BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - A new production of Richard Wagner's "Rheingold" kicking off the "Ring" cycle on Friday for his 200th birthday year in the opera house he built in Bavaria moved the action from the Rhine to a sleazy motel in Texas where just about everyone was a crook.
In his staging, Berlin director Frank Castorf channeled Wagner's 19th-century opera through the television series "The Sopranos" and the Texas oilman J.R. Ewing from "Dallas", with elements of Hitchcock's "Psycho" and playwright Tennessee William's seedy American South thrown in for good measure.
The famous Rhine maidens who open the opera, and then lose their gold to the hideous dwarf Alberich, provided a near-opera-long fashion show of lingerie styles while murder, mayhem, theft, conspiracy and strong-arm thuggery took place throughout the motel and an attached petrol station.
The God Wotan, sung with great forcefulness by German bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, was portrayed more like a Las Vegas mobster than a God, aided and abetted by his henchman Loge, sung with villainous flair by Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst.
Much of the action was captured by cameras, sometimes peering into places the audience could not otherwise see, and projected on a huge video screen centre stage.
At the final curtain, an initial loud burst of booing from sections of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus that Wagner built at the end of the 19th century, mostly with borrowed money, was quickly drowned out by applause and cheering.
Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko, who kept the opera moving at a brisk pace, got a thunderous ovation. There was loud applause too for German mezzo soprano Nadine Weissmann as the earth mother Erda and for German mezzo Claudia Mahnke as Wotan's long-suffering wife, Fricka.
"I think partly it's genius, I mean Castorf had a very good intuition," Christine Lemke, critic for the Die Zeit newspaper in Hamburg, told Reuters during the curtain calls.
She doubted Castorf's dizzying array of inspiration, which included a Mercedes convertible and a Winnebago-style camper driven and hauled on stage, could sustain interest during longer vocal passages in the later parts of the four-opera cycle, premiering this week and next, but she was keeping an open mind.
Eric Fabian, a toxicologist attending from the German city of Speyer, said for him the staging failed to bring out the opera's "mystique".
"I like the quality of the orchestra, the quality of the singers, but for me the quality of the staging is two classes below, or three," he said.
Anne-Marie Lucke of Munich thought there had been something of a deliberate attempt to shock and make headlines. "It's an event to catch people like flypaper and for the 200th anniversary it's a disgrace," she said.
The Bayreuth birthday year production of "The Ring" continues on Saturday night with the second opera in the cycle, "Die Walkure".
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall