In the beginning was the sound. I had expected to be overwhelmed by the E-flat major chords before the curtain goes up on Das Rheingold, with the orchestra's lower strings rising out of the darkness to suggest the depths of the Rhine River. This comes in the opening of Wagner's first installment in his four-opera, 16-hour cycle The Ring of the Nibelung.
I had been imagining the moment for months and here it finally was, in the hallowed Festspielhaus, or festival theater, that Wagner had designed and built atop Bayreuth's bucolic Green Hill for the performance of his own works, and especially the Ring cycle.
Strangely, though, the impact of Rheingold's prelude was less emotional than I had expected, probably because the whole experience of being at the Wagner festival for the first time was so bedazzling that I wasn't quite prepared to take in the music fully. For one thing, the interior of the Festspielhaus was surprisingly imposing but at the same time intimate, with steeply raked seating that looks down on a vast proscenium and stage amid Corinthian columns and lighting globes. The blue, brown and yellow ceiling resembled a decorative awning over the always sold-out crowd of 1,925.
My acoustic epiphany actually came the next day when conductor Kirill Petrenko led the stormy prelude to the cycle's second opera, Die Walküre. The music seemed to be somehow coming from within the very structure of the theater, as indeed it was, in a sense, as conductor and orchestra were not visible, playing from the famous covered, sunken pit. Never have I heard cellos and basses so clearly, the notes vivid but layered within the orchestral texture.
This past summer was a big deal at Bayreuth, the Bavarian town that has been an opera mecca since the first festival in 1876. Not only was it the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, but there was a new Ring. I attended the third and final cycle in August. The production was staged by Frank Castorf, an avant-garde director from Berlin. Done in the style of Regietheater — so-called director's theater in which anything goes — it was a wild and woolly affair that left a lot of the audience unhappy.
In Rheingold, Wotan and the other gods gathered at the seedy Golden Motel on Route 66 in Texas. The three Rhinemaidens were floozies lounging around the pool. The dwarf Alberich roused himself from beneath a blanket to steal the gold. From there the cycle ranged from an oil derrick, to a Mount Rushmore on which Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao replaced the U.S. presidents, to the New York Stock Exchange.
Castorf used oil instead of gold as the metaphor for lust for power and money, which is not a bad idea. But after placing Rheingold in the Texas oil patch and Walküre in a Russian version of the oil-boom movie There Will Be Blood, his theme ran out of gas. It showed up only intermittently through the rest of the cycle, such as a scene in the third opera, Siegfried, in which an actor playing a bear had his face covered with crude.
According to an assistant director, Castorf's aim was to "trivialize" the operas. Fair enough. A concept that brings the gods down to earth and portrays them as ordinary, flawed people is not new. But the production seemed to go out of its way to vulgarize the characters. Alberich verged on the pornographic as he pranced by the pool in a Speedo and cowboy boots, waving a sausage and squirting mustard all over himself. Erda, the earth mother of the music drama, appeared as a blond-wigged prostitute and performed oral sex on the Wanderer/Wotan in a cafe. Siegfried gunned down the giant Fafner with an assault rifle. The Rhinemaidens tossed the ring into a fire in a trash can.
Each opera featured a great deal of video, much of it filmed live onstage, and the acting in closeups made me cringe, such as the Valkyries' mugging for the camera. Often projected on sheets dropped over the set, the video (designed by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull) was distracting, and no doubt I missed things. I got the homage to Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, but as for that footage about a woman with a cake, well, it lost me. The cardinal sin of an opera director is to put visuals before music, and too often that was the case here.
Despite the problems, I found Castorf's Ring to be bracingly true to life in a sleazy sort of way. Siegfried can be a long slog, but this time it was enthralling, in part because of Aleksandar Denic's brilliant set, revolving between the Communist Mount Rushmore and the Alexanderplatz train station in Berlin. Lance Ryan, the tenor who sang Siegfried, lacked the vocal heft that is ideal for the taxing role, but he was energetic and paced himself well. Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde was too recessive for my taste, but her lyrical soprano rose to the challenge in a soaring performance of the immolation scene in the cycle's finale, Götterdämmerung.
As Wotan, baritone Wolfgang Koch was riveting in his big scene in Walküre when the gods' CEO tells Brünnhilde the story of the ring. Martin Winkler had a good time with Alberich's antics. Anja Kampe, the soprano playing Sieglinde, had all the high notes in her scenes with Siegmund, sung by the reliable but not very exciting tenor Johan Botha. Attila Jun, sporting a Mohawk as Hagen, is the villain, and his gruff solo in a candle-lit stairwell was a highlight. At the end a video showed him floating away in a rubber raft on the floodwaters of the Rhine.
Trying to figure out Bayreuth's new Ring was fun, but what I will remember most fondly from my time there was the immersion in Wagner, seeing the cycle plus Lohengrin over six days. Because there are no supertitles at the Festspielhaus to translate the German into English, I spent part of each day reading the libretto of the work to be performed so I could refresh my understanding of the story. Except for Rheingold, which has no intermission, the operas got under way at 4 p.m., which allows for their length plus hourlong breaks between the acts when audience members stroll the grounds and have bratwurst and beer.
I rented a room in a house on the outskirts of town, and well before the opening curtain, I set out on the 20-minute walk to the festival, which took me on to Hagenstrasse — one of many streets in Bayreuth named from Wagner operas. I'll never forget the first time I saw the Festspielhaus off in the distance, perched on its hill, a colossal wood and brick structure that I came to think of as the opera factory.
John Fleming is the former performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.