“Come here, here, crafty dwarf! You shall be pitilessly pinched by me if you haven’t, on time, finished making what I ordered, the fine-wrought gold,” the Niebelung Alberich is singing. His brother Mime (pronounced “Mima”) responds “Oh! Oh! Ow! Ow! Let me go! It’s ready.” Alberich grabs the object in question, a helmet, and puts it on—or says he does. “The helmet fits my head; Will the spell work too? ‘Night and mist, like to no one!’ Can you see me, brother?” Mime: “Where are you? I cannot see you.” “Then feel me, you idle rascal! Take that for your thieving thoughts!” And the musical notes indicating that Alberich is hitting Mime begin anew.Except no one is hitting anyone; Alberich isn’t wearing anything new on his head, much less hiding or invisible; in fact, nothing has happened at all during this dialogue. Rather, the two of them are tied to lampposts outside of the “Golden Motel,” a tacky Texas establishment on Route 66 with some gas pumps and a prostitute-ridden pool that started out with a Confederate flag in front and now has the gay pride flag waving. Nearby, Wotan and Loge (better known in English as Odin and Loki), nominally the Norse king of the gods and the god of fire, respectively, but for this production dressed as a redneck gangster and an Italian-American mobster, loiter menacingly. They already have Alberich and Mime in their custody, which is going to make the extended scene that’s coming up, in which they capture them, particularly awkward to watch.The text of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and the action of the production in front of me, in other words, have become completely divorced. And between that fact, the visual oddities of the set and costuming (including a videocamera projecting to a jumbotron above the set that spends a lot of time on the seedy motel owner, who has no name and no music), and the vaguely dystopian, not particularly well thought-out view of modern America that characterizes the whole production, this is basically a self-parody of the contemporary European arts scene as most Americans understand it.I’m at the Bayreuth Festival, the world-famous annual celebration of the works of Richard Wagner. The composer founded the festival himself in 1876 to perform his massive, four-part epic The Ring of the Niebelungs (usually referred to as the “Ring Cycle”; Rheingold is the first of the four) and his other works in an opera house designed to his own exacting specifications. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that by carefully monitoring Bayreuth you could see many of the most important trends in German politics and culture from the Festival’s inception to the present coming—the mutation of German nationalism into something more aggressive before World War I, the rise of the Nazis after it, and the postwar attempts to find a place in the West but also maintain an identity independent from U.S. influence.This particular production, which premiered in 2013, is trashy and incoherent. In fact, bashing the ‘Castorf Ring’ (after director Frank Castorf) has almost become a cottage industry for critics. It’s also one audience members indulge in: understandably, since the Wagner faithful won’t have a new Ring at Bayreuth until 2020. (Given the colossal expense of producing a new Ring cycle—that is, four operas with a combined length more than 15 hours—new productions have to be spaced out.) Catsdorf received ten straight minutes of booing at the end of its premiere, and while this week people seem more inclined to cheer the soloists and the orchestra, there’s no sign the production has been growing on anyone. (No Catsdorf sightings yet at curtain calls, but I’ll let you know at the end of the cycle.) It seems to be a step too far even for the Europeans who flock to a festival which for decades has been putting on avante-garde performances.The audience has something to boo about; Catsdorf’s production is every bit as bad as its reputation. The Albrecht and Mime scene stands out as the moment when I realized that the director had no intention of making his “vision” match up with the text, or even making it internally coherent. There were countless others—Catsdorf’s American setting for Rheingold is an incomprehensible jumble of stereotypes and mixed metaphors from TV and the movies. Rheingold is the story of how Wotan builds and then pays for Valhalla, the mythical palace of the gods, but at the end of this production, no Valhalla appeared, raising the question of what all this had been about to begin with. Every reviewer that kicked this should kick it again.So Catsdorf’s production is both incoherent and odd. But what’s really interesting is why? Why does something this bizarre get showcased at a festival that has been at the cultural center of the German establishment since the 1870s? More broadly, why is the modern European arts scene so—for want of a better word—weird? Why is it so abstruse, so political in ways that are drearily predictable, so removed from any serious engagement with composers like Wagner were thinking? This sort of production drives European conservatives almost as nuts as it drives Americans, and it leads fairly frequently to disasters (Bayreuth had to cut the run of its last Tannhäuser short because it was even less well received than this Ring; suffice to say it ended with the heroine being thrown into a biomass furnace). So why keep doing it? What gives?It turns out, large part of the answer lies right here where I’m sitting, in Bayreuth.Wagner came up with the idea for the Bayreuth Festival at nearly the same time he conceived of the Ring cycle. If he was going to be able to produce such a colossal undertaking properly, he felt he would have to control every aspect of production, and to change significant aspects of how people attended the opera. Because Wagner wanted his audience not to socialize but to pay attention, they would be seated not in sumptuous boxes, but in an austere classical arena (the first pure proscenium theater since the Romans, according to historian Frederic Spotts) designed for its auditory and visual qualities. Many aspects of the theater, the idea of the festival itself, and even its fundraising scheme were revolutionary for its time (though Bavaria’s “Mad King” Ludwig II eventually had to step in and underwrite the latter, in the old-fashioned role of princely patron). Bayreuth was the focal point of the last period of Wagner’s life, and he maintained control until the end.After his death the Festival passed to his widow, then to his son, and then to his son’s widow, Winifred Wagner. Winifred, despite being English-born, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler; it was she who sent him, while he was in prison in the 1920s, the sheets of paper on which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Hitler for his part was a Wagner fanatic; he had been since he was a young man, and he credited the contrast between seeing a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and passing some “yammering Jews” on the way home as an important milestone in his anti-Semitism. (Whether that’s true or not, well…) Hitler’s association of Wagner and anti-Semitism was not exactly a coincidence: Wagner himself had written virulent anti-Semitic pamphlets and incorporated anti-Semitic stereotypes into his operas.But anti-Semitism is merely the most visible, and arguably not even the most important, link that Hitler perceived between himself and the great composer. Hitler the thwarted painter had also dreamed of being a Wagner set designer, and after he became Chancellor, he tried to treat the Third Reich as his own personal Gesamtkunstwerk—Wagner’s ideal of a fully integrated work of art that proves all-consuming to its audience. From the Nuremberg rallies to Speer’s building plans to Hitler’s attempt to choreograph the collapse of the Third Reich into apocalyptic spectacle, Hitler brought a Wagnerian sensibility to his terrible reign. And so he associated himself with both the Wagner family and the Festival. Attending each one from 1933–39, he stayed with the Wagner family at Haus Wahnfried. (And he forced thousands of bored soldiers and party functionaries to sit through endless productions of Wagner operas, particularly Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.) Infamous decrees such as the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) directive even took their names from Wagner’s work—in this case, from the invisibility incantation recited by Alberich, quoted at the beginning of this essay.Wagner died decades before Hitler came to power, and we cannot know whether he would have seen Hitler as the fulfillment of his vision or as a sick parody of it. Nevertheless, after the war and after the Holocaust, the association between the Third Reich and the Wagnerian sensibility posed deep questions about the future of the Bayreuth festival and more generally about the place of Wagner’s music in German culture. A denazification court banned Winifred (who never repented) from having anything to do with the Festival, and for six years after the end of World War Two, the theater at Bayreuth remained dark. But Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, made it his mission to rescue it—and his grandfather’s memory—from the Nazis.Aside from Wieland’s personal interest in rehabilitating his grandfather and reopening the family festival at Bayreuth, the question of how to deal with Wagner’s legacy was a vital one for Germany in the aftermath of the war. Wagner’s genius wasn’t just for pretty melodies; his works had, on the one hand, a universality that would make them irreplaceable in the Western canon and, on the other, an importance to the German language and nation that simply could not be swept under the rug. The same is true for music: It’s impossible to understand anything since Wagner without Wagner. (Among other things, he’s the father of every film score you’ve ever heard.) But Wagner’s famous, barely concealed anti-Semitism—which plays a central role in several of the operas—is only the most visible of a series of features of his work that are problematic yet too deeply embedded to be removed: the overt German nationalism, the over-the-top romanticism, And critics and lovers of Wagner alike have agreed since his first success that his music has an almost supernatural ability to completely grab control of the listener’s emotions. How could any of this be trusted? And how could the Wagner family in particular be trusted to present it?The debate over Wagner still rages; in Israel with only a few exceptions an unofficial ban on performing Wagner has been observed since the state was founded. Wagner’s legacy is a problem for anyone who wants to produce his work; it was especially difficult for his grandson to revive the Wagner festival in post-war West Germany. Wieland had a couple of options. George Bernard Shaw had demonstrated in 1898 that a coherent socialist reading of The Ring was possible—but, as the Cold War deepened, the socialist card didn’t seem like the right one to play. There are several other aspects of the epic—for example, the conflict between men and women—that could have been brought out through productions with traditional settings and costumes, but changed emphases. In the end, the approach Wieland chose was more radical. His first productions stripped out all of the traditional costumes, settings, and so forth of each opera: The Ring was performed on a white disk, Parsifal in front of what appeared to be a spider web. Then in later productions, Wieland rebuilt the world of each opera, adding new concepts as he went. These productions were almost always grounded in unexplored aspects of Wagner’s thought: for instance, Wieland discovered that Wagner had been reading Aeschylus when writing Lohengrin, and so recast that opera as a Greek drama complete with a static commenting chorus. But his decisions as director were clearly paramount and overrode, if necessary, the letter or intentions of the composer’s text, from lyrics to Wagner’s very detailed stage directions. The age of Regietheater—the so-called “director’s theater”—had begun; Wieland was, while not its only father, one of its most important ones. It would come in time to be an umbrella term of abuse for everything traditionalists hate about modern European theater.And yet, Wieland’s work can be defended, even praised. Written accounts make it clear that he had excellent aesthetic taste, albeit that of a high modernist, and that he had gone through great lengths to research Wagner’s thinking in each opera and to think through fully the implications of his changes. (Another example: he reimagined the Ring as a critique of Nazism in a way that remained internally coherent, with Wotan’s will to power leading to sin after sin, culminating in his immolation in Valhalla and the destruction of the world.) By opening the door to new interpretations of Wagner’s music dramas, Wieland put the family’s and the festival’s stamp of approval on new ways of understanding Wagner as a universal figure with global significance.Nevertheless, the path from his decision and where we are now is clear; once the way was clear to subordinate the meaning of Wagner’s words and text to the director’s imagination, directors with less taste and less thought than Wieland Wagner (much less than Richard) were licensed to do the same thing themselves. As the Cold War cooled, reinjecting socialist and even Communist readings into Bayreuth became more acceptable, and new directors increasingly brought left-wing politics into the mix. And in a process that has had parallels elsewhere in the arts world, shocking traditionalists became a sign of progressive thought. But as the ‘shockers’ were accepted and even hailed by an influential segment of the elite, each new director had to reach for more hamfisted ways to produce shock. Public disapproval became almost a badge of achievement. Castorf reportedly reveled in his boos.So given that I knew that that Castorf’s production was likely to be bad (when the Guardian and the New York Times are grousing about a work’s incoherence, well…), why did I come? Why did I stay? Partly out of a desire to understand what’s going on in an arts world whose Castorfs seem to get commission after commission, year after year, never mind the boos. Partly out of a desire to see for myself a festival I’d heard about since I started to study music. But mostly because sitting in row 25, seat 27, I’m more or less exactly at the acoustical center of a theater built by a genius and filled by the best Wagner performers alive. The sounds of the winds blend effortlessly and the tones of the performers soar over them and drop into them so that expressing oneself in Wagnerian song seems perfectly natural, rather than one of the hardest things to do well on earth. Iain Patterson, who sang Wotan, Günther Groissböck and Karl-Heinz Lehner, the deep basses who sang the giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner, Albert Dohman (Alberich), Roberto Sacca (Loge), Nadine Weissmann (Erda)—there isn’t a singer here who wouldn’t be the stand-out performer in a production of Wagner anywhere else in the world, and the orchestra under Marek Janowski is literally pitch-perfect.Unfortunately, I can’t detach the part of my brain that enjoys all that from the part that’s processing what’s in front of my eyes. And I suspect Richard Wagner—and probably even Wieland—wouldn’t want me to.
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Published on: August 9, 2016
Bayreuth JournalFools’ Gold
A “trashy and incoherent” Ring Cycle provides insight into why Americans find the European arts scene so often bizarre.