Random Thoughts on the Bayreuth Festival

By Frank Cadenhead

The book isn’t next to me in my hotel room at Bayreuth, but otherwise it is always within arm’s reach. Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, an illuminating collection of music criticism at its worse, is a vast parade of bonehead reviews of the great classics. It is an obvious reminder that originality in art is not always what you had anticipated when you came through the door. But this very originality is the core of creativity and at the very heart of opera and other arts.

My first encounter with Frank Castorf’s universally-derided production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold on Friday, August 21, found me gobsmacked by the astounding virtuosity of the production and the raunchy energy took me by surprise. It was highly theatrical and the involvement of the singers were central to the dramatics onstage. It was busy and the action was layered with video close-ups on a screen which occupied about a quarter of the stage at the top. A cheap Texan Route 66 motel-gas station, with its above-ground plastic pool for the Rhine Maidens, was the new Valhalla and those chaste girls were now sex-toys for the boss.

The public was unusually aggressive in their disapproval when this production first appeared in 2013. The critics, like sheep, followed along, dismissing the staging and not even feeling the need to describe it in any detail. I read the reviews and the contempt and dismissal was solid, did not appear to need justification and assumed to be final. But this conformist reaction might give us a sense of just how much the world of opera needs to be shaken up. An art critic knows not to immediately rail at some artist who thinks he can paint a soup can and get away with it. Even a ballet critic knows better than to try to keep ballet what it was when he was young when he learned early on that Merce Cunningham was going to stick his finger in your eye the next time too. Journalism which assumes the status quo is universal truth is failing the art and the public deserves better.

The festival’s Ring Cycle program, with content now 21st Century casual, had an essay reminding readers of Wagner’s early political and artistic radicalism, important to understanding many of Castorf’s ideas. Also included were sections of a work explaining the concept of irony, a key element of the new staging but evidently a new experience for most reviewers.

Three years into this production, the Bayreuth audience cheered at the final curtain. The one or two who booed were resoundingly outvoted. And those doing the cheering are the regulars. There is not a lot of tattoos and piercing among the well-aged attendees but clearly they had a different reaction than the first-timers. Certainly the shock has worn off – as it always will, even with that painting of a soup can. While the art of opera has started shaking loose from the doldrums of the last half century with imaginative stagings and with a few new operas gaining attention, it still has a long way to go to find its original creative stride. As Wagner himself commanded, “Kinder! Macht Neues!” (Children, make the new).

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