Cher Public

Flame off

First things first: working from the limited evidence of half or less than half of Frank Castorf‘s production of the Ring, I don’t see any evidence of contempt for the audience or whatever you want to call it. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed in my experience to come up with even a single example of a director’s work I’ve seen that actually reads as “contempt.”

Now, I am not going to claim that there is not now and never has been such a thing as an artist with contempt for his audience– you of the cher public may well be able to offer examples of that phenomenon. But in Castorf’s work at Bayreuth and (here comes the canard part) in the work of artists in general, “contempt” doesn’t seem to me to be much of a motivator.

What perhaps reads as contempt is the absence of an element so familiar in much art that we take it for granted, I.e., the expression of the artist’s desire to be loved and admired by the public. This expression can take many forms, from open pandering to simple tweaking of the art to make it more user-friendly. And the “target” of that desire might be a broad public or it might be the artist’s fairly narrow coterie of fans.

Now, I’m not saying this desire to please is necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary. There’s a lot of art whose initial appeal, or even primary appeal, is that it offers pleasure. We want to experience beautiful, sensuously pleasing art just as we prefer delicious food to bland or distasteful food, and, on perhaps an even shallower level, just as (most other things being equal) we prefer the company of physically attractive people to those not so aesthetically pleasing.

So pleasing “friendly” art has a sort of shortcut to the mind through the emotions, and an artist we like or admire or adore by definition creates a kind of friendly art: we love the artist and so we go into the experience of observing the art predisposed to like it, to get to know it, to give it the benefit of the doubt. As such, artists learn, consciously or unconsciously, how to make themselves and their art friendly.

Now, where the problem comes in is that we have come to expect a certain level of “lovability” from art, a sort of baseline cordiality, and when that level is not met, we can get a negative first emotional impression that a colors our understanding of the art.

For example, creators of works performed for an audience generally understand that the public has a range of “acceptable” durations. A program that is only 15 minutes long is as unlikely to appeal to the general public as a presentation that lasts 12 hours. The one seems hardly worth the travel time, and the latter impinges too heavily on the spectator’s everyday life.

And so a show that is extremely short or extremely long feels to the observer like a breach of etiquette, and from there– especially if the spectator feels somehow constrained to attend this presentation, feelings of resentment creep in. Who is this guy to think I have nothing better to do with my time, anyway?

And as it is with duration, there are a number of other “friendly” conventions of art that, if not observed, can read as deliberate rudeness, and therefore as evidence of contempt for the audience.

One of those “friendly” conventions I think we look for in art is consistency. The whole thing should feel of a piece, or, if the experience feels fragmented, then that fragmentation should somehow be “consistent” in that it is the theme of the piece. (For example, we don’t experience Buchner’s Woyzeck as a play that was hastily cobbled together and therefore evidence of the playwright’s disdain for his audience. Rather, the fragmentation feels organic to the dramatic theme of the title charactr’s splintering sense of reality.)

Well, what I see thus far in Castorf’s Ring is a vast and erratic inconsistency: one moment feels like parody, another like pastiche, yet another a faithful and emotionally true interpretation of.the stage directions in the score, as literal, if not as trite, as something out of Otto Schenk.

And then there’s the hooker in the cocktail dress who turns up in Die Walkuere. She manifests first as a video projection, an effect used in this production more sparingly than in the previous night’s Rheingold, and in a different format. In keeping (perhaps) with the early 20th century setting of this music drama, the video is projected not on a modern LED/Jumbotron but instead in flickering black and white on unrolled panels of muslin, a very homemade effect.

Anyway, just about the time Siegmund’s “Winterstuerme” begins, on the other side of then stage, there’s this movie or live video feed of a stout middle-aged woman in a slip, and she’s eating a cake with decreasing delicacy. At the point she’s grabbed the confection with both hands and is licking the icing, she pauses to answer an antique telephone, chats about something that  looks rather serious, then hangs up (depositing the receiver atop the dessert) and, vamping the camera, slips into a cocktail dress. Then she tucks back into the cake and the video cuts to what looks like documentary footage of the Russian revolution era.

Well, yes, that was strange. But then the woman turns up again, this time in the flesh, toward the middle of the Wotan/Fricka argument. She just sort of scampers across the stage in her wrapper, and the gods don’t look particularly surprised to see her.

She is, I guess, a random mistress of Wotan’s? Since at this point in the proceedings he is in the guise of an oil prospector of the period (complete with an outrageously unconvincing beard he later doffs) and Fricka is (at a guess) dressed as a tribal princess from Asia Minor, and their scene is played before a towering barn-like structure that houses oilfield machinery… well, who knows?

I don’t, and I certainly don’t know what Castorf is up to in a lot of other places too. But it’s not inept, and while there are stretches, long stretches in fact, I find boring, I’m not offended. Frank Castorf may not like me particularly, but, so far at least, I honestly don’t think he hates me either.

Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

  • Feldmarschallin

    Thank you for your words on this La Cieca. I hope to see the second cycle next summer. May I ask you what your thoughts were on Foster? She got booed after her first Brünnhilde and from what I heard on the radio I wasn’t very trilled about her but I didn’t hear all three performances since I was still busy here with performances.

    • bassoprofundo

      the performance of the singers is irrelevant.

      • armerjacquino

        Find me a single post by anyone anywhere that has come close to suggesting that. When you can’t, pack up your strawman and accept that it is perfectly acceptable to write an essay on how an opera is staged.

      • You are starting to sound like a broken record. It is getting annoying and quite irritating. Did you take a moment to read the responses to the same comment you posted in the first impressions thread?

        I have a solution for you, if you do not like how La Cieca is handling this: you can get your own damn tickets to the cycle, write your own reviews and submit them to both the Post and parterre and see if they publish them. Otherwise, may I suggest you shut the fuck up and allow La Cieca to do her damn job?

        Jesus, Mary and Joseph! when is someone going to take pity on us and this damn skipping record and break it in half and get a new one?

      • papopera

        ah! ah! ah! very good.

    • Podlesmania

      Feldmarschallin, I saw Catherine Foster as Isolde last year (along with the ghastly Jon Frederick West on his 60th birthday) and I can just remember how BORING she was. No emotion, no personality, inaudible during the “Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen” big moments, no tenderness or erotism or anything during the second act duo, a generic & bland Mild und Leise… The best of the night was the Brangäne of Michelle De Young and the Marke of Salminen, otherwise ZZZZZZZ

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    How will JJ spend his hours not in the theater? How about a side trip to nearby Bamberg to visit E.T.A. Hoffmann’s city?

    • Hippolyte

      Since JJ is attending six performances in six days, most of which begin at 4PM, plus he’s writing these challenging posts the next day for his sometimes grateful, sometimes sniping and unappreciative readers, I suspect he doesn’t have much time to be traipsing across Bavaria.

      • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

        Even worse, some of the key Bayreuth sights are off limits this year. Villa Wahnfried, Wagner’s home, is being renovated. Ditto the Margravial, the Baroque opera venue that first attracted Wagner to Bayreuth, is also closed for renovation.

        Goodness knows how the Germans managed to time it so badly. As it is, all poor JJ can do is allow himself to be pictured in front of a building site. In a hard hat, maybe.

  • Jurgen Werther

    Think I agree with what you are saying regarding contempt for the audience. I often feel that with Regie driven productions there is a loss of focus between the Konzept and the realisation on stage. By the time the audience see the ‘finished’ work I feel that the regisseur is already bored with the piece and maybe has realised that producing Opera is a little more difficult than working with actors in the straight theatre. Anyway Bayreuth productions are seen as work in progress and there is an expectation of tweaks at subsequent festivals. Whether Castorf can be prevailed upon to fine tune his ideas remains to be seen. Perhaps he feels he has said all that he has to say.

    I think there is also a debate that needs to be had about the role of a festival like Bayreuth, where the works of the ‘Master’ are performed in near ideal conditions but with apparently increasingly ‘mediocre’ results. The desire to epater le bourgeois more important than presenting the best all round production. In the case of Castorf, the final curtain scandal is probably more acceptable to the sisters Wagner than the overall excellence of the cycle as a whole. People are pissed, we have achieved our objective.

    I am not arguing for Schenk or even Lepage but in much the same way that Chereau 40 years ago re-defined Wagner production on the Green Hill, with their resources perhaps something less equivalent to artistic shock and awe is possible?

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    The cake eating woman is probably the Urmutter of old crones often placed in other productions with no rhyme nor reason.

  • La Valkyrietta

    La Cieca’s account of this ring is more fun than the actual details about the production. I am sure eventually JJ will get to the music, the singers, the conductor and whether all that is as desultory as the director. Since what is new here is the production, it is interesting to read the take on that, even for some of us who hate the idea.

    That woman eating in Die Walküre seems to be a sort of American influence. In the US pie eating contests have always been considered entertaining.

  • grimoaldo

    “there are stretches, long stretches in fact, I find boring”

    Worst thing you can say about any theatrical experience in my opinion.

    As for “contempt”, in this particular instance I don’t think there can be any doubt that Castorf clearly expressed contempt, at least for the audience’s reaction when he was booed at the one time he took a curtain call.
    “The explosion on Wednesday, after Götterdämmerung, had been building up all week. Castorf and his team did not take curtain calls during the other three operas, so their appearance at the end of the cycle unleashed a pent-up tempest akin to the thunderstorms that explode over Bayreuth in a hot, humid August. Not surprisingly, tempers in a theatre without air conditioning can become very short. And what a storm it was.

    Some will be rightly squeamish about what took place. Booing is nasty and cruel. In Germany, it comes freighted with a dark history, too. It is particularly devastating for singers, who are doing their best, often in difficult circumstances. But Castorf seemed to revel in it, almost as if the audience verdict was a badge of honour or a vindication. He stood on the stage for more than 10 minutes, mocking his detractors with a thumbs up, ironic applause and dismissive waves. Castorf’s response enraged the audience even more. There is no way to know who would have won this battle of wills had not Petrenko diffidently put his head around the curtain to remind Castorf that the orchestra still had to take its traditional end-of-cycle bow.”

    You can see a little of it here:

    • damekenneth

      But, Grim, would you not agree that having contempt for an audience’s reaction to one’s work is a different thing than creating the work with an attitude of contempt towards the prospective audience? I may be mistaken, but I believe JJ is addressing the latter. I agree with you that Castorf seemed contemptuous of the audience’s response to his work. But it would make sense to me that he was sincerely trying to promulgate his understanding of the work to the best of his abilities, which would be a very different motive than going into the work simply wanting to piss off the audience.

      • armerjacquino

        Agreed. How do we get from Castorf’s (imho rather impressive) reaction to the booing the production received to ‘his intention in producing this work was to show his contempt for the audience’?

        That’s quite a leap.

        • grimoaldo

          That isn’t in fact what I said, I can’t read his mind, but I can see his clearly expressed contempt for the audience in his reaction to the booing. I

          • armerjacquino

            The audience was showing contempt to him. What was he supposed to do, buy them dinner? I don’t see why standing there, taking it and standing by his work is in some way out of order.

            • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

              I read that the curtain calls were not quite finished, aj. From what I understand, Maestro Petrenko eventually asked Castorf to step to one side so that (I think) the orchestra could take acknowledgement. His request was ignored.

    • bobsnsane

      “…[T]empers in a theatre without air conditioning can become very short.”

      May I ask,
      how hot does it get
      in there?
      Say @ the end
      of the prologue &
      Act 1…

      Is there NO engineering solution
      in the 21st century
      that resolves that?

      Just askin’…

      • bobsnsane

        @ the end
        of prologue &
        Act 1 of GOTT

        er what?

  • mercadante

    I can certainly imagine an artist, including a director, whether extremely progressive, or extremely conservative, considering themselves intellectually above their audience, or at least a segment thereof. And I can certainly see their work as an “I’ll show those ignorant, unenlightened etc, who aren’t as smart, intellectual, progressive, conservative, insightful (fill in your own adjective) “. Many artists may be honestly trying to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas, some may be trying to educate, and yes, some may actually be using their art as a platform to give a collective audience a middle finger if that artist feels they are significantly different from and better than the audience.

    Art doesn’t have to be “friendly” or easy or beautiful. But if it is shocking, uncomfortable, ugly, it is perfectly fair game to consider not just the message of that art but the agenda of tne artist, which may be to comment contemptuously on the mores, lifestyles, beliefs of the very audience that will be viewing it.

    In the current Ring, are many of the directorial conceits about Wagner’s Ring, or about Castorff? We ask the same question about a musician interpeting a work, why not a director? If it is considered self aggrandizing to interpolate high notes and cadenzas, to try to use the music to draw attention to the musician rather than the music itself, why is it not the same with a director. Are all the directorial choices about drawing attention to the work, or about the director, a staging equivalent of a showy high E flat?

    Art need not be easy, but it should be communicative or some level. If something is incomprehensible to intelligent people, not just at viewing, but hours, days, weeks, after viewing, it probably isn’t very successful.

    And tnat sort of obtuseness may be, itself, a firm of contempt.

    • oedipe


      I cannot comment on Castorf’s production, because I haven’t seen it. But in your post you make some general assumptions about art, which you apparently hold as obvious truths, and which are completely at odds with conceptions of art that are held by many people in Europe and which I adhere to as well.

      To wit:

      Art doesn’t have to be “friendly” or easy or beautiful. But if it is shocking, uncomfortable, ugly, it is perfectly fair game to consider not just the message of that art but the agenda of tne artist, which may be to comment contemptuously on the mores, lifestyles, beliefs of the very audience that will be viewing it.

      All through history, there have been numerous great artists who have been accused by their contemporaries of “commenting contemptuously on the mores, lifestyles, beliefs of their very audience”. So what? This didn’t prevent these artists from creating great art. On the contrary, art has to bring something really new for its time in order to be great. And to achieve that, it has to criticize established beliefs, mores and lifestyles and, yes, it has to shock. Otherwise it’s just innocuous entertainment, meant to perpetuate the feel-good views of self-satisfied peoples and cultures.

      And then you state:

      If something is incomprehensible to intelligent people, not just at viewing, but hours, days, weeks, after viewing, it probably isn’t very successful.

      With those terms, you have just defined the notion of commercialism in art. Or, commercialism is NOT considered in all cultures as something indispensable.

  • phoenix

    Most of the other critics re: this cycle registered a noticeably different (and more often annoyed) reaction to the 2nd half (Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) than to the 1st half (Rheingold, Walküre). Let’s hope JJ comes up with something a little different perhaps?
    -- Castrof, from what I have read, is a favorite of mine already. Wagner’s operas, like anyone else’s, should be entertaining -- but we all hear with different ears -- in my experience only sections of them succeed at being entertaining in a purely musical sense. There is nothing as dull as the sections of Ring that I DON’T care for. Now come on, all of us have our favorite moments -- as well as the much dreaded long sections of marking time gritting our teeth waitin’ around. For me it is most of the 1st half of the Ring (including all of Rheingold and the first half of Walküre -- only the Todesverkündigung to the end is what I wait around for). But I love the 2nd half (Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) -- the only let-down for me is Act 3 of Gotterdammerung -- I used to depart the theater after the 2nd act. I am sure others have different [un]favorites too.
    -- When I read about Castrof’s fragmentations (and that the Wagner family intends to return “respect” ???? to the Ring Cycle in 2015) I appreciate Castrof’s disconnected [un]reality even more.
    -- Setting the action of the Ring in the post-WWII boomtime era is very much historically culturally relevant for me personally. Re: the video feed on the large screen JJ describes that appears at a crucial moment in the love duet in Act 1 -> why should Siegmund & Sieglinde pay any attention to it? The lovers have been able to achieve live physical communication, they don’t need to pay any attention to the limited 20th century virtual reality of the television video. In Act 2 Fricka appears in traditional Azerbaijani dress as she tries to prevent the infrastructure of her civilization from crumbling -> Fricka is a threat to the false media culture represented by the “television woman” who quickly scampers out of the way during Fricka’s duet with Wotan.
    -- In closing I cannot resist another tribute to fellow parterriani comments on the “A Faustian bargain” thread:
    “[Meyerbeer’s] {Wagner’s} structures rarely appear organic, and his scores don’t seem to have the sort of binding material, or much thematic continuity that make them appear inevitable or organic.”
    “Meyerbeer {Wagner} never sounds spontaneous to me, and the sheer energy on the wing that Bellini and Donizetti manage in their best work somehow eludes him. Nor do his acts (with a couple of notable exceptions) seem to build or achieve lift-off in the way that the early Italians do.”
    -- These two quotes describe my feelings about Wagner’s music in general (and the dreaded “Tristan und Isolde” in particular).

  • Will

    Unless policy at Bayreuth has changed radically, there is no such thing as six days without a spielfrei night or two if the Ring is involved. And even if it were, a jaunt to Bamberg and back could be managed albeit not allow ing an ideal amount of time to enjoy the many beauties of a lovely city which did not suffer bombing in WWII.

    Spielfrei nights can, of course, be filled sometimes with performances at the Margrave Opera House, but that is closed this summer for renovation as is Haus Wahnfried.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    “Fricka is a threat to the false media culture represented by the ‘television woman’”

    This is a very interesting idea, but from the description, the TV woman isn’t a viable comparison: she doesn’t obviously connect or contrast. On the basic level, what does eating cake in a gluttonous manner have to do with upholding the laws of marriage? As a media image, how does her vulgarity demonstrate false media culture? Wouldn’t an example of false media culture be the overly well-dressed, beautiful, and perfectly made-up housewives in their expensively decorated sitcom homes? For example, the good-looking woman married to the fat UPS guy?

    • phoenix

      Probably so DonCarlo -- the perfectly made-up broads with a glow-on we usually get on television are more true to form. But I think in this situation what Castrof intended was an image representing the manipulating origin-force that we never see but are always present BENEATH the sweet-talking images we usually do see (particularly in advertising and commercials). The television woman, as Gluttonous Goddess of Greed, appears as she truly is at her source.
      -- There is also another, different slant to it -- since the television woman (Gluttonous Goddess of Greed) first appears during the love duet in Act 1, she also serves as a Metaphorical Image Warning that passion taken too far can lead to the realms of self-indulgence, possessiveness, control and eventually greed itself.

      • RobNYNY1957

        It sounds like the opera was directed by Hermann Rorschach. You can make anything out of it that you want.

  • opera muse

    Back in the ‘good’ old days, Chereau was apparently attacked in the streets of Paris by outraged Wagner fans, who hated his production. Now it’s considered considered a classic. I’m not saying Castorf’s production will achieve that status but sadly many Wagnererians whine when a production is conventional and froth at the mouth when it’s confrontational. One is entitled to dislike a production, but how many of those who booed were prepared to take it seriously? One of the great things about the Ring is that it is open to interpretation, more than possibly any other work in the opera repertoire. That is what makes the work so timeless. There is no one way to stage the Ring. We keep going back to it because we keep wanting to see how someone new interprets it. One should be grateful that Bayreuth takes chances, even if a part of its audience is outraged.

    • damekenneth

      To be fair, I don’t see many Parterrians here “froth[ing] at the mouth.” I am under the impression that most of us are engaged in a real discussion about what the director is up to and whether we might get something of value out of it. Arising from this are very interesting questions, such as those raised by Mercadante and Oedipe, about artistic values in general and the role of the artist in society. I believe Castorf is being taken quite seriously here.

      • Well to be sure, Opera Muse said “Wagnerians” and not “Parterrerians.” I think as a group Parterrians are pretty open-minded.

        • damekenneth

          Oops, I misread in haste this morning. Sorry for that, Opera Muse.

        • opera muse

          I agree, and I was not aiming that description at Parterrians. Thanks to JJ’s splendid, thought-provoking post, the discussion has been serious, open-minded and illuminating. Unfortunately, I think a lot of Bayreuth regulars have a Bedürfnis to boo, (a not-so-distant relative of Schadenfreude). This often has little to do with feeling passionately against something but more about punishing the people who worked hard to make it possible. Castorf may have been provocative during the curtain calls. But all those booers took the bait and worked themselves into a frenzy, which made them seem ridiculous and a little scary.

          Booing can be rude, too: To boo a singer (Catherine Foster) after the second act of Walküre, knowing that she has her major singing to do in the third act, is cruel and out-of-line. It was only one or two who booed, but those two were heard around the world, mentioned in almost every review and news report of the production. Foster was cheered at the end of Act 3, by the way. And in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. (BR kept the microphone on the applause even after they signed off from their partipating stations).

          One of the fun forms of reporting at the Ring this year was the Berliner Zeitung’s live-ticker, whose reporter posted updates throughout the evening, not only about what happened on stage, but also what was happening during intermission. Like a soccer match. It was fun to read, and the reporter clearly enjoyed the production, posting lively, witty descriptions of his experience and the reactions of others.

        • Henry Holland

          I think as a group Parterrians are pretty open-minded

          Hahahahahaha, thanks for the laugh, La Cieca.

          Oh, wait. You’re probably serious.

          • manou

            Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

            • Henry Holland

              So when are you leaving?

            • manou

              As soon as I get my marching orders.

    • Ilka Saro

      opera muse, you make a good point about Chereau, and his controversial Ring gradually becoming accepted as ingenious.

      Chereau also had the curious advantage of his Ring being shown widely on television. I don’t know how many other Bayreuth Rings may have gotten broadcast in Germany or Europe, but that Ring on TV was a first for us Americans. Whether “everyone” saw it or not, there was not much else for many of us to compare it to. VCRs and videos were in their infancy back then. Luxuries that would become necessities over the course of a decade.

      Since that time, broadcast and video technology have evolved through several iterations. VHS was replaced by DVD then internet streaming. Broadcast was replaced by cable and satellite, and then the same internet streaming. Castorf’s production is available, but the context is different. Bayreuth may still have historic significance, but it’s video competes with many many other videos that we all have access to.

      Chereau’s advantage was that there was more “time and space” so to speak to take in his ideas. Now we simply watch one production, then another. We can still appreciate, even appreciate deeply. We can still learn, grow and change our minds. But I admit to feeling overwhelmed by the scale of what is available nowadays. My appetite is so continually sated — overfed — and that makes it difficult to digest any meal as long and complex as the Ring. Gesamtkunstwerk? I can barely tolerate the snacks!

      • Henry Holland

        If you look at Operabase, even the smaller houses in Germany do complete Ring cycles. It didn’t really use to be that way, it use to be an operatic Mount Everest. Or as my hiking/climbing fanatic boss might say, an operatic K2. I wonder if it’s because houses use reduced orchestrations and/or simple sets?

        I couldn’t get it to filter out performances of just one or two operas in the cycle, but I count 10 complete cycles, in places like Dessau and Erl, which are not in the top tier of German houses.

      • opera muse

        You’re right about the Chereau Ring. Not only was it the only Ring out there at the time, by the time it was shown on US television, it had already had several seasons in Bayreuth, and was becoming more accepted. About the plethora of Rings out there nowadays, I have only one regret: I’d like to see them all--out of curiosity. I know how good a Ring can be, from one small house in Germany, but there are others that I’m sure have enough interpretive, conceptual weight to make a visit worthwhile. But that would be binging, not snacking!

        • Ilka Saro

          You bring to mind images of Wagnerian bulimia. If it is binging to watch many Rings, one wonders what the purging might be? Would purging after binging on the Ring become uncontrollable, no longer voluntary?