Richard Wagner - Siegfried
Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Andreas Conrad, John Lundgren, Albert Dohmen, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Nadine Weissmann, Catherine Foster, Ana Durlovski
Sky Arts - 29 July 2016
If there was ever any question around the political content of Frank Castorf's Ring Cycle in the first two evening's works at Bayreuth, the nature of the beast is firmly established as soon as the curtain is drawn back on Aleksandar Denić's extraordinary set design for Siegfried. Mime - the dwarf exploited and disenfranchised by their actions of the gods - is working from his travelling van portable workshop forge that is currently located beneath a Mount Rushmore of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, a panorama of Socialist/Communist deities who also once had great ideals that proved to be somewhat more flawed in practice.
It's a big, impressive image that hits home as far as the production's overarching theme goes, but it's also an astute observation that updates and proves the validity of the subject that Wagner was really writing about when creating this mythology. (Wagner's head wouldn't be out of place up there either). Just so your focus doesn't stray and let the mythology get in the way of the message however, the young Siegfried's hobby seems not to be so much chasing and catching bears as rounding up socialist intellectuals who read books, fawn over their great leaders and try to keep them on the right path. As for Fafner, well, seen parading around the Alexanderplatz U-bahn flipside of the rotating set with glamorous ladies with shopping bags, obviously he's the great dragon of capitalism that needs to be slain.
Lest you think this is a bit of a stretch and an imposition on Wagner's creation mythology, the well-translated subtitles - much more idiomatic than usual translations of Wagner's archaic use of language - help make those real world concerns a little clearer. When the Wanderer is asked by Mime which race dwells below the Earth, the Niebelungen's relationship with "black Alberich" is described as one where the "magic ring's masterful might" has "subjugated the slaving mass to him". In every respect, in imagery large and detail small however, Castorf's production doesn't just recap on what has already been established in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre or even just follow through, but it seeks to find new ways to extend the themes that are important to the meaning of the work.
It might have been sufficient - in a rare moment of fidelity that is all too rare even in other modern Ring cycles - to depict Notung as an actual sword in the Azerbaijan setting for Die Walküre, but in the socialist revolution of Communist Mount Rushmore and the Berlin Alexanderplatz of East Germany, nothing but a Kalashnikov Notung will do (although Siegfried does alternate between the symbolic and the literal here) to slay the dragon of capitalism. That's powerful imagery, and a powerful political statement to associate with Wagner's Ring but it is wholly in keeping with Wagner's own political outlook and in keeping with the higher and thus necessarily mythological worldview of the Ring. Castorf's production allows the application of the mythology to be simply applied to contemporary and real-world matters.
Or perhaps it's not so simple. The Ring and Wagner's own personal ideologies are far more complex than that, particularly when you add on references from subsequent historical periods, and Castorf's production consequently has many other obscure references and bizarre details. The forest songbird, for example, has an important part to play here, but her role is difficult to define, as is the 'bear' that appears every now and again (and in different guises throughout the whole cycle). Nascent humanity perhaps, yet to evolve, learning from the (flawed) ways of the gods. The depiction of Erda as a prostitute is strange and certainly controversial, but the characterisation, observation and humour applied to this scene - a drunken Wanderer makes a sentimental late-night call to an old flame - makes it outrageously funny and humanising.
It might be a welcome injection of lightness into what is too often heavy-going for some, but for others it's clearly not what they expect from Siegfried. Castorf deflating of the glorious union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde by having crocodiles invade the stage and get involved in all kinds of antics is clearly not in the spirit of this opera's epic conclusion. There is however reason to be sceptical of it considering how that noble union subsequently falls into decline in Götterdämmerung, but Castorf is keen to emphasise in Siegfried that the flaws in the hero's character are already there. This Siegfried is a little dumb, wild and impetuous. He's not a person who you want to entrust with saving the world, but inevitably it's only a fearless person who would take on such a task, blissfully unaware of the enormity of the undertaking until it all goes badly wrong. America, take note.
That might be the reality, but it's not what many of the Bayreuth audience want to see and their apparent tolerance for Castorf's interpretations seem to have reached their limit in Siegfried, to judge by the audible loud booing that accompanies the ending. Castorf's interpretation however is vindicated or at least well supported by the performances and the singing. Catherine Foster and John Lundgren reprise their Brünnhilde and Wotan/Wanderer roles impressively, Lundgren in particular more reflective and repentant but still formidable in Wotan's earthbound incarnation. Stefan Vinke has a good balance of the lyrical and heroic tenor for Siegfried and is sure of voice here. Ana Durlovski impresses as the songbird, but every single role - from Andreas Conrad's Mime, Albert Dohmen's Alberich, Karl-Heinz Lehner's Fafner and Nadine Weissmann's Erda - are all an absolute delight to listen to and see performing. Unless, of course, you came to Bayreuth expecting something else in Siegfried.
Links: Bayreuth Festival