Everything is set up to provide the highest quality musical experience, exactly as Wagner had envisioned it, and faithful to the last 1/32 note. The dramatic staging is quite another story.
Germans go in for “alternative” interpretations. I suppose it is possible to see 4 or 5 productions throughout Germany and the rest of Europe during a single year, so same-old same-old would get rather boring after a while. The stage directors at the Bayreuth Festspiele have complete freedom to come up with whatever interpretation they can dream up in regards to sets, costumes, movement of the singers. This is the third year of the Frank Castorf production and it is widely regarded as being totally outrageous.
First, even non opera buffs will be familiar with the cliché of an enormous blond lady with helmet and horns holding a spear and a shield shrieking at the top of her lungs. Yep, this is it. Her name is Brunnhilde and she is the real hero of the story. If you find an old video of the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera Doc”, watch it as it churns through all the clichés to the sound of Wagner’s glorious music. As it invites clichéd send-ups, it also invites wacky interpretations which can become clichés in their own right.
The story goes like this. Magic gold in the Rhine is guarded by the Rhine daughters, three water nymphs, but it gets stolen by a dwarf named Alberich who forges it into a ring that gives ultimate power to its owner. Everybody wants to get their hands on it, not so much for their own power but to make sure somebody else doesn’t get hold of it and have power over others. So the setting is mythical landscapes of Wagner’s imagination.
The Castorf setting? A sleazy run down Rt 66 motel in Texas, the Rhine daughters are truck-stop hookers sun tanning by the above-ground pool (the Rhine). A Jake Blues lookalike named Alberich steals the gold, which is apparently a quarter that fell out of somebody’s swimming trunks. Just then, Wotan (king of the gods) and his entourage pull up in their Mercedes and check in to the motel and immediately start a threesome with his wife Fricka and her sister Freia. After the threesome Freia finds out that Wotan has sold her to a couple of brutish diesel mechanics named Fafnir and Fasolt who are building him a new mansion to be called Valhalla. Are you getting all this?
Other settings are a 19th century drilling platform in the Caspian Sea, Alexander Platz in Berlin, Mount Rushmore but with the faces of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
The third opera, Siegfried, quickly, Sleeping Beauty. Siegfried reforges the sword Notung and slays the dragon Fafnir. In Wagner’s story, Fafnir turned himself into a dragon, but in this interpretation Fafnir turns himself into a pimp and Siegfried decides that emptying the magazine of his Kalashnikov into Fafnir will be a lot less work than swinging a sword. Siegfried then confronts Wotan, breaks his spear, and walks through a wall of fire to find Brunnhilde sleeping under a blanket outside the Alexander Platz U-Bahn station. He wakes her with a kiss and they sing the most joyous love duet in all of opera:
May Valhalla’s walls crumble to dust, the Gods sink into oblivion! Siegfried is my new bastion! Siegfried is my all!
Meanwhile, giant alligators crawl around Alexander Platz, at one point devouring the Forest Bird and Siegfried has to run over and pull her out of the alligator’s stomach by her feet. There is apparently some kind inside joke going on here. In the 2013 production, there were 2 alligators, last year 3 alligators, this year there are 4 so next year there should be 5. I puzzled over the meaning of this, but it became clear. Siegfried and Brunnhilde may be in the throes of newfound love today, but soon they will be up to their arses in alligators.
As Anna Russell used to say with such perfect timing, “You know I’m not making this up!”