By Michael Roddy, Reuters
LONDON–The reviews are in for the scandal-tinged staging of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” for his 200th birthday at Bayreuth, and while Serbian set designer Aleksandar Denic doesn’t confirm he and German director Frank Castorf intended to provoke, he doesn’t deny it either. The French expression “epater les bourgeois” — which, in Bayreuth terms, might be translated as “provoke the BMW and Audi owners” — seems apt for a production in which a crocodile gobbled down the gaudily clad young singer playing the Forest Bird in one gulp while the lovers Brunnhilde and Siegfried carried on singing nearby as if nothing were happening.
That sort of thing was replicated over and over. “I’m very happy if there are emotions,” the thin, wiry 49-year-old Denic told Reuters in an interview at the opera house’s press office on Wednesday, a few hours before he, Castorf and the production team took their now infamous curtain call in which the booing went on for some 10 minutes. “If somebody’s happy, sad, angry or I don’t know what, for me it’s a compliment. I hate when there’s no response,” Denic said. While the audience let its reactions be known in Twitter time, some of the critics cogitated for a day and, in so many words, said the same thing. “Castorf’s production should be binned,” critic Martin Kettle wrote in the Guardian. “Mr. Castorf’s deeper fault, it seems, was cynically to undercut the musical drama during some of the most romantic, poignant and heroic scenes,” New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote. And of the riotous curtain call, he said: “The entitlement and hostility that Mr. Castorf conveyed while staring down the booing Bayreuth audience seemed revealing: this was a director who wanted to get a reaction. He got it.” Yet few of the reviews in the German, U.S. and other international press universally panned every aspect of the production, with one of the consistent themes being the awe expressed at Denic’s towering and eye-popping set designs. From the hyper-realistic Texas motel and petrol station in “Rheingold” to the facade of the New York Stock Exchange in the “Gotterdammerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), with stops along the way at an oil well in Azerbaijan and a face of Mount Rushmore with communist figureheads replacing those of U.S. presidents, Denic’s sets were spectacles that stick in the mind. While at first glance the sets seemed realistic down to the last detail, including an upside down “7” used to replace the letter “L” in a display sign advertising the availability of color television at the “Rheingold” motel, Denic said none of the constructions were what they appeared to be. “When you are looking at those sets, parts of them are hyper-realistic but altogether they are impossible constructions and this was fun for me, this is the magical part,” Denic said.
“This is a good hook for people because it looks familiar but altogether it is hugely imaginary — these huge structures are completely out of any system.” He also had a response for critics who complained they’d been led down the garden path.
Advance word had it that Wagner’s vision of lust for gold as a peg to show the competition among economic systems would be updated to show nations and ideologies vying to secure oil, but it was not much about that either. Claiming the oil theme was only “an initiative idea,” Denic said the audience had gotten something more thought provoking and complex — like, as he put it, having a bit extra of a fine French red wine poured into your glass. The booing audience on Wednesday probably would have settled for a lot less of what Castorf, Denic and company dished out. But if the traditionalists were horrified, perhaps that was part of the message.