Cher Public

No one who speaks German could be an evil man

If Frank Castorf‘s work on Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth accomplishes nothing else, it should serve as a sort of loud disorganized reminder of the dangers of indulging in the intentional fallacy.

The disturbing thing here is that practically every English-language critic reviewing the show fell into that trap to a greater or lesser extent. I know I did, so I feel comfortable pointing out that Anthony Tommasini fid it too, and so did Alex Ross.

I’m not going to guess what might have led Tony and Alex astray; my own mistakes I think I have a better handle on. I assumed early on I knew what Castorf was up to—a different “something” perhaps from what my colleagues did—and that (wrong) assumption so colored my perception that a lot of the cycle was more confusing than it needed to be.  Or, to put it another way, I found Castorf’s vision for the cycle confusing in the wrong way, since, at this point, I do think that part of what Castorf was up to was “confusing,” though in a more positive sense than that term is generally used.

Being confused is not generally a pleasant state to be in, especially for those of us whose livelihood depends on our not only understanding what we see but being able to explain it in a limited number of words on a deadline. And so the confusion unfortunately, if understandably, evoked some feelings of hostility among certain critics (I’ll omit those names) and among a sizable portion of the audience. Throw in a little defense-mechanism projection and, voilà, we have the story of the summer: Frank Castorf is an old meanie who deliberately set out to piss off his audience, and now he’s laughing at us—laughing!—in his mockery.

I suggest we back away for the moment from the response, and focus for a moment on the cause of all this emotion, whether expressed in booing or intemperate criticism. For me and possibly for some other reviewers of the piece, the confusion mentioned above I think had to a lot to do with genre, or anyway expectation of genre.

Up until last week, I was fairly secure in my snug little belief that there are essentially two broadly-defined ways to approach operatic direction, which for purposes of this discussion I’m going to call Traditional and Regie. “Traditional” is in part fairly easy to understand; that is, a production that more or less closely hews to a combination of published stage directions and accreted stage business, like, for example, a Franco Zeffirelli Tosca or Otto Schenk‘s Meistersinger. True, some of the details of this sort of production might seem a little alien to the composers themselves or to audiences of the time of the works’ first performances. But in general, these productions represent a quite low level of directorial intervention.

Since we’re working with only two genres here, let’s include with the first group the “updates” in which the main action of the piece remains unaltered, e.g., Michael Mayer‘s Rigoletto, which, if it’s “about” anything, is about the lavish use of neon as a scenic element. I think it’s fair to place here as well David McVicar, Jonathan Miller, Richard EyreBartlett Sher and so forth. Robert Lepage‘s Ring belongs here too, and so does most of Peter Stein‘s work.

Now, on the other side of the divide, the “Regie,” we find a much higher level of intervention, mediating the experience of the opera through a more or less clearly-defined lens of “concept.” One relevant example might be Hans Neuenfels‘ take on Lohengrin, which not only changes the dramatic action into a shadowy and only partially understood scientific experiment, but more significantly shifts the identity of the protagonist: ironically, this Lohengrin is one of the few in which the piece is actually centered on the title character.

Obviously here we are talking about Martin Kusej, Stefan HerheimPeter KonwitschnyKrzysztof WarlikowskiFrançois Girard, Willy Decker… the entire Opera Cake roll call. These directors have rather different methods and visual aesthetics, but what binds them into a genre is a certain underlying intellectual rigor. The productions, even the strangest and most extreme ones, feel satisfyingly consistent and unified, organized around a firm conceptual principle.

In order to get to the next stage of the discussion, I’m going to oversimplify these two genres a bit. If we think of an operatic production as a type of rhetoric, the Traditional presents its argument in the form of a clear, unambiguous statement; the Regie more intriguingly seems to ask a question. That question, though, is so circumscribed and well-defined that it tends to point quite clearly toward an answer or a cluster of closely-related answers.

Neuenfels’ Lohengrin very clearly indicates that the whole stage action is some sort of test or “trial” for the title character, and there is a very strong suggestion that, whatever that test is, he fails. Exactly who is administering the experiment, or what sort of eventual result is sought, is murkier, but arguably that uncertainty on the part of the audience is organic to the theme of the piece, i.e., that we never have complete understanding of the forces that impel us.

Now, this sort of production is engaging and fascinating because it is in a sense a puzzle: our task as spectators is to solve the riddle the director sets us, with the understanding that he has some sort of answer in mind. Even in the work of Calixto Bieito, that “answer” can be derived, even if it’s in fairly vague terms: life is terrifying or brutish or irrational, but at least we have the opportunity to see something of the nature of life: it’s not completely a mystery.

The problem here is that we do tend, or at least I do tend, to approach the direction of opera in these either-or terms, and when a production works outside that binary system, it can be confusing. Something that does not immediately read as Traditional must therefore fit our construct of Regie: that is, it all means something, it’s all part of a pattern, if only we can find the key.

And that’s where Castorf fucks you up, because he’s completely outside this narrowly-defined system. What’s worse, he’s operating at Bayreuth where, in general, the Regie model is supreme. As such, you expect a Regie production, and even when the staging doesn’t seem to follow the expected formula, you try to make it fit. You dismiss whole chunks of the production as “failed” or “boring” because you expect them to behave as they would behave in a Regie production. And even the “better” (read: “more immediately comprehensible”) bits of the show don’t really land right, because you’re looking at them through the Regie lens.

The water is further muddied by our take on Castorf. If we assume he’s trying to work in the Regie style, then we have to conclude he’s not very good at it, so the production is in those terms a failure. Or else, since presumably there are only two ways directors are supposed to work, Castorf’s violation of the rules of genre must be intended as a deliberate insult: to the audience, to Bayreuth, to Wagner.

It’s like reading a mystery novel starting with a wrong assumption of who the murderer is: a lot of the book is either not going to make sense or else we are going to torture what we’re reading into making the wrong sort of sense: we start concocting these massive, intricately detailed scenarios of how Lord Grimley could have an airtight alibi, or even be dead, and yet still be knocking off the other members of the shooting party at Longbottom Lodge. Or, worse, imagine if after all that effort on our part to convict Lord Grimley, it turns out the novel’s not a whodunit at all. “This author’s no Agatha Christie,” we grumble, and warm up our booing voices.

Well, the thing is, Castorf isn’t Agatha Christie, and he’s not Hans Neuenfels or even Harry Kupfer either.  He’s essentially created his own genre of theater that has nothing to do with our binary system. To go back to our “rhetorical” model, Castorf doesn’t provide answers and really doesn’t even ask leading questions. Rather, he yells a lot of unrelated statements mixed up with animal noises and screams and jokes and he doesn’t expect us to take away anything very clear-cut. Maybe we feel something, or maybe we don’t, but rational, measured thought is not a high priority.

This is difficult because I don’t think we have any sort of close equivalent of Castorf’s type of theater in the United States. In a way he is something like Robert Wilson in that each of these artists has over a lifetime built a very idiosyncratic theatrical vocabulary that to an outsider would likely seem hermetic and off-putting. But the only thing their styles have in common is extreme individuality: Castorf’s theater is as noisy and messy as Wilson’s is glacial and serene.

Castor’s home company, the Volksbühne, doesn’t really have a New York equivalent. Maybe if you imagined the Public Theater with a much-expanded Wooster Group as a resident year-round company? The point is that Castorf is used to working with an ensemble he has chosen, and, more to the point, who have chosen to work with him. The audience is also there by choice: with ticket prices topping out at 30 Euros, anyone who likes what the Volksbühne is doing can attend as much as he likes, and anyone who doesn’t care for the company style has plenty of other theater to see in Berlin.

Now, this is a dream situation for an artist in many ways, but the skills developed in such a venue don’t necessarily travel well, particularly given the very different demands of working with opera singers in an opera house. In general, opera houses are set up for an efficient production process, with intricate advance planning. Not every theater is like the Met, where (for example) a singer can find out right now what scene from what opera he’ll be rehearsing in November of 2014, but in most places there’s a strong expectation that the bulk of the creative work will have been done in advance, and (to a large extent) the singers can look forward to being given detailed, specific instructions on how and when to move as needed.

Part of the job of the opera regisseur, in fact, is creating the illusion of an acting performance on a singer who really can’t act, giving a tenor (it’s usually a tenor) 10 or 12 well-crafted bits of business across an evening that the singer will bridge with whatever stage presence he shows up with. It’s not really acting, but if you don’t look too close, you can’t tell so much.

And I think this is true even in solidly Regie productions: Herheim or Kusej can’t always count on having a real stage animal cast as Hans Sachs or Rusalka, so, as a matter of safety, these directors (and their peers) have learned shortcuts, ways around the impossible task of teaching an entire cast to act in just six weeks.

These shortcuts are not apparently part of Castorf’s skill set, and I think that shows in this Ring.  Fortunately, some of the performers come in with strong acting skills and, more to the point, a willingness to meet their director at least halfway. This is certainly true of Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Allison Oakes (Gutrune), Martin Winkler (Alberich) and especially the artist who ended up being the de facto star of this cycle, Burkhard Ulrich as Mime. Other singers, like Lance Ryan (Siegfried) and Wolfgang Koch (Wotan) seemed a little less in tune with Castorf’s over-the-top to the point of absurdity approach, but they committed and what they did was always exciting.

Then there were performers like Catherine Foster, the Brünnhilde, and Attila Jun, the Hagen, who are by nature perhaps rather blank as actors or even as stage personalities. (I remember Jun was also a weak link dramatically in the otherwise insanely passionate Parsifal I saw in Stuttgart a couple years ago.) The feeling I got was that Castorf didn’t quite know how to paper over their deficiencies the way a more experienced opera stage director likely would, and since these are two of the most important characters in the Ring, a lot of the tension he was going for inevitably unwound.

But the basic problem here remains, I think, that Castorf’s idiosyncratic aesthetic and the Bayreuth audience (including me) were not, at first at least, a very easy fit. Castorf is capable, even expert, at creating a certain type of theater; the audience is skilled at understanding a very different type, and, by the time we figured out we were speaking two different languages, the conversation was already more than halfway over.

To see this Ring in a second season likely would be very rewarding. I think I’m beginning to understand what Castorf is trying to say, and, with any luck, another year of experimentation will refine his operatic communication skills.