BAYREUTH, Germany, Aug. 1 — During the curtain calls for any new production here at the Bayreuth Festival, it is practically a tradition for the audience to greet the creative team with a lusty chorus of competing boos and bravos. On Monday night the audience in the Festspielhaus honored that tradition at the end of “Götterdämmerung,” which concluded the festival’s new staging of Wagner’s four-part epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
Before agreeing to take on the “Ring,” Tankred Dorst, the eminent 80-year-old German playwright, director, filmmaker, storyteller and actor, had done just about everything one could do in theater with one exception: direct an opera.
“My advantage is that I don’t have to continue a career as an opera director,” he said when his appointment was announced. Judging from the audience response and the initial buzz in the opera world, his debut will be heatedly debated for months. I found his work fresh, provocative and mostly effective. But more on that later.
The real hero of the Bayreuth “Ring” is not Siegfried or Brünnhilde, but the conductor Christian Thielemann. Whether the Bayreuth Festival can still claim to be the world’s premier Wagner house has long been an open question. But whatever one’s take on the production, Mr. Thielemann drew a probing, radiant and exhilarating musical performance from this orchestra of dedicated instrumentalists (drawn from top-tier German orchestras), as well as from the robust festival chorus and an involving, if vocally uneven, cast.
Mr. Thielemann, who is not the most articulate talker, has a way of getting into trouble when he speaks of national tradition in German culture. What he means, though, it seems from reading some of his most recent comments, is that German orchestras in the first half of the 20th century brought a natural pathos and a traditional connection to their playing of Wagner. In striving to recapture this quality today, musicians are in a bind. The struggle comes through, and the pathos seems strained. Moreover, Mr. Thielemann, 47, is a conductor with a contemporary sensibility who also wants playing to be incisive and up to date.
This is a difficult balancing act. But he pulled it off in the “Ring.” His tempo for the stormy opening music of Act 1 in “Die Walküre” was on the slow side. The tension came from the clarity he brought to the strangely overlapping lines and riffs. By revealing the complexity of this driving, frightful episode, he made the music seem interesting as well as hypnotic.
As always, he showed keen insight into what could be called musical rhetoric: that is, the ways the phrases begin, end and overlap. The music of the three Norns at the beginning of “Götterdämmerung” was murky and languid, yet never lugubrious, because Mr. Thielemann laid out the intertwining contrapuntal lines with such lucidity. And I will not soon forget the spacious, rich colorings and tragic nobility of the final scene in “Walküre,” when the god Wotan casts a sleeping spell over his rebellious daughter, Brünnhilde, perhaps the most sublimely sad music ever written. Here Mr. Thielemann achieved that elusive mix of pathos and clarity.
Returning to the production, Mr. Dorst was tapped for this assignment only after the festival’s first choice, the acclaimed film director Lars von Trier, withdrew. This could not have been an easy spot for Mr. Dorst. But he is an immensely interesting artist. His production concept was driven by a question that has long dogged “Ring” buffs: What happens at the end with the twilight of the gods? My interpretation has always been that through corruption and overreaching the gods bring about their own destruction. At the end, the Immolation Scene, the gods are gone. For better or worse, mankind will have to get along without them.
Mr. Dorst disagrees, and he is not alone. To him the gods are always with us, continually reliving their stories. But we mortals do not see them. In this production the gods appear in some woefully makeshift contemporary sites as they try to re-enact their sagas. The consistently striking sets were designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann. In many scenes everyday people are going about their business, oblivious to the invisible gods. The exception is a young man with long blond hair, an Adidas T-shirt and a skateboard, who senses the goings-on of the gods around him.
Of course, peopling a scene with modern-day observers can be a theatrical cliché, but not here. The outsiders see nothing, and the concept engages that intriguing question of what happens to the gods. It also helped that Mr. Dorst clearly worked well with the cast, drawing nuanced and poignant portrayals from even the silent characters.
In “Das Rheingold,” when we meet Wotan and his extended family of gods, they are living in what looks like a run-down building in a public park, with a nearby lookout post of dingy stone walls marred by graffiti. When Wotan and Loge, seeking the power of the magic ring, descend to the mine that the maniacal dwarf Alberich is operating, the place is a modern energy plant. A power plant, get it? A meter reader comes through at one point, looking at gauges, unaware that Wotan and Alberich are engaged in a battle of wits.
The home of Hunding, the brut ish clansman, and his oppressed wife, the captured demigodess Sieglinde, looks like some formerly grand estate, now damaged by a street pole with a downed power line that has smashed through a wall. Curiosity-seekers mill about. And when the clouds clear around Wotan striding atop his mountain, the site is revealed to be a hilltop park with a viewing area to which some bicyclists have made their way.
I loved the idea that the best place the calculating dwarf Mime was able to find to rear the young Siegfried was an abandoned classroom, with a chemistry lab table for Mime to mix his potions, a chalk board and an old crib in a cluttered corner where the infant Siegfried once slept. Also striking was the stone quarry that represented Valhalla, where the Valkyries were not doing a good job of serving fallen heroes, here pasty-skinned and delicate young men in lacy robes, sleeping as if dead to the world.
For me, the costumes designed by Bernd Skodzig are the biggest lapse of the production. Mr. Dorst wanted the gods to look alien, not human. Alien is one thing, silly another. In “Rheingold,” the gods’ outfits look like rejects from the “Star Trek” costume shop.
Of the major roles, the most vocally compelling performance was from the bass-baritone Falk Struckmann as Wotan. He sang with earthy tone and plenty of power, fully conveying a god torn by uncertainty and arrogance. The American soprano Linda Watson won fairly consistent ovations for her Brünnhilde. I tried to like her. She sang with vibrancy, with a voice that sliced through the orchestra and, in reflective passages, offered some lovely phrasing. But her sound was just too strident and wobbly for me.
The American Stephen Gould, the Siegfried, is far from a born heldentenor. His voice lacks heroic heft and clarion top notes. But he sang with unflagging verve, acted with agility and pulled it off. Until a real contender comes along, he will do. But in their many scenes together, his work was usually overshadowed by the nasal-toned tenor Gerhard Siegel as a wonderfully impish Mime, a character role.
Andrew Shore was an aptly conniving Alberich. Other standouts were the luminous soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde; Hans-Peter König, chilling as Hagen; and the dusky-toned Mihoko Fujimura as Erda and also as Waltraute (in “Götterdämmerung”).
Because of Bayreuth’s unique covered pit, the orchestra players cannot be seen. So it was a lovely touch during the final ovations on Monday when the curtain opened to reveal the musicians standing onstage, instruments in hand, in their dressed-for-comfort wear. They won a huge and much-deserved ovation. And their outfits of colorful T-shirts, jeans, shorts and summer dresses looked a lot better than the production’s costumes.