity towards infidelity. If they have extraordinary powers of Wagnerian proportions, it's the Tristan und Isolde-like power of love that makes this pair giants. There's no need for mythologising as far as the production is concerned. The audience need to be fully cognisant of the realities involved and danger that can be caused by ordinary people wielding extraordinary power - particularly the power of love - and the kind of devastating damage they are capable of inflicting upon others.

The characterisation of Siegfried established in the previous evening's opera is carried through to its natural conclusion in this regard in this Götterdämmerung. He's still new to these emotions, he's somewhat undeveloped because of his sheltered upbringing, and doesn't have real experience of the world or women. As he demonstrated in Siegfried though with the reforging of Nothung however, he's a fast learner. How many politicians in the world today, people with power 'out of touch with the electorate' display the same characteristics? If there's any one message to take away from Castorf's specific reading of the Ring, it's this; beware of those on whom we confer power believing them to be better than ourselves and capable of wisely exercising such power on our behalf - they are mortal and as prone to human weakness and failings as you or I.

Brünnhilde's outlook is no more mature than Siegfried's in this new relationship. A scene as simple as the disgraced Valkyrie waving the Ring under the nose of her sister Waltraute to make her jealous is amusing, but it ties into the deeper forces that are in action and in conflict with one another. This "pledge of love", this little piece of bling, is her slice of power and to her it is worth "more than the heaven of Valhalla, more than the glory of the gods". All of us will pay the price for such delusions and displays of pride, and by setting this scene to Waltraute's warnings of the approaching crisis, Wagner highlights them all the more forcefully.

As does the director in his management of this and other such scenes and confrontations. True to form, the conclusion indeed fails to 'ignite' in a familiar fashion as Castorf prefers to keep things 'real-world', throwing out more references to oil (the black gold), to East Germany and to the New York Stock Exchange without making any attempt to join it all up in a bombastic or overly simplistic message. To be honest however, while Castorf fully explores Götterdämmerung as much as the other parts of the Ring and presents those ideas in a fashion that is much more fun and diverting than most other representations, a large part of the success of this work, for the still extraordinary force of the conclusion and for the success of the entire production as a whole, has much to do with the quality of the musical and the singing performances.

It was interesting to hear Marek Janowski speaking before the Sky Arts broadcast of the performance and admitting that he pays absolutely no attention to the stage direction. You would think that ideally a successful production of the Ring would need those two elements working hand in hand, but Janowski's own sense of dramaturgy in the music is just fabulous and speaks for itself. The fact that Casforf has a strong sense of dramaturgy too is a bonus, and even if the two views might not coincide, both in their own way connect with the essence of Wagner's intentions. This Götterdämmerung is consequently one heck of a ride.

The singing also holds up to the extreme challenges of the final installment of the Ring cycle. We don't have John Lundgren's superb Wotan as a firm foundation in this work, and Stefan Vinke's Siegfried is perhaps not as big a personality or a voice to replace him, but the tenor manages well nonetheless in a work that has slain many lesser Siegfrieds. Catherine Foster however remains a dramatic and strongly characterised Brünnhilde, one with real personality and tenderness, who remains sympathetic through the dark machinations of the Hagen-plotted Gibichung drama. Her delivery of the final scene, in conjunction with Janowski's conducting and Castorf's direction, is extraordinarily good and intensely moving. Marina Prudenskaya also puts in an intense and touching performance as Waltraude as does Marcus Eiche in a surprisingly sensitive Gunther, but there are no weaknesses in any of the roles here.

Regardless of what you feel about Frank Castorf's production of the Bayreuth Ring, it's one that likely won't be forgotten soon. I would go further and say that it's one that I'm sure will set a new benchmark standard that subsequent cycles will find hard to match. Aside from the sheer spectacle of the sets and the fine musical and singing performances, there is a deep exploration of the work here that applies many of its principal themes to relevant contemporary issues and concerns. A more minimal or 'straight' version that isn't able to offer as thorough an exploration/dissection/deconstruction of the work and doesn't continue to inventively apply its real-world message to the rapidly changing circumstances of our world today will undoubtedly find this a hard act to follow.