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BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - Richard Wagner made hand grenades for the 1849 Dresden uprising, so maybe he would have cheered the tumultuous end of his 200th birthday "Ring" cycle in Bayreuth, a production that has raised questions over his heirs running the festival.
A thunderous chorus of boos and hisses, competing with cheers for the singers, conductor and orchestra, greeted the final curtain on Wednesday night of a new staging of the 17-hour-long, four-opera cycle by radical Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf.
The well-heeled and mostly staid Bayreuth audience, frazzled by the summer heat, was in an uproar after experiencing a staging that retained "the master's" text and music but threw in simulated fellatio, group sex, a Kalashnikov instead of a sword to kill a mythological dragon, and copulating crocodiles.
Castorf, prevented by contract from engaging in his usual practice of excising whole passages from theatre classics, layered mini-dramas and live video feeds atop Wagner's 19th-century adaptation of Norse legends about the forging of the Rhine gold into a ring whose wearer rules the world. It ends with a bonfire of the gods in their Valhalla palace.
The cycle, touted as a "Ring" in which the quest for oil replaced the usual scenario about gold, had people scratching their heads wondering whether it was about anything at all. It was also a "Ring" portrayed by the German media as critical to the futures of Wagner's great-grand daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, whose contracts as festival co-managers are up in 2015.
"We like the music, what the conductor is doing," said mayor of Bayreuth Brigitte Merk-Erbe, who will have a say in that decision, and was on the red carpet on opening night to greet the arriving dignitaries. Eva and Katharina were absent.
The city is among the entities, along with the federal and state governments, that has a vote on the renewals. Merk-Erbe said it was too early to say how it would go, but she did have a view on the staging.
"I am not too sure whether the director Castorf, who is doing the 'Ring', perhaps sometimes...is making fun of the audience, but it's not boring," she said.
Longtime Bayreuth aficionados were quick to point out that some of the festival's most famous and successful stagings of "The Ring", such as the one by French director Patrice Chereau in 1976, were booed at the premiere, but that one, in particular, has gone down as one of the best ever.
"Of course this 'Ring' polarizes," said Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum and National Archive.
"I always say calm down, it is not a matter of peace in the world, it's only theatre,"
Still, this was theatre on and off the stage guaranteed to get a rise out of pretty much any and everyone.
For the second year in a row, Katharina and Eva failed to show up for the red carpet welcoming of dignitaries on the festival's opening night last week with a production of "The Flying Dutchman", which is not part of "The Ring" but a rousing way to kick things off.
Merk-Erbe was there to greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, President Joachim Gauck and almost the entire German cabinet, but there was no sign of the Wagners.
"If you have a head of state coming you wait at the top of the stairs, or the bottom, but they weren't there at all," said a former ambassador to Germany, who asked to remain anonymous.
The protocol miscue, criticized in the German press, capped a series of missteps that have plagued the 200th birthday Bayreuth season. In another criticized move, construction work has left the Festspielhaus opera venue and Wagner's "Wahnfried" mansion looking like they'd suffered something of the same fate as the destruction of his gods' Valhalla palace.
Wahnfried is a construction site for the building of a new museum while the most famous facade of the Festspielhaus on the Green Hill at the edge of town is part-covered with a scrim to conceal scaffolding.
The German press and public watch the Wagner family and the goings-on at Bayreuth like hawks, so it was well known the festival failed to engage its first and second choices to direct "The Ring", film directors Lars von Trier and Wim Wenders. It ended up with Castorf, a big name in the 1980s and 1990s when his radical techniques were new and shocking.
What no one could have predicted was just how far Castorf, born in 1951 in then-communist East Berlin, would go.
He recast the "prequel" opera "Rheingold" as a 1960s-something sleazy American soap opera-noir, with the god Wotan decked out as a black-suited Texas oil man cum Las Vegas mobster who cavorted first with his wife Fricka and then with her sister Freia. In the third opera, "Siegfried", the earth goddess Erda performed simulated fellatio on Wotan.
The scenes undermined Fricka's and Erda's roles as the voice of moral authority in the opera in a subverting of traditional portrayals of the characters that Castorf did time and again. The only woman who got away as less than loose was Wotan's daughter Brunnhilde, who is the real heroine of the piece.
Barred by contract from excising text, Castorf instead created new characters, including a Norman Bates-like motel clerk from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", and used video projections to show scenes that were happening behind the mammoth stage sets that included a Texas motel, the Berlin Alexanderplatz U-Bahn subway station, an oil derrick in Azerbaijan, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota with the heads of communist notables replacing American presidents and, last but not least, the New York Stock Exchange. Nowhere was there a Rhine river - except that the floozies portraying the Rhine maidens always showed up in a vintage black Mercedes convertible.
The audience was shocked. Some said they closed their eyes to enjoy the music and singing, praising several in the cast but particularly the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko. Others were agog, while still others harkened back to the Chereau "Ring" and kept an open mind.
"Maybe this is 'The Ring' of the future," said Rosemarie Dietz-Bauer, a festivalgoer from Munich, who attended morning lectures about the impending nighttime visual onslaught in an attempt to make sense of it.
The six-week-long festival season is a big money spinner for Bayreuth, which Wagner originally chose because it was in the middle of nowhere, but now in summer is a cultural and social hub.
Guido Redlich, 48, a marketing consultant from Munich, attended partly for Wagner, and partly for the after-opera socializing.
"I know a lot of people and when I see them afterwards it becomes more easygoing, because during the daytime when you walk around here it's like going to a funeral, it's a horror," he said. "After, in private places, like always in Germany, people need a bit of alcohol, but they get comfortable and they laugh at things."
Other people are not as sanguine, especially the young in a city that became a cultural showplace for the Nazis during World War Two because Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer and the Wagner family welcomed him with open arms.
"In history class I hear of Wagner's anti-Semitism and I'm not cool with that," said Hannes, 24, a university student walking home from a session of frisbee playing with friends.
Bayreuth native Melina Mergehen, 17, said she would be going for the first time because her mother had an extra ticket. She professed ignorance about the Hitler link but asked if it bothered her she said: "No, because it's history. It doesn't matter anymore."
There is a disconnect between the festival and the town that becomes starkly apparent in low-rise cinderblock residential towers on the far side of Bayreuth, near a small Jewish cemetery. There the glittering world of tuxedos, ball gowns and the luxury German automobiles seems almost to be on another planet - or in one of the faraway locales in Castorf's staging.
"Wagner is the German state, and the hill and the baths," a man who gave his name only as Helmut, said, referring to the Green Hill where the festival takes place, and a luxury spa near the tower blocks.
"This is here."
Editing by Janet McBride