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Rhine Maidens With a Texas Twang in Germany

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The Bayreuth Festival in the theater in Bayreuth, Germany built by Richard Wagner is the hottest ticket in the world, with an eight- to ten-year wait. If a person applies for a ticket every year, he or she will eventually be rewarded, but if he misses an application for even one year, it's back to the end of the queue.

The theater and the festival showcase the Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), with a new production of it every five to seven years. The new production in 2013, the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, is particularly innovative, as it is about oil exploration, and the first opera in the cycle (Das Rheingold) is set in Texas, on Route 66, no less, in a seedy motel. Reactions range from the faintest of praise to outright condemnation.

The opera is conducted by Kirill Petrenko, who is lauded in this Bayreuth debut, and who received a tumultuous ovation on opening night. But it is staged by Frank Castorf, "bad-boy" of German theater, famed for new and revolutionary interpretations of theater works. Castorf likes to alter and rearrange time and space, but Petrenko insisted that the score be retained as written, so Castorf was confined to altering space . . . with a vengeance. Voila, Texas!

And altering characterizations - the Rhine maidens are now prostitutes. (Those pictured have the looks to be plausible, if one cares for the full-bodied type.) The Nordic gods are now Mafioso gangsters. (Hey, shouldn't it be set in New Jersey?!) Britain's Financial Times reported: "While the Rhine maidens grill Bratwurst, Alberich smears mustard on his nipples . . . The results are boring. Terribly, frustratingly boring." The Guardian wrote: "Castorf distracts from the music and words. There are two Rings taking place here: one by Castorf and one by Wagner."

Castorf was booed on opening night. His choice as director, by the grand-daughters of Wagner who control the Festival, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, was surprising, and anticipated by many with dread. Anticipations appear to have been more than met.

The Festival was founded in 1876, and productions were traditional through the 1920s, but innovations have occurred since, and are now welcomed. The current production is the most controversial since the 100th anniversary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976, when the Ring Cycle was staged by Patrice Chereau, set in the 19th century industrial revolution, and incorporating the ideas of George Bernard Shaw. It was a polarizing production, hated and loved, with some audiences close to rioting, but it became enormously influential in the world of opera.

It seems unlikely Castorf's contribution will follow in its footsteps.

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