Cher Public

First impressions

There are some productions that “introduce” themselves quite clearly early on: for example, the Patrice Chereau Ring puts it cards on the table very frankly with the image of the hydroelectric dam populated by grisette Rhinedaughters. This is going to be a cycle about the Industrial Revolution and sex. Frank Castorf‘s Rheingold, in its first image or even through its full length, offers no such clear statement of principles.

And that’s curious, because, at least superficially, the opening image shares a lot of similarities with Chereau’s: the Rhinedaughters are in both cases not nixies but real human women, in costumes that at least suggest a definite and specific historical era. (I say “suggest” because the outfits the Rhinedaughters are wearing in this production are sort of odd: too dressy for post-swim coverups or resort wear, too constructed for lingerie, too obviously trashy to qualify for cocktail dresses. There’s a sort of Showgirls feel, perhaps, a trio of Nomi Malones who are off the brown rice and veggie diet.)

The motel they’re lounging about (“cavorting” would be far too strong a word) is hyperrealistic enough that the nonstop video closeups of the action projected on a screen on the building’s roof could pass for cheaply-produced soap opera, and here we run into another aspect of this production that’s not so easy to unpack.

There are apparently some concealed robot-controlled video cameras in various nooks and crannies of the motel set (it contains some interior rooms that are hidden from the audience but can be glimpsed on the video screen), plus some other steadicams are operated by fully-visible cameramen. Sometimes what they are filming is what you would assume is the primary focus of the scene, e.g. Alberich’s belly-flop into the swimming pool to snatch the length of metallic fabric that stands in for the Rhine gold. But other times what we see on the big screen is an “offstage” scene, like Fafner’s menacing the David Cross lookalike who’s the attendant at the gas station attached to the motel. This happens while Fasolt and Wotan are downstage arguing about their contract.

But it’s not as simple as that. The shot keeps cutting away to closeups of Freia, or to what looks like a hidden-camera angle on Loge who hasn’t entered yet, or even from time to time the Rhinedaughters, who, far from disappearing into the depths of the river, continue to inhabit the motel. (When Wotan and Loge go to Nibelheim, here a trailer parked behind the gas station, the Rhinedaughters invade Wotan’s motel room and lounge about in their lingerie, ordering room service and watching television.)

As perhaps you can see by now, there is lot going on in this Rheingold, and yet in no sense is it hyperactive, or, really, most of the time, even active. The affect is sort of desultory, if that’s the right word: nobody gets really angry or really happy. The opening scene of Scene Four, Loge and Wotan taunting Alberich, all three of them, plus Mime, remain lazily sprawled in deck chairs most of the time.

Later, Erda arrives in a sheath of silver sequins and a full-length white fox fur to deliver her ominous warning, but nobody is particularly awed or amazed by her: she just has her say and then slowly, sadly goes her way, looking (to me, at least) like an early 1960s Judy Garland ruefully heading home after a long, uneventful night on the town. (Nadine Weissmann to my mind gave the most successful acting performance in this part, all self-absorbed melancholy: Erda doesn’t really care what happens to the world, but it sure brings her down to have to talk about it.)

Anyway, even after a whole music drama, it’s not at all clear which, if any, way Castorf is heading. Walkuere starts in a couple of hours and maybe after that I can get more of handle on what’s going on with this Ring.

Production photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

  • This is an interesting canard. As La Cieca says, directors don’t set out for people to hate their work. Yet, our doyenne is also wise to not discount the notion entirely. Examples of “contempt for audience” could and probably do exist, if even they are far more rare than people think.

    The notion becomes much less of a canard if one tones down the language into something less black and white.

    I think there are a lot of artists out there who, as part of their work, do intend to “rile up the conservative blue-hairs” in the audience. Their principal motivation may be far from enraging an entire theatre but there is still that antagonism towards a certain segment of the audience. That antagonism may not be the chief motivator behind a person’s work, only a happy coincidence. But if the artist succeeds in pissing off the blue-hairs, it’s not out of the question to suggest he/she gets some enjoyment from that.

    • Henry Holland

      As La Cieca says, directors don’t set out for people to hate their work

      I would be so sure about that:

      From his Goethe Institute bio:

      Thanks to his tremendous creative energy and an ensemble of exceptional actors who could fulfil intellectual provocations as shrill satire, Castorf subjected Shakespeare and Hauptmann, Dostoyevsky and Tennessee Williams to radical reworkings. Flying potato salad and inserted theoretical texts, urinating in zinc buckets and the trials of hysterical family life were followed by improvised speeches to the audience or enacted subconscious with plenty of slapstick. Booming music and inserted films, tedious waiting that ends with the landing of a toy helicopter or nude madness with a boa around the actor’s neck – Castorf uses elements like this to assemble his snotty view of the world as theatre. Only the following agenda in the director’s words applied: “To do away with unambiguities, to cut the ground from under the feet of meanings – that’s what I always wanted to do!”

      Pissing off the bourgeoisie is soooooo 70’s.

      • Henry Holland

        Please please please please please La Cieca/JJ, when you return, please get a system that has an edit function! “I wouldN’T be so sure about that”.

      • oedipe

        Pissing off the bourgeoisie is soooooo 70?s.

        So, let me guess: now the fashionable thing to do is what? Entertain the bourgeoisie? Kiss the arses of the bourgeoisie to raise funds? I am stymied…

      • Batty Masetto

        HH, I fear you may have been undone by a bad translation on the Goethe Institute website. The German word translated as “snotty” has that meaning only in the literal sense of being covered with mucus. In the figurative sense it means “defiant, brash, uncooperative, disruptive, challenging,” not “spiteful” or “supercilious.”

        The real point of the essay is this:

        “Frank Castorf’s best theatre evenings are demanding, long, complex, loud, exalted and illogical. They reject a linear narrative and conclusive interpretations. Psychological interpretation of characters is anathema to the manager of the Berliner Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and undisturbed acting is right next to the trivialisation of reality by art as an object of hate. For almost fifteen years now, this concentrated ‘anti’ position has resulted in the most important contemporary theatre in Germany.”

        He’s not into trivializing theatrical art, but vehemently anti-trivialization.

        • laddie

          Thank you so much for this Batty. What is meant by “undisturbed acting?” I am not sure I understand what this means.

          • Batty Masetto

            You’re right Laddie, that’s a translator fluff too. The German is “ungestörte Schauspielerei,” meaning something more like “undisrupted scenery-chewing” or “unimpeded Acting” with a capital “A.”

            • laddie

              “Undisrupted scenery-chewing” -- sounds like something is being eaten by patrons at Genevieve’s RR. :)

            • Batty Masetto

              Genevieve has a regular budget item set aside for removing tooth marks from the woodwork.

  • grimoaldo

    ” directors don’t set out for people to hate their work”

    How does anyone know that, unless they make some sort of public statement? *Most* directors probably don’t, logic would seem to indicate, but it could well be that some, thinking of themselves as cutting edge radical non-conformist artists on the margin of society, do want what they might think of as rich establishment types (and at Bayreuth all the political bigwigs including Merkel attend every year) to be enraged by what they see.
    It is possible, anyway.

    • oedipe

      Suppose there ARE some radical, non-conformist artists out there, thinking and doing as you say. Why is it a problem?

  • grimoaldo

    I didn’t say it was.