Wagner’s Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is known to classical music lovers as the source of “The Ride of the Valkyries” and to Looney Tunes lovers as the source of “Kill the Wabbit.” Sometimes, Frank Castorf’s production of Walküre at Bayreuth on Monday night had me thinking “Kill the Di-wec-tor.” Overall, though, it offered insight into both Castorf’s vision and Wagner’s.By the standards set by the previous night’s performance of Das Rheingold, Castorf’s Valkyrie wins a prize for coherence. The production, helped by tremendous singing and conducting, even managed to be interesting. Castorf’s self-proclaimed theme for the tetralogy is the corrupting power of oil, the modern-day equivalent of the Rhine gold. In Rheingold, the oil theme was hidden; only the presence of a gas station beside the motel hinted at the theme. You were supposed to grasp that America is an empire built on (and hungry for) oil; that assumption relied more on the audience’s memory of a decade-plus of Iraq War teach-ins than anything resembling actual staging, though. Here in Valkyrie, things are easier to follow.Valkyrie opens to the notes of a musical thunderstorm as Siegmund, disarmed and wounded, flees into a hut, where he is given succor by the lady of the house. Her husband comes home—bad news for Siegmund, as it turns out that her husband Hunding is one of the people trying to kill him. When Hunding returns, the laws of hospitality prevent him from doing anything that night, but a duel is set for the morning, whether Siegmund has weapons by then or not. But it’s also bad news for the husband: His wife has taken a shine to the guest. After Mr. Hunding falls into a sleep (helped along by something Mrs. Hunding puts into his glass), the lady of the house and Siegmund have a talk. It turns out that Siegmund’s hostess is his long-lost sister Sieglinde; twin children of the god Wotan, they were separated while young by Hunding’s pillaging band. This being mythic prehistory, they see no reason not to hook up and run away together. Before they go, Sieglinde shows her lover/brother Wotan’s sword, stuck immovably deep in a tree in the center of the house after Wotan visited her on her wedding day. As the son of the god himself, Siegmund is able to do what Hunding never could, and draws it from the tree. He will be armed tomorrow after all.The set, designed by Aleksandar Denić, was key to this production. It was dominated by an enormous wooden structure on a turntable—basically a huge barn with a five-story wooden watchtower at one end, which was accessible by a set of stairs that led via a large wooden deck up to the roof of the barn and thence to the watch tower. For this first act, it was completely undecorated—we’re supposedly in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, but a wooden dwelling in the middle of nowhere could be anywhere in the early history of the world. I must confess my first reaction was, good—now we can concentrate on the singing rather than the directing. And the singing was magnificent: British tenor Christopher Ventris as Siegmund and American soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde were the stars of this show, while conductor Marek Janowski led the orchestra in a stunning, taut, but full-throated interpretation of the music. (The crowd applauded Ventris and Melton more loudly than any other singers later that night, but really went nuts for Janowski, calling him back out several times.)The second act centers around a family quarrel in Valhalla, the home of the gods. Our barn is now an early industrial site—basic oil drilling is going on here. Wotan appears as a sort of Azerbaijani paterfamilias, with shaved head and long beard (this bears about as much relation to traditional Azerbaijani dress as Wotan’s leisure suit in Rheingold bears to Texan dress, but no matter), keeping an eye on his unruly clan who work the family business.Brünnhilde, his warrior daughter, comes home, very un-warriorlike in what seems to be a British public school uniform (this family is upwardly mobile.) The opening of this act is the first of several times in the opera that you hear the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme sung, and no matter how many times I listen to recordings, it’s even more thrilling live. Wotan and Brünnhilde exult: it turns out that Wotan has been trying to encourage the coupling of Siegmund and Sieglinde for some time, hoping they would produce a hero-child who can wrest the Ring back from Faffner. But all is not well. Wotan’s wife, Freia, who, like Hera in Greek mythology, is the upholder both of the law and of marriage, is furious. It was bad enough for her husband to roam the earth siring children by mortals (Siegmund and Sieglinde) and other goddesses (Brünnhilde and her Valkyrie sisters are the product of a liaison with Erda, the earth goddess). But piling incest on top of adultery is going too far: Siegmund must die. Wotan is horrified, but Fricka has the killer argument: Does he not realize that as the king of the gods he is reliant on law to rule the world? Tearfully, Wotan gives Brünnhilde her change in orders; she must make sure Siegmund dies and then bring his soul to Valhalla. Meanwhile, revolution is coming: Copies of Pravda are starting to show up, first with one copy being read by a few of the gods, then blown in by the wind and then projected onto the side of the barn (oh yes, our old friend from Rhinegold, the videocamera, is back, though this time at least the video is projected onto white sheets or barn surfaces rather than glaring into your eyes on a jumbotron.)Brünnhilde finds Siegmund and Sieglinde together and, overcome by sympathy, decides to defy her father and protect Siegfried in the coming battle. Once the fighting begins, however, Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund’s sword—or does he? It’s hard to tell, as they’re fighting inside the barn and we’re watching primarily via video outside. Perhaps the sword breaks on its own, symbolizing the forces of history or some other Deep Metaphor. Once his son dies, defenseless, Wotan turns with a vengeance on Hunding, the killer.In the third act, the set has become a fully Sovietized, nationalized, and industrialized oil drilling operation. The barn has acquired new steel tanks on its side, is bedecked with party slogans in Russian, and the guard tower is lit with big red stars. Intermittently, Russian propaganda video showing oil drilling and then the destruction of Baku’s oil fields to keep them from the Germans in World War II plays on video. The act opens with one of the few really evocative silent scenes I’ve seen yet from Castorf. Normally the third act opens with Brünnhilde’s eight other Valkyrie sisters riding into Valhalla with dead warriors on the back of their horses; this time workers storm the tower behind a red flag and then are killed by gas, with the Valkyries trailing behind and encouraging them. Brünnhilde appears and tells her horrified sisters what she’s done.Wotan comes next and you can hear his rage in Wagner’s music and Janowski’s conducting before he says a word. The king of the gods has shaved his beard and now appears to be a party commissar; John Lundgren, the shaven-skulled baritone who plays him, is convincingly icy and menacing. He passes sentence: Brünnhilde is to be stripped of her immortality and left on a mountainside in an enchanted sleep, to be awakened by the first mortal to kiss her. Lundgren and Catherine Foster, the British soprano singing Brünnhilde, held back their vocal power earlier in the show (as many Wagner singers must, to survive the long and trying operas), but now they let fly with full force, and their final, three-quarters-of-an-hour-long exchange of pleas, justification, and regret is full of pathos. At the end, Wotan grants Brünnhilde’s final request, to be placed in a ring of fire that will deter all but the bravest from venturing near her.So we have been presented in three acts with three levels of societal development. The first level is so rudimentary that society is all but atomized, with men free to steal each other’s wives and the sword the judge of all quarrels. In the second, the family is the main unit of organization, with the father acting as a sort of local despot, but bound both by rules and his connections to those around him. In the third, we have a fully industrialized society, run by officers of the state. Each stage is more advanced than the last, but, while things aren’t good to begin with, each is also more brutal than the stage before. (Here, Castorf is working with Wagner rather than against him—as Wotan’s bad decisions lead to worse decisions, each time he has to rely on cruder and more imperfect solutions. It turns out that when the director is paddling with the current rather than against it, things go much smoother.)Furthermore, in Castorf’s presentation, each level of society here is also progressively more dependent on oil. Wotan’s bad decisions in the Ring cycle generally start with taking advice from the fire-god Loge (Loki), from Loge’s proposal to cheat the giants who built Valhalla in the Rheingold to his suggestion that Wotan steal the ring from Alberich. It’s a short step from fire to oil, one made much shorter by the plumes of smoke and fire that constantly form the background of the set. Castorf in short would appear to be saying that oil, like Loge, is a trickster god, offering false solutions to development problems and ultimately paving the way to brutality and despotism. That we see its destructive power in both the USA and the USSR is presumably Castorf’s way of pointing toward a universal tendency, rather than blaming either capitalism or communism for what goes wrong.That’s half of Castorf’s message. The other half lies in his use of irony. That word has as many definitions as “salad,” and many just as mixed. Castorf’s go-to mode is a variant on romantic and dramatic irony that basically consists of contrasting what the reader is seeing with what the text (and the experienced Wagnerite’s expectation) says should be happening. You can see this in Castorf’s decisions to put the gods forward in both productions in patently un-godly settings, acting as petty chieftains or gangsters. But the most definitive—and aggravating—use of irony in this production comes from Castorf’s decision to put the opera’s key emotional climaxes out of sight, projected only on video camera: Siegmund’s death at the end of Act II and Brünnhilde’s fall into an enchanted sleep at the end of Act III.Because of the way Wagner works, this also means that every musical climax is also out of sight—and somewhat hard to hear, since the barn acts as a muffler. So far, the main redeeming quality of this overly-conceptualized, under-thought Ring cycle has been the superb singing. To mess with this at crucial points is borderline cruel to the audience. And that would appear to be the idea.Almost every chance in these two operas for an expected climax or particularly pointed theatrical moment has instead been met with an “ironic” decrescendo or distraction. Right before the end of Act III, as Wotan is working into some of the most passionate and pathos-laden music in the opera, a big, mechanized oil pumpjack rolls out of the barn and starts bobbing up and down, with lights on, in front of the audience. Sure, it looks like a horse (which the Valkyries usually ride) and it may symbolize the oil economy or industrial revolution taking on a life of its own. But for it to come on at that moment seemed primarily designed to distract the audience. Something similar was going on in Rheingold, where each time the ring was stolen, the character who lost it sung in muted tones rather than the expected mortal anguish.Irony is said to rely on the gap between expectation and action. Castorf’s twist is that he’s playing off what experienced Wagnerites—that is, the audience at Bayreuth—would expect to happen at key points.The why of Castorf’s heavy reliance on this sort of irony is harder to divine than the what and the how. Wagner himself embedded irony deep in the heart of the story of the Ring: Wotan’s reliance on Loge’s false solutions creates a world with internal contradictions, generating a cosmic irony and leading to a series of dramatic ironies, until the world of the gods comes crashing down. Perhaps Castorf is a more perfect Wagnerian than people realize.On the other hand, Wagner’s project at Bayreuth was essentially antithetical to the kind of ironic use of metatheatrical devices that Castorf is using. On Festival Hill, Wagner tried to create the ultimate immersive experience: a theater with sight lines and sound quality so good it would keep the audience’s attention solely on the stage, music that would pull the audience fully into the emotional lives of his characters, and a story conceived on an epic, universal scale—a new world you could enter into, with every detail thought out. Wagner’s aim was total suspension of disbelief; here Castorf is not a Wagnerian.There may therefore be a political meaning to this maneuver. The program notes are laden with praise for irony as an inoculation against political extremism. Dr. Patric Seibert, the assistant director of this cycle and supernumerary (he was the beaten-down hotel clerk in Rheingold and appears in many of the faux-Russian videos in Valkyrie), writes in the program that:
a political art that employs ironic strategies will resist the temptation to be utilized by new ideologies, hierarchies or social utopias. it is a steady means of distanced uncertainty, skepticism and ongoing reevaluation — including that of one’s own dreams and ideals.
Or Castorf may just be messing with his audience. There are times in these productions that it seems like he’s making underappreciated and interesting artistic statements—and then there are times it seems more like he’s trolling. Valkyrie was closer to the former; the word on the street is that the trolls come out to play in his Siegfried.