Humphrey Bogart is supposed to have said that, “Whenever I have to deliver exposition, I hope they put two camels behind me [fornicating] so the audience’ll have something interesting to look at.” It would appear that Frank Castorf, who’s directing the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, thinks Wagner’s Siegfried needs some similar help. During the extended, ecstatic love duet between the hero and Brünnhilde that forms the climax of the opera, five crocodiles come out onto the set and two start going at it.
I wish I could tell you at least that this made sense in context. It does not. Instead, it marks the culmination of a third act in which the director’s bizarre intrusions, already apparent in Das Rheingold but relatively under control in Die Walküre, become an unbearable distraction both from the music and from the story that Castorf himself is trying to tell.
That’s a shame, because elsewhere Castorf had some interesting thing to say. He sets his Siegfried in East Germany. One half of the rotating set is a mining camp set beneath an enormous, Communist Mount Rushmore: Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao scowl down. The other half is a replica of the Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s most upscale square. This is not a bad representation of how East Germany actually was: miserable subsistence-level labor on one end and a thin veneer of worldliness for the elites and foreign visitors on the other. To give credit where credit’s due, this set was a bold decision—you won’t win many friends on the German or European left by putting Stalin and Marx in the same picture, or by pushing back against the current of fashionable Ostalgie (nostaliga for the East—i.e. the supposed “good old days” in East Germany.)
The stated theme for Castorf’s Ring cycle is oil as the modern, corrupting Rhine gold: the cursed source of power that corrupts everything it touches. The sense of a curse is very much present in any version of Siegfried, but the specific tie-in with oil is far less clear in this production than in Castorf’s Valkyrie. Siegfried tells the story of an eponymous hero who is the son of Sieglinde and Siegmund (whom we last saw in Valkyrie) and who at the beginning is being raised by Mime, the brother of Alberich, the dwarf who forged the ring of power. Mime is scheming to have his charge retrieve the ring by killing the dragon Fafner, after which Mime will kill Siegfried. Siegfried, meanwhile, though he is ignorant of this, hates his adoptive father with a passion. Not that you would know much of this from watching the Castorf production. The two of them deliver lines such as “Though you’ve bring me drink and food,/loathing alone feeds me” with the body language of mild annoyance (though with great vocal commitment). This may be because Siegfried and Mime are distracted by Patric Siebert.
Oy vey. Siebert, the assistant director, plays a variety of non-speaking roles throughout Castorf’s Ring—the seedy hotel manager who dominates so much of the jumbotron footage in Rheingold, and the star of the “Soviet” propaganda films in Valkyrie. Here he’s brought onstage, shirtless, as the “bear” that Siegfried has captured in Act 1. The bear in Wagner’s libretto is shortly thereafter released and disappears; Siebert does not. Rather, Mime smears him with oil (at this point, Anthony Tommasini quips, “the oil quest imagery just seems slapped on”) and keeps him as a pet. He spends the rest of the act rummaging through the trailer and generally interacting as a family dog (manbeardog?) would with the other characters. This was intensely distracting, added nothing to the production, and should have been a sign of trouble to come. Meanwhile, Siegfried has literally shaken the truth of his parentage out of Mime and then re-forged his father’s broken sword—or in this case, forged a plastic sword and assembled two AK-47s. (Why three weapons? Why two assault rifles and a sword? I have no idea.)
Much of the second act occurs on the Alexanderplatz, and here we have another moment of actual insight. The newly liberated Siegfried meets the Forest Bird, a magnificently-plumaged creature played by Macedonian soprano Ana Durlovsky—her costume is far and away the most aesthetically pleasing thing onstage.And they go on a little date. Siegfried and the Forest Bird struggle to communicate with one another while splashing in puddles together, but eventually he learns how to communicate with her—whereupon she teaches him some very useful information (like Mime’s murderous plan.) Now there’s a persuasive Freudian reading of Siegfried that goes something like this: boy rejects father-figure, discovers his “sword,” goes out to meet the world full of confidence… the imagery is not subtle. Siegfried is, by his own account in Act I, more or less totally unfamiliar with women, having been raised in a forest by a male dwarf; the Forest Bird is the first soprano he meets, he’s just found his sword, and now he learns how to talk to her, and she teaches him things. The Forest Bird is Siegfried’s first girlfriend—or at least, his first crush. Aside from that, much of this act, which in the script is action-packed, comes across as rather dreary and uninteresting. Not only is Fafner not a dragon, he doesn’t appear to have changed at all since we saw him in Rheingold, and the amount of dramatic tension as Siegfried shoots him is essentially null.
There is no redeeming the third act. It starts when Wotan runs into Erda, the earth goddess whom we last saw in Das Rheingold—and she begins to fellate him onstage. Then there’s a wretchedly choreographed “discovery” scene in which Siegfried wanders around the periphery of the set, while footage of a wilderness plays up on the video screen that’s perched almost invisibly near the arch of the proscenium. Siegfried eventually finds Brünnhilde wrapped in a plastic tarp in the middle of a valley; we have come a long way from Wagner’s original vision of a rocky promontory surrounded by a curtain of fire.
Then once Siegfried has awoken the sleeping beauty and won her over, the new couple proceeds ’round to the Alexanderplatz—and out come the crocodiles. Two are enormous, maybe 15 or 18 feet long, and three are smaller, maybe six feet, with pop-eyes sticking out of their heads. It’s the larger ones that start, ah, re-creating the circle of life. Then the actress who plays the Forest Bird wanders onstage, shorn of much of her plumage, and doesn’t so much get eaten as open one of the crocodiles’ rubber jaws and climb inside. Meanwhile, Siegfried and Brünnhilde just keep singing. At one point they deign to feed one crocodile the umbrella from the cafe table at which they are sitting, but otherwise they don’t pay much attention. Ultimately, I decided the heroic couple had the right idea: I closed my eyes and let the sublime singing of Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) wash over me.
I can’t imagine anyone at Bayreuth who saw onstage simulated sex (whether reptilian or Clintonian) needed smelling salts; I can imagine that people who saw it yawned. But while a tired gesture in the direction of épater le bourgeoisie seems to have been a part of the agenda, this didn’t appear to be all of what was going on. If you squint and there’s a good light, you can sort of see what Castorf was getting at: Communist rule corrupted the relationships between people, made lizards and prostitutes of us all. And the pursuit of oil and wealth have caused the masters of the universe, be they capitalist or Communist, to violate Mother Earth. Fine. It’s worth noting that in Rheingold, set in Texas, Castorf also included a scene of Wotan getting frisky with Erda, and the lead in Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, is the child of this (usually off-stage) pairing. Castorf was, as I saw in Rheingold and Valkyrie, not building on nothing.
But “I can barely sort of understand what he’s getting at” is not the standard for a professional production. Castorf’s Siegfried is an aesthetic and intellectual train wreck. The lack of judgment and the reliance on under-articulated assumptions that have characterized this Ring cycle finally rendered a part of it actually unwatchable.
There’s an irony in the production’s flaws. A major element in Castorf’s thinking as he conceived his Ring productions seems to have been Wagner’s history as what Marx could (and did) call a petty bourgeois revolutionary. Wagner in his early middle age was a friend of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and a participant in the 1848 uprising in Dresden. As an essay by Richard Sorg included in the program notes puts it:
[Wagner’s] participation in the revolutionary movement took place, if you like, within the confines of the “petty-bourgeois protest”; it was strongly influenced by Bakunin and based on anarchistic concepts, followed by resignation after no rapid success was achieved, and after that characterized by the hope of changing the conditions and solving the problems of the world and life by means of art rather than through politics—albeit never completely without recollection and reconsideration of the necessary social-political changes.
Castorf seems to believe that Wagner would have sympathized with his critique of both capitalist and Communist self-interested elites. Given that Wagner explicitly questioned the premises and leaders of both movements during his lifetime, and that Wagner’s rejection of capital/ism is central to many interpretations of the Ring, Castorf is probably right. However, the revolutionary impulse, which was common among 19th century thinkers, wasn’t what made Wagner stand out from the crowd; it was his ability to produce a thoroughly thought-out, epic-scale work of art that conveyed his message with both clarity and depth to his audience. And this is, to put it charitably, not the part of Wagner’s tradition that Castorf draws on. Now, attempting to produce a Ring cycle that reflects Wagner’s political beliefs without following the historical path down a direction reminiscent of Winifred and Adolf in Germany is tricky; it’s even trickier if you’re also determined to steer clear of a fashionable leftism. But Castorf’s productions are riddled with the same flaws that have so often afflicted petty-bourgeois revolutionary political activities, from 1848 to the present: the reliance more on emotions and images than on thought or judgment. Wagner was able to harness this emotional and romantic impulse and elevate it into great art; Castorf does not have the same gifts.
One of the ways in which Wagner rendered his revolutionary worldview into art was through his depiction of Siegfried, characterized as a type of proto-Nietszchean Superman in the first two acts. Siegfried is literally incapable of feeling fear, no respecter of god nor man, and unbound by laws or morality. The value of the übermensch, in the minds of men from Bakunin to Wagner to Nietzsche, lay in his his ability finally to break free of the constraints of an outdated religious morality and lead the way to the sunny uplands of a new world with new rules. And that ideal is made flesh in Siegfried, who in Act 3 will literally break Wotan’s spear, on which all the world’s laws are written, without even knowing who Wotan is.
When I first encountered this 19th century conception of the übermensch in high school, it struck me as one of the most obviously idiotic delusions of our ancestors: the idea that you could change human nature from within human nature just because you wanted to hard enough. Now I’m not so sure I can be as judgmental about the foibles of a bygone age. We seem to be living in a time when people are trying to pull off a variation of this impossible trick. Indeed, they’ve formed a political movement around that goal.
A substantial portion of the resurgent, youth-driven, activist “New New Left” has seized upon a series of identity politics questions as the core issues of our time, and changing our approach to them, it holds, is the key to transforming our world. Support for these positions transcends generations, but as the group draws its core supporters from the Millennials, it would not be unfair to call it the Millennial Left (just as the “New Left” of the 1960s was the Boomer take on leftism.)
The Millennial Left is, just as the New Left before it, the ’48s before then, and a half-hundred movements in between, what Karl Marx contemptuously dismissed as a petty bourgeois movement. As such, the Millennial Left dreams not of incremental and purposeful change (as do Burkean conservatives) or structural change in the basis of the economy (as did the Marxist Left), but of change through a widespread moral epiphany. Marx charged that petty bourgeois radicals did not want to upend the current system so much as to rid it of its imperfections, be they the lack of economic security or the way in which the Industrial Revolution wore away at communal bonds. Because this was, in Marx’s view, an in impossible task—the flaws of the system were inherent—these radicals embraced romantic notions of change that allowed them to evade hard questions. As a result, he wrote, petty bourgeois socialism “is both reactionary and Utopian” and suffers from the “intoxicating effects of self-deception.” Whatever you think about Marx (and, overall, I am not a fan), he was onto something about the inherent tension between revolutionary rhetoric and respectable aims, and the use of magical thinking to bridge the gap. The Millennial Left takes the approach Marx describes and applies it first and foremost to questions of identity, rather than economics: if we were all more sensitive—a lot more sensitive—to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, intersectionality, and so on, then we would inevitably treat one another better, and, voilà, our problems would melt away. It is the job of a passionate, inspired elite to bring this change about.
Activists representing the identity wing of the Millennial Left often direct their energy toward causes that are more symbolic than substantive: de-gendering bathrooms as opposed to nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy. Think of someone who reads a newspaper with articles on heroin epidemics among the white working class, shootings in the inner city, high-stakes showdowns in the South China Sea, and genocide in Syria, and decides that the biggest issue is the newspaper’s insufficiently sensitive pronoun usage. In the Millennial Left’s petty bourgeois view, the main obstacle to progress lies within—in the imperfect breast of each unconverted citizen, or, more broadly, in the imperfect impulses of Western society. And so the Millennial Left activist’s focus is always on conversion, both personal and communal: on “changing the discourse” or “raising consciousness.” When old-school Marxists talked about consciousness raising, they meant building a revolutionary, proletarian consciousness among the working class, and it was supposed to serve as the opening stage of a political revolution. The Millennial Left sees making everyone aware of or sensitive to “social justice” issues as itself the crucial act. That’s not all that will be needed, of course; once we’re all more aware, in the Millennial Left’s view, we will need to take action to treat everyone better. But what action we’ll then need to take is at once only vaguely defined and assumed to be obvious.
Wagner had a similar vision: for him, the artist would revolutionize the way we see the world. That moment of revolutionary insight, powered by the overwhelming emotion that great art could evoke, would be the key; a vaguely defined post-capitalistic world would emerge from there. And so Castorf is right to see Wagner in the petty bourgeois revolutionary tradition. Marx’s description of “reactionary and Utopian” beliefs could almost be a billboard quote for Wagner’s mythical and romantic operas. The most interesting parts of this Ring cycle have usually come when Castorf is drawing on this petty bourgeois revolutionary tradition, whether in his willingness to critique the Marxist regime in East Germany in Siegfried or when he successfully linked descent into depravity in The Valkyrie to the pursuit of oil and power. And where Castorf fails, as with the motel in Rheingold or with the amorous crocodiles on the Alexanderplatz, one can sense that he’s trying to use emotionally-loaded gestures, in line with the petty bourgeois tradition—but he isn’t quite good enough, or hasn’t given it enough thought, to pull it off. Even in the production’s (often glaring) flaws, however, Castorf’s point that the petty bourgeois revolutionary tradition is present in Wagner and on the stage does come through; Castorf’s production, I am almost embarrassed to have to say, has sharpened my own insight into contemporary U.S. politics.
At first glance, the hyper-conscientiousness of the Millennial Left activist seems very far removed from the unreflective “Blond Beast,” Siegfried. But Siegfried was in Wagner’s conception a new form of consciousness made flesh; the opera as a whole reflects the belief that once such a new consciousness has taken form, all will fall swiftly before it. (Vinke’s portrayal of Siegfried’s almost matter-of-fact attitude as he dispatches gods and dragons conveys this very well.) And here the Millennial Left tends very much to agree. The important thing is the desire to change our nature, whether in Wagner’s view by returning to a supposed aboriginal strength by throwing off the constraints of civilization or in the Millennial Left’s view by discarding the accrued legacy of historical sexism, racism, bigotry, and so on that lingers in the fabric of civilization, from the way we view gender to the language we use. Either way, once that simple task has been accomplished, all else will follow and the New Day will begin.
Wagner paused for a dozen years between writing Act 2 and Act 3 of Siegfried (during which time he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). When he returned to the Ring cycle, he was older, wiser, and capable of more nuance. The Siegfried of Act 3—fearful, in love—is in many ways a different creature from the one who came before. So too is the world around him: Wotan’s encounter with Erda has ominous overtones of the darker, more textured world to come in Götterdämmerung rather the triumphant brashness of the earlier parts of Siegfried.
Critics such as Robert Greenberg have suggested that the pause in composition was necessary: The rest of the story of the Ring involves Siegfried being entangled in and destroyed by the old curse and then the redemption of the world through a free act of sacrifice by Brünnhilde. To tell these things required depths of wisdom and subtlety beyond those that the younger Wagner, dreaming of the all-conquering übermensch, could summon. Unfortunately, just when you would want to see the Castorf production explore these changes, Erda drops to her knees before Wotan and the crocodiles start to rock. And any chance of catching a glimpse into this deeper, richer vein of thought is swept away—at least visually. It remains vividly present, of course, if you listen to the music—the fact that you must ignore Castorf to follow Wagner’s deepest thoughts is the measure of the composer’s genius and the producer’s…something else.