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.

  • Oh Quanto!
    That’s how I’ve always wanted to stage the Ring!

    • Rowna

      Fabulous essay JJ! Not only did you do yourself proud, rethinking a work of presentational art, but your writing style is so clear that even I can understand it! We might not agree on the production (I doubt I will ever see it) but you made sense of the dizzying disorganization that was summarized by other reviewers and dismissed as either incomprehensible or downright offensive, before letting the totality sink in. You have the luxury of writing these long pieces, and you make fantastic use of the opportunities. Bravo! Oh and L’Shana Tova (happy new year to all.)

  • La Valkyrietta

    I do like Wagner and his music dramas. The more I hear about Castorf the less I like him. Put them together and what have you got? Bibbidi, babbidi boo. Well, next time there is a Castorf non-Wagnerian hit on Broadway or wherever handy I’ll try to make it.
    Thanks La Cieca for your patient exposition. It is appreciated.

    • Often admonished

      Great piece! has anybody mentioned the influence of Syberberg on this approach?

  • -Ed.

    I dunno. It sounds to me like a high school drama club production, writ large. Neophyte me, I can’t follow most of the references in this wonderful thread, but I do know I won’t be spending my money to jet off to Bayreuth anytime soon.

    JJ, your essay is a great piece. Such caring criticism, written from the heart of someone who adores the opera. As do we all.

    Now, if nobody minds, I’m going to bed. I’ve been on my porch sipping Metaxa ouzo all evening with great friends. I shall lull myself to sleep with my Lorraine Hunt Lieberson CD of Bach cantatas playing softly, ever so softly, in the background.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Bach was an influence on Wagner, and so was Mozart, and Beethoven, and so many others. Wagner took 20 years, on and off, to complete the Ring. As Bach work, the Ring also will survive pretentious vandalism. In the future there will be the clowns and the purists and whatever, the audience can choose. Thank Valhalla Bayreuth’s today has not the only Ring on the market.

  • operaassport

    An absolutely brilliant analysis on every level.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Oh dear… serious news about Mortier’s health problems:
    Slipped disk has more on the story

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      More musical chairs in the offing.

  • Henry Holland

    As long as the chair in Madrid isn’t occupied by a Spaniard, it seems.

    I wish Mr. Mortier a speedy recovery.

    There’s some great howlers in the Google Translate version of the QPF’s link:

    The ambition of Gerard Mortier to Teatro Real bequeath Wagner ‘s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen , which was extended for another year its contract, has been parked . In the present circumstances seems unapproachable.

    I like that, “the new production of [name of opera] was parked until 2015-16”.

    The future news is interesting, a FROSCH with Fura dels Baus and the Salzburg Parsifal especially, but Don Carlo with Der Zwerg Peter Sellars directing? Yikes. Then there’s a Robert Wilson La Traviata, why bother?

    • Feldmarschallin

      The Don Carlos has been cancelled due to finances. This is what I heard from someone who was to be in the cast.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Because mortier specializes in mediocity and deception

      • Feldmarschallin

        Well his time in Salzburg was certainly a highlight there and he lasted for 11 years. The SZ just had an article about Salzburg and said everything that he achieved there is now gone down the drain and we are in a state of mediocre Stadttheater there. I couldn’t agree with that more. Salzburg has become completely boring.

        • Todd

          Absolutely--the Herheim Meistersinger is a complete joke. It’s like he took all the worst of his Xerxes, ignored all that worked in Parsifal and Boheme, and inserted it into a Biedermeier fantasy.

          On the other hand, Markus Werba--yum.

          • That sounds a little harsh to me. Maybe the production is not 100% successful (that wooden Walther!) but I would hardly call it “a complete joke.” (I know the show only from the webcast: maybe it looked worse in the theater.)

            • tornado12

              Actually it looked extraordinarily good (that writing table turned into a church is maybe one of the most beautiful stage designs I ever saw (and I mean not only live)), but some of the singers were really bad and the production wasn’t really an eye-opener but should every production be something like that? It was certainly better than almost everything we have here in Hamburg. I hope for better singers and conducting (P. Jordan) in Paris.

            • Feldmarschallin

              No it looked better in the theater La Cieca. I saw it in the theater and on TV. It was way too dark on TV. The Walter and Eva were a joke as was the conducting but the production was quite good as was the Sachs, David and Beckmesser.

            • Todd

              I’ll admit I also only saw the webcast, and I do think that Herheim’s productions, maybe more than anyone else’s, have to be see live since so much of his interest (and strength) lies in playing with the fourth wall and various theatrical conventions.

              But imagining Meistersinger as Sachs’s invention just didn’t seem insightful to me in the least, and I found that setting the piece in this Biedermeier wonderland served mainly to provide the excuse for sumptuous sets (apparently the most expensive ever in Salzburg, though I only heard that from one source). And that’s the problem sometimes with Herheim, I find: without a more rigorous concept to delineate how, why, and where he’s going to play with operatic theatricality, such as in his Boheme, productions like Xerxes and Meistersinger consist *only* of coupes de theatres (like the desk becoming the church), or as Wagner charged of the French, Wirkung ohne Ursache.

              That said, Markus Werba has a new admirer.

      • Henry Holland

        Mortier had successful runs at three of the top jobs in European opera (La Monnaie, the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opera) and helped found the Ruhr Triennale, if he’s “mediocre”, what does that say about people like Joseph Volpe, Peter Gelb, David Gockley, Anthony Freud in Chicago and that maroon Placido Domingo, who almost oversaw the ruin of *two* opera companies?

        I bet there’s more than a few board members of the New York City Opera who now wish they hadn’t lied to Mortier about how much his budget was going to be and all the other well documented shenanigans. George Steel, hell yeah!

  • tornado12

    As we are speaking of Wagner and Bayreuth, here is the full (dark) video of the Tristan-production of Wieland Wagner on tour in Osaka 1967:

    Well, that is more than wonderful… Nilsson, Windgassen and Hotter, conducted by Boulez. What could be better? Oh, right, uncut and in color. But still, this is a video for the ages!

    • Byrnham Woode

      I have that TRISTAN on an old VHS tape set. The teen minute cut in act two is observed. It happens shortly after Tristan’s entrance.

      Brilliant performance otherwise.

    • Henry Holland

      It’s also available on pirate DVD:

      I’ve bought stuff from them before, they ship quickly and the quality is about as good as you’d expect from a pirate.