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BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - The gods did not go up in flames but the audience erupted in a fury of booing on Wednesday night as an unorthodox new staging of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle for his 200th birthday at his opera house in Bayreuth came to a near-riotous conclusion.
Radical Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf, who had teased, challenged, mocked and scandalized the audience over the four-opera cycle that featured slinky Rhine Maidens, simulated oral sex and gangster-style characters stood center stage acknowledging the audience's displeasure for some 10 minutes at the end of "Gotterdammerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods").
Castorf, who was born in 1951 in then-communist East Germany and had a reputation in the 1980s and 1990s as one of the bad boys of German theatre, egged the audience on, gesturing to them to boo louder and even suggesting through hand motions that it was the audience, and not him, who were out of their minds.
The scene, which had the audience on its feet booing Castorf and his assembled team of stage and costume designers, was said by veteran operagoers to be unprecedented.
It came to an end when Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko, one of the audience's favorites throughout the six days it has taken to present the four operas, assembled his orchestra behind the closed curtains. While Castorf stood on stage being booed, the curtains were opened to show the musicians, which prompted the audience to switch gears and start applauding again.
Castorf's set designer, Aleksandar Denic, told Reuters: "I like it if there is a response, that is the biggest compliment to me", but perhaps he got more than he'd bargained for.
But Bayreuth has always courted controversy and some of its most famous productions have been ones which got the worst receptions at their premieres.
"A lot of booing, I think it's good for the newspapers," said Gerhard Reissbeck, 49, an artist from Bad Windshein, Germany attending with a friend.
What had been touted as an oil-themed production to update Wagner's 150-year-old cycle originally about the pursuit of gold took the packed audience in the 1,925-seat Bayreuth opera house on a roller coaster ride across the planet, from a motel on Route 66 in Texas to Azerbaijan with a side trip to East Berlin and a conclusion in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
As he has throughout, Castorf used live video shot by cameramen on stage plus unconventional props and settings, including in "Goitterdammerung" a kebab shack behind a chemical factory and a three-wheeled German car from the 1950s, to pour Wagner's old libretto and staging directions into a new mould.
Hagen, the leader of the underworld Gibichung clan that is at war with the gods and the Volsung race of heroes, was played by South Korean bass baritone Attila Jun sporting a Mohawk haircut as a nightclub-style bouncer who stopped in periodically at a voodoo shrine behind a metal gate to spit on images of his enemies.
A gold-lame-attired Brunnhilde, sung vividly by English soprano Catherine Foster, pretty much stole the show in the second act, vowing revenge as the woman scorned after her lover, the hero Siegfried, is stolen away from her with a magic potion.
There was lots of unusual stage business, including a buggy perched at the top of the stairs, looking like a scene from the Chicago crime movie "The Untouchables". But when it was pushed down the stairs it turned out to be loaded with potatoes rather than a baby.
Such overlays on Wagner's stage directions annoyed members of the staid, well-heeled Bayreuth audience, but if nothing else they have provoked reams of comment during the intervals, at breakfasts and dinners around Bayreuth and in the press.
"It was not very convincing," Eddie Vetter, critic for the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, told Reuters at the conclusion.
"It's a very fragmentary production and the direction of the individuals was very poor. There were a lot of very clumsy transitions and I don't like this kind of dialectic approach.
"Also he has no feeling for the music. It goes against the flow."
Editing by Eric Walsh