BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - It was bound to happen in a staging of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle someday, but few would have expected that in Wagner’s own opera house in his bicentenary year his hero Siegfried would kill the fierce dragon Fafner with a machinegun instead of a magic sword.
Crocodiles also copulated on stage during the love duet between Brunnhilde and Siegfried - something the famed composer never had in his libretto.
The unorthodox production at Bayreuth by Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf was booed by the audience at the final curtain on Monday, but the singers and Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko won cheers.
“It’s not a catastrophe, the singers are the best in years,” Manuel Brug, critic for the German newspaper Die Welt, said at the end of a “Siegfried” that produced laughs and snickers but also seemed intentionally designed to offend traditionalists.
Several people noisily left the opera house - which has no aisles down the center, only side exits - after Siegfried pumped Fafner full of lead.
“The interesting thing is he tries to be very naturalistic, with naturalistic sets, and on the other side there are very surrealistic moments,” Brug said of Castorf’s production.
“On one side, he is giving what Wagner wrote, but at other points not, and I think that is the most disturbing for people because they never know what they will get.”
The production of the third opera in the four-opera cycle was set at the foot of a likeness of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but with the heads of four American presidents replaced by the heads of communist notables Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
The hero Siegfried was an Elvis-like Las Vegas entertainer who turned into a Clint Eastwood-like vigilante to kill the dragon in a scene that played like it was straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Canadian tenor Lance Ryan strode about the stage of the opera house, which Wagner built in the 19th century to showcase his nationalistic and mythic German works, dressed in a spangled vest with chains around his neck.
As he has done since the opening opera, “Rheingold”, Castorf used video to show scenes hidden from the audience. He also has extended the roles of minor characters far beyond Wagner’s original libretto, and invented entirely new ones.
A lot is riding on the success of the production, with reports circulating in the German and international press that the renewal of the contracts of the festival co-managers, Wagner’s great grand-daughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, may hang in the balance.
As part of his contract, Castorf was forbidden to engage in his usual practice of excising chunks of text, or having it screamed in the background, and he had to keep all 17 hours of music.
His response appears to have been to overlay a series of mini-operas or cinematic moments on top of Wagner’s original story about the loss of the Rhine gold, the creation of a ring that makes its wearer the ruler of the world, and the eventual destruction of the gods.
In “Siegfried”, Castorf stretched the bit part of a bear which Siegfried hauls in from the forest in order to terrorize the dwarf Mime, who has raised the hero after his mother Sieglinde died in childbirth, into a jack of all trades who stayed around for much of the opera.
Ryan and English soprano Catherine Foster won ovations, as did German bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, whose Wotan, knowing the end of the gods comes on Wednesday in “Gotterdammerung”, was chain smoking and chugging wine when he wasn’t singing.
German tenor Burkhard Ulrich made a properly acidulous Mime. German soprano Mirella Hagen strutted around the stage as the bird that lets Siegfried in on the secrets of what he has won by killing Fafner while clad in a star-spangled, feathered costume that looked like something out of a Rio de Janeiro carnival float.
Castorf’s fellow Berlin theatre director Stefan Lukschy, after three installments of a “Ring” that was supposed to be about oil as the new gold, said he was not sure he knew what story Castorf was telling.
“There are moments I enjoy, lots of things happen. But what is he telling us apart from what Wagner tells us?”
He added: “Maybe he (Castorf) doesn’t want to tell a story at all.”
Editing by Will Dunham