All right, I admit it; I finally broke down and read the program notes for the Ring in the Bayreuth program book.  

The usual essays explicating the “Konzept” were there but not very helpful or, for that matter, very enthusiastic. Frank Castorf  doesn’t work in the same way as Hans Neuenfels or Stefan Herheim or even Calixto Bieito; if there’s a formal intellectual basis to what’s on the stage it’s not at all apparent. One essay speaks of how the disjointed rehearsal schedule for this Ring in some ways helped reveal the meaning of the piece, described as “fragmented” and especially how this inherently messy process seemed to pair well with the “freedom and anarchy that are peculiar to Wagner’s works.”

The biggest surprise was the identity of the author of these notes: Castorf’s assistant director and de facto dramaturg, Patric Seibert—or, as we have called him until now, “David Cross“—that is, the distinctive and comic actor who plays the gas station attendant in Rheingold (the one who leads the finale zombie dance), a couple of dead bodies in Walküre, and of course most notably (so far) the Bear in Siegfried.

This longtime member of Castor’s Volksbuhne company is a protean actor and I think a good example of the sort of performer the director relies on to achieve his visit: fearless, willing to look ridiculous and (it seems to me) a creative self-starter: you give him an idea (or he gives you an idea) and then you watch him run with it.

So, as of Götterdämmerung, I’m going to suggest that the strongest performances (and the most interesting scenes) are the product of singers who happen to fit the Castorf mold. For example, Martin Winkler, the Alberich, makes something very important of his one scene in this opera. And that’s despite the fact that he doesn’t do all that much in the way of what we think of as flashy operatic acting: not a lot of big gestures or striking poses, no suffering or gloating or really strong emotion of any sort.

But what he does accomplish is creating an air of mystery, of something horrible about to happen, by simply stalking around the set—representing an abandoned urban street corner—without his pants on. He’s still dressed in the Speedo and cowboy boots and jacket he sported in Das Rheingold, however many years or generations ago that was supposed to have taken place. Does he wear this peculiar outfit (and, remember, stroll around on the street just before dawn) to remind himself of his shame and to goad himself to seek revenge? Or is he a ghost? A memory? Or is something else going on?

The point is, it really doesn’t matter. Castorf isn’t trying to present a conventional narrative, I don’t think; rather, he’s trying to shove us off balance, to evoke in us a mood, with the result (which I’m not saying he deliberately intends) that our relationship to the work is subverted or at least altered. This is good thing, and it happened a lot in this Götterdämmerung.

From the very beginning, in fact. The curtain opens on yet another towering, eerily beautiful set by Aleksandar Denic, this one presenting a series of slices of a rundown urban area. The focus of the first scene is a cutaway section of an industrial building’s stairwell, with an open-air foyer at ground level closed off with a folding metal grate. Just outside this area is what looks like an impromptu memorial arrangement: a small collection of candles, flowers, greeting cards and other objects. From stage right a trio of figures trudge on, hidden behind dingy garment bags. As these women drop their bundles, we see that they are the Norns, and that, surprisingly, they are all young and quite glamorously dressed in flowing, décolletée evening gowns in jewel tones.

As they sing their narratives of the events leading up to the imminent crisis, one by one, they pick up the memoral objects and move them in to the little concrete courtyard, where, se now see, a television set is playing an unrecognizable video.As they grow more agitated, theiir behavior gset more extreme. They fling bowls of blood at the wall and then smear it on the walls. They tie a rope and some old rags into the TV set, a web that breaks right on cue. Then, perversely, they announce they are going “hinab” before starting up the fire escape stairs wearily.

In fact, this scene served as a sort of visual microcosm of much of this Ring as a whole: a towering, stage-filling space that includes a small, enclosed area where the performers tend to crowd, like the motel in Rheingold, the terrace bar in Walküre and Mime’s trailer in Siegfried. That trailer, in fact, shows up again in this work, first as the gypsy-like home of Brunnhilde and Siegfried for the “dawn duet.” As in their love scene in the previous work, the pair don’t seem at all enthusiastic about each other. They sit quietly on an improvised bench in semi-darkness, their faces mostly in shadow from an overhead unshaded light bulb.  The hero displays no overt enthusiasm about “neuen Taten,” instead lazily stretching out on the bench and moodly lighting matches one after another as the “Rhine Journey” music starts.

One way or another, though, Siegfried must have roused himself, because he does show up at the Gibichung place, here a down-at-heel industrial block with an old-fashioned farmers’ vegetable stand next door to a Döner Box, a sort of franchised gyro joint that is a shorthand for “fast food” in Germany. It’s not clear if the Gibichungs actually operate these small businesses or perhaps just own them. With Gutrune as a Kathy Griffin lookalike in a hideous but pricey-looking evening dress and Gunther as that guy with the bleached platinum hair and a logo-encrusted track suit, and Hagen a punk wannabe, they don’t exactly project “working class entrepreneurs.”

This scene progresses more or less as written: the brotherhood ritual involves a big whonking kitchen knife that sends blood splattering all over the place and a fainting Gunther wrapping his arm in a towel. We do get to see, via projected video, Gutrune changing from one whorey dress to another and preparing the forgetfulness potion. Siegfried underplays the potion business, effectively I thought—in a quiet moment just turning to Gutrune with a cruisey change of body language, giving her the business he never bothered to use on Brunnhilde.

The Waltraute scene was terrific: not a lot of movement, just Claudia Mahnke in an Erte-esque evening gown and silver-beaded cowl headdress showing up at Brunnhilde’s trailer, where Catherine Foster is shlepping around in a dark silk bathrobe. This is played against a towering wall wrapped in white tarpaulin, suggesting Christo’s installation at the Reichstag. Mahnke sings the narrative simply, with a lot of attention to the text, in the unusually slow tempo set by Kirill Petrenko. What’s most interesting here is Brunnhilde’s reaction, played by Foster with a sort of passive-aggressive bitterness, as if to say, “What’s all this to me? I have nothing to do with Wotan or Walhall any more, so why are you telling me all this?”

Foster is very impressive, as frankly she has not been generally through the earlier parts of the cycle. With very little movement, and only dimly lit, she holds the eye despite the competition of 30-foot tall projections of the glowering, heavily made-up face of Wolfgang Koch as Wotan.

The return of Siegfried is very creepy as it is done with almost no movement, and this time the (unrelated) projection is particularly horrific, an infrared shot of a man in sunglasses fondling a baby doll and leaving glowing shadows across its eyes where his fingers gouged them. The only disguise for Siegfried is a copy of Gunther’s track suit: he’s now one of them.

Foster continues strong in the second act, which, aside from the Alberich scene, plays very much like you would expect Götterdämmerung to go: the vassals are called, Brunnhilde arrives (in a Broadway-loud red sequinned sheath), oaths are traded. It’s very physical, violent at times, but linear, logical. For the conspiracy scene, the revolve reveals a steep staircase between two towering walls, and you just know something horrible is going to happen there sooner or later. (In fact, we glimpsed this corner of the set earlier in Act One, with Seibert running up and down the stairs in a panic.)

The actor reappears for what I think will be the “iconic” scene in this production, the image for which it will be instantly remembered. Just the moment Hagen utters, “Siegfrieds Tod!” Seibert appears at the top of the staircase pushing a baby carriage. He suddenly panics and sends the pram tumbling down the staircase a la Bronenosets Po’tyomkin, though the contents of the carriage are in this case a bushel of potatoes. Oh, it makes a massive amount of noise, but somehow I found the effect just perfect, so sudden and so unexpected and so unthinkable, like the notion of murdering Siegfried suddenly presented to Brunnhilde.

It should be noted that Foster pitches right in, grabbing potatoes and flinging them at Gunther and Hagen as they seem to drag their feet on the murder plot.

You may remember that the Rhinemaidens drove off in a stolen convertible at the end of Das Rheingold, and now, whether it’s generations later or the same week, they show up at the end of their road trip in the big city. The interaction with Siegfried is half-hearted: they know he’s playing them and he knows they’re playing him. The next revolve brings on a different aspect of the cityscape, with a fire burning in a garbage can. After his narrative, Siegfried is left to die among the garbage: there’s no funeral procession, and, oddly, the Trauermarsch is played against a film of Hagen, minus his mohawk, wandering through a forest.

The Immolation progresses around the revolve until the giant building facade is undraped to reveal the New York Stock Exchange. The finale is underplayed to the point of almost not being played at all. Brunnhilde quietly hands the Ring to one of the Rhinemaidens; they play with it for a few minutes, then toss it into the blazing garbage can. Hagen, apparently too cowardly to try to retrieve it, sits dejectedly watching the fire as, behind him, a projected film shows him calmly floating down a river on a rubber raft.

Though there were boos earlier in the cycle (not much louder than the boos that greeted every act of Lohengrin) I heard none at the end of Götterdämmerung. Castorf did not take a curtain call.

So what’s it all about? I’ll have another installment later this weekend when I try out a few theories.

Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath