Aug 31st 2015

Castorf’s sets “Die Walküre” in the oil fields of the US and USSR

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy.

The decadence of the Nordic gods continued to be a major theme in Bayreuth’s “Die Walküre” as envisioned by Frank Castorf, who grew up in East Germany with the Marxist view of the world. According to the program notes, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels were well aware of Richard Wager’s Ring, and didn’t approve of the Nordic gods morals.  With the incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde being a major part of “Die Walküre,” Castorf presented Wotan and his girls, the Valkyries, as sleazy types in the production given on Saturday, August 22nd.   This time, however, Castorf dropped the gangster theme that he used in “Das Rheingold” and instead tried to make a connection between the Rhine gold and black gold. He vaguely set the story (with the help of set designer Aleksandar Denić)  in the oil field regions of the US and Russia (USSR actually) and added some video clips of oil workers for good measure. The videos (Andreas Deinert) were not as distracting as in “Das Rheingold,” but they didn’t enhance the production, which was very anti-romantic.


The first act opened with a wooden barn that also served as a farmhouse. One end of the structure was dominated by a big wooden tower. There were hay bales, and in a large cage, two turkeys (or something like them) strutted around.  The hay bales must have been very light weight and undersized, because Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) moved about a dozen of them around even though she wore a dress and short heels. (I have worked on a farm (in eastern Washington) and moved hay bales – they are usually 80 or more pounds apiece – and it’s not a lot of fun.) She made a nice wall of the bales for Siegmund (Johan Botha).

Hunding (Kwangchul Youn) arrived with a very long spear that was adorned with the freshly cut-off head of a man. (This is curious, since Hunding said that he had got to the battle too late to do anything.) Hunding was elegantly dressed with a top hat, which he placed on top of the head. He commanded Sieglinde harshly, and dispatched her with a couple of vehement kisses.

Via a large screen, the audience watched Hunding fall asleep on his bed, which was inside the barn/farmhouse.  Later, the screen showed Wotan (Wolfgang Koch) making a phone call to Fricka or maybe Erda (it was difficult to know which one), interrupting her consumption of a cake, in order to send her a dress, which she went gaga over.

The stage rotated to a side of the barn that had two large doors and train tracks. Somewhere along the way an image of Lenin appeared on the screen. Siegmund and Sieglinde sang of their love for each other but they never embraced or showed all that much affection. The sword was inside the barn and Siegmund pulled it out easily – as if he were removing a knife from butter. Sieglinde hopped around joyfully with the sword.

For Act 2, Fricka (Claudia Mahnke) wore an outfit that made her look like a cross between Cleopatra and the Queen of the Night. Wotan sported a huge Old-Testament-sized beard that was obviously fake. On the screen, there were black and white videos of dynamite blasts and gushing oil wells.  In the scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster), Wotan no longer had the beard.

Sigmund’s fight against Hunding took place inside the barn, and the audience could only view part of it on the big screen. But the cameraman did focus on Siegmund’s when he slowly died so that everyone could see it on the big screen.

Act 3 opened with the several heroes running up to the top of the tower and collapsing in death at various levels. The Valkyries (Allison Oakes, Dara Hobbs, Claudia Mahnke, Nadine Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Julia Rutigliano, Simone Schröder, and Alexandra Petersamer) were dressed in various outdoor dresses, which they removed to reveal party dresses. They ogled the heroes’ dead bodies in an erotic way, but they also took time to sit down and enjoy appetizers some alcohol. After Wotan picked up a saddle and slammed it down, the Valkyries panicked and abandon their sister Brünnhilde, who had walked in earlier with Sieglinde before directing her to safety.

Because of the Russian-like letters on the side of the barn, the setting had definitely transitioned to Russia (perhaps the Baku-region of the former USSR). When Brünnhilde passionately pled her case, Wotan ignored her and began chugging down a bottle of vodka. Later, he picked up a big bear rug and threw it to the side.  During this time an oil pumping rig was moved out of the barn on railroad tracks, and began its see-saw action.

After the stage turned again, the audience could barely see Brünnhilde as she fell asleep on a bunk bed (painted white).  A cameraman zeros in on her face so that we can see it on a screen.  Wotan then called for Loge’s help, and the scene closed with a large barrel of oil in flames.

The singing was of the highest caliber, with every singer doing their utmost. Power combined with beautiful tone was always in the forefront. Botha’s “Wälse! Wälse!” was a wonderful highlight. Also, Koch impressively made “Das Ende” grow with very little vibrato. Mahnke threw everything but the kitchen sink into her scene with Koch, and was rewarded with thunderous applause afterwards. But the most adulation was given to Kampe – at least until conductor Kirill Petrenko appeared. He and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest ovations. Again, the music (with its hugely romantic ebb and flwo) won out over the staging.

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