By Michael Roddy
BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - An oil-themed staging of Richard Wagner's famous "Ring" cycle for his bicentenary year in the opera house he built in Bayreuth showed signs on Saturday of defying predictions it would be a disaster that might even bring down the house.
English soprano Catherine Foster, who was making her Bayreuth debut in "Die Walkure" as Brunnhilde, the first Englishwoman to sing the part here, won a huge ovation at the final curtain, after a somewhat rocky reception at the end of the second act when her voice did not seem to carry well in the vast space.
There was less grumpiness too about the staging for "Die Walkure" by radical Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf, who set the second opera in the cycle at an oil well in Azerbaijan and toned down the busy stage action and video projections that featured in "Rheingold" on Friday, the opening of the four-opera cycle.
The German media and some international press were filled with stories in the weeks leading up to the production of differences between Castorf and the Bayreuth Festival Operahouse's co-managers, Wagner's great grand-daughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner.
Reports circulated that if the production was a flop, the co-managers might not have their contracts renewed when they come up for review next year.
Things did not bode well when Castorf said he wasn't sure he liked Wagner's music all that much and complained that the management at the Bayreuth festival recalled the mindset in the former communist East Germany, where he was born, and where everyone from the outside was not to be trusted.
The frosty body language between Castorf and the two women at a pre-opening press conference did nothing to dispel fears that the festival was headed for another public row, and possibly an artistic calamity. But halfway through the new four-opera cycle those fears have not been realized.
Cheering and loud applause quickly drowned out a chorus of booing for "Rheingold", set in what effectively was a Texas petrol station cum motel cum whorehouse, with lots of snooping video cameras installed on the set to record the creepy details.
On Saturday night, Foster's somewhat small-voiced Brunnhilde in the second act of "Die Walkure" failed to please a Bayreuth audience accustomed to women who belt out the part, but she showed she could reach the last seats in the house with the best of them in the final act.
"It was a very lyrical approach, very sensitive," Marianna Ludes of Berlin said of Foster's performance.
"Normally we know she has a lot of power but today this was very lyrical."
South African tenor Johan Botha, a mountain of a man, powered his way through the role of Siegmund, while Italian-German soprano Anja Kempe, as his sister Sieglinde, danced around him and won his heart - and that of the audience - in order to produce the love-child hero Siegfried, who will turn up on Monday in the third in the cycle.
"The production is much more conventional today than yesterday and I think it is not as likely to turn out to be a scandal now," said Guido van Oorschot, music critic for De Volkskrant newspaper in the Netherlands.
"Musically it is very finely tuned from the orchestra pit," he added, in praise for Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko, making his Bayreuth debut.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
[Sculptures of German composer Richard Wagner are seen outside the Gruener Huegel (Green Hill) opera house in Bayreuth July 25, 2013. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle]