Hagen emerges as the heroic agent of change in Castorf’s “Götterdämmerung”
Frank Castorf’s maintained his anti-romantic stance with his production of “Götterdämmerung” at Bayreuth on Wednesday, August 26th, and went further by giving the heroic music of Siegfried’s Funeral March and the final measures of the opera to Hagen. That is, Hagen was portrayed (via video) as the recipient of the music. Perhaps it was Castorf’s nod to Hagen as the agent of change in the story. In any case, the many scenes of conflict in “Götterdämmerung” played well towards Castorf’s vision, because he didn’t shrink away from them. However, the addition of gestures that suggested voodoo (sacrificial chicken, shrine of candles, spitting, etc.) didn’t add anything. The singing and the orchestra, guided by Kirill Petrenko, were outstanding once again.
The opening scene showed a stairwell, and the bottom level was decorated with candles so that it resembled a shrine. Black and white images flickered from a TV in the back area of the shrine. There was a fair amount of plastic debris, so we had the feeling of being in an urban dystopia. The First Norn (Anna Lapkovskaja) emerged from under a plastic bag, and the Norns (Claudia Mahnke and Christiane Kohl) slipped into view. One of them dangled a chicken that was apparently going to be sacrificed a la voodoo in order to read the future. Some of them began to paint the walls red, dipping their hands into a jar and smearing it all over the place. As they grew more despairing of not being able to see into the destiny, they threw the remaining paint at the wall and exited up the stairwell.
After the stage rotated, we saw the beaten-up Airstream in front of a huge wall. Siegfreid (Stefan Vinke) sat on a bench supported by beer kegs at each end. Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster) wore a bathrobe and tried to read the future with her tarot cards while Siegfried sang. After flipping the cards on the ground, Brünnhilde went into the trailer and brought out a baby doll – another voodoo gesture. Somewhere along the way, Siegfried gave her the ring and left for his next adventure.
The stage turned again to reveal a worn-out food vendor stand. Gutrune (Allison Oakes), although very interested in Hagen (Stephen Milling), agreed to his plot to marry Siegfried. As an enticement, Hagen removed the plastic that covered a brand new Isetta. (The Isetta was one of the most popular cars in post-war West Germany.) Gutrune quickly got a box of chocolates and some champagne and stepped behind the steering wheel. The big screen showed close ups of Gunther (Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester) beginning to have second thoughts about Hagen’s plans.
The blood-brotherhood scene between Siegfried and Gunther was gruesome because it featured lots of blood streaming down their forearms. It was almost a relief to see them bandage themselves up with lots of white gauze-tape. In the meantime, Hagen would drink and spit out the contents – another nod to voodoo.
The stage rotated back to the trailer where Brünnhilde received an impassioned warning from Waltraute (Claudia Mahnke). The scene worked very well, except for the bare, bright lightbulb that was placed in the middle. Was the lightbulb a metaphor for Siegfried and two moths circling it? Who cares? The main thing was that its harshness of the light from the bulb was annoying to everyone in the audience.
The scene in which Siegfried posed as Gunther to conquer Brünnhilde and get the ring was extremely well done. At one point Siegfried shoved Brünnhilde so hard that she slammed violently against the trailer. It was a wonder that Foster could sing anything at all after that, but she was outstanding, and when he forced the ring from her finger, it felt like she had been violated.
Act II opened up at the stairwell. An unknown woman sat near the top and a baby carriage was positioned on a level below. As Alberich (Albert Dohman) walked by Hagen and up the stairwell, past the carriage, and to the woman, the relationship between them was immediately clear. This was another excellent scene – made all the better by Milling’s hauntingly dusky voice.
The stage rotated to the vendor stand. There was a balcony nearby, which the male chorus filled and was later joined by the women chorus, spilling over to the floor of the stage. They seemed to me more engaged with themselves and with the cameramen (we could watch numerous close ups of chorus members on a big screen) than with the turmoil between Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Gunther, Gutrune, and Hagen.
To the left of the vendor stand was a large set of stairs, and at the top was a baby carriage. Brünnhilde, in a gold dress, ran to the carriage. Hagen seemed to stalk her. Gunther descended the stairs and removed the plastic covering over some tables and chairs where the three figure out what to do with Siegfried. A man pushed the carriage from the top of the stairs, causing it to crash and spill a bunch of apples. That was a reference to a similar scene in the movie “Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein.
At the beginning of Act III, we noticed that someone has been left for dead on the street. The three Rhinemaidens (Anna Lapkovskaja, Mirella Hagen, and Julia Rautigliano) picked him up and put him in the truck of their car (the same car that they had used in “Das Rheingold”). After Siegfried entered the scene, the Rhinemaidens plied him with snacks, which he tossed aside. They tried to seduce him one way or the other and even showed him the body of the dead man in the trunk in order to warn him of his fate, if he didn’t give them the ring. He ignored them and walks over to the stairwell where he added some graffiti and then beat up a homeless man.
Siegfried returned to the car and Gunther and Hagen enter. All three were erotically entangled with the Rhinemaidens, behind them an enormous white sheet fell to the ground, revealing the famous façade of the New York Stock Exchange. The stage rotated past a sign that read BUNA. (I found out later that BUNA was the name of a big company in East Germany that made plastics.) The stage stopped in front of the worn-out vendor stand. That was where Hagen loudly murders Siegfried with a huge club that reminded me of a baseball bat. During the funeral music, Siegfried was not carried out. The chorus vanished, and instead we watch Hagen exit the scene and follow him on a big screen as he goes deeper and deeper into a forest. So, Hagen got the heroic music instead of Siegfried.
The stage turned again to the large steps. Siegfried’s body was laid out on a sheet of large plastic. Hagen murdered Gunther with the baseball bat. There was a number of oil barrels stacked in front of a table. Hagen hit one of them and oil gushed out. At the sight of Siegfried, Gutrune clutched her head and went insane. Brünnhilde wandered over to the Airstream trailer, which was parked in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The Rheinmaidens were asleep at the wheel of their car, and Brünnhilde shows them the ring. Brünnhilde then opened the trunk of the car, and pulled out two gasoline cans. She poured the contents onto the floor of the stage, but instead of light the floor and burning down the New York Stock Exchange, a barrel of oil catches on fire. The ring was dropped into the burning barrel and Hagen tried to get it. The last scene was shown on the big screen with Hagen on a bier floating placidly across a lake.
All of the principals received thunderous applause with the most given to Milling, who was indeed superb.. Marco-Buhrmester’s voice showed a vibrato that was starting to get out of bounds. The chorus, prepared expertly by Eberhard Friedrich) rocked the stage. Again, Petrenko and the orchestra got the most acclaim.
Overall, this “Götterdämmerung” and “Das Rheingold” were the two best evenings of the Ring Cycle that I experienced in Bayreuth. The idea of elevating Hagen to near-hero status was intriguing. So, if you want to see this unusual take on the Ring Cycle, you have two more chances, because the Castorf Ring runs will run next season and the following.