Bayreuth Festival 2011 (2) – Rats play pivotal role in Neuenfels’ Lohengrin

GermanyGermany  Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 20.8.2011. (JPr)

Lohengrin Act II - Picture © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

Some subtle changes in the town of Bayreuth – where redesigning of the now pedestrianized central Maximilianstrasse Strasse is now mostly complete and there is a lot of new signage – is mirrored at the Festspielhaus where there are, at this the 100th Festival, the first ‘In case of emergency’ notices I have seen there and new large signs on the front curtain when the audience enters the auditorium warning them not to photograph, video or have their mobiles on. Two issues arise here: what use are the aforementioned notices when you are locked in the theatre when the opera starts in rows of sometimes more than 60 and, of course, the first thing you see is people recording those new signs by using their cameras, videos or mobile phones!

It was the second year for Hans Neuenfels well-received 2010 Lohengrin that I probably did not like as much as most (see ). Much of what I wrote before still applies but a second viewing prompted further musings, the chief one being, ‘What is the importance of rat 79?’ Firstly I must remind readers that Reinhard von der Thannen’s basically single set is a laboratory involving a sociological study where those in charge are seemingly human and those being controlled (perhaps easily-led if we think Hamelin and the Pied Piper) are rat-like and numbered individually. So who is number 79? Well it first tries to stab King Henry in Act I and is led away by attendants in blue hazard suits. Then it returns at the end of this Act helping to carry in the swan. At the start of Act II 79 is there scavenging with others from the belongings of Ortrud and Telramund’s overturned coach and finally it is revealed as one of Telramund’s co-conspirators when they attack Lohengrin in the bridal chamber scene; intriguingly Telramund was not a rat before but is now. Is this meaningful … who knows? It dawned on me more than ever before that I do not come to Bayreuth for answers, only for more questions I cannot really find the answers to.

In a recent review of Lohengrin in Budapest I forgot to give due credit to the wonderful chorus that had been put together, here the Bayreuth version cannot be ignored because of their pivotal acting role as Neuenfels’ black and white rats, as well as, their exceptionally committed singing. For me, in their second year, I believe the rodents are beginning to get the upper hand – perhaps it is Rise of the Planet of the Rats? In Act II when two white ones are rounded up, injected and seemingly become quiescent, they quickly turn the tables on their hazmat-suited handlers and chase them away.

It is the black male rats – often with glowing red eyes, long fingers and toes – that greet King Henry at the start of the opera, they shed their outer-rat persona when Lohengrin is first sighted and are now dressed in canary yellow. Their female counterparts are in wedding dresses of a variety of pastel shades and lavish hats. Last year as the rats removed their outer ‘skin’ and they are collected and put on hooks to rise high above the stage it seemed a much more chilling image – now it seems to have no more significance than a mere contrivance to clear the stage quickly of unwanted costumes. Much the same happens to the caged male rats in Act II before the wedding preparations, they return later with a bald pate and appearance made famous by a British music hall star of yesteryear called Max Wall. As it all unfolded before me a second time and with the appearances of a cute gaggle of small pink rat in Acts II and III generating ‘Oohs and Aahs’ of appreciation from the audience this production is becoming Bayreuth’s answer to a popular Disney musical. I have still not worked out the significance of the intrusive ‘Wahrheit’ cartoons that are seen from time to time but even these were not the distraction they seemed before.

In Act III the rats’ heads are merely helmets and the men and women are in uniforms with L on the front and a swan silhouette on the back – all now have bald heads. (Another question is how do they know his name is Lohengrin as he has not told anyone yet?) At the end of the first Act high above the stage a plucked swan was seen and I wondered – of course – why? The answer to what became of its feathers came now nearer the end of the evening as a black boat/half-an-egg rises full of feathers out of the bridal bed as Elsa imagines its return at ‘Doch, dort – der Schwan – der Schwan!’ Elsa later appears as if in mourning and totally distraught though she soon strips and gets to grips with Lohengrin but it is all too late for them both. The egg returns and is ‘cradling’ her lost brother, Gottfried, who will become the new ruler of Brabant. In this case he seems like the result of some genetic experiment gone wrong as he tears apart his umbilical cord and frees himself. Lohengrin wanders to the front of the stage and the curtains close.

As the drama – such as it is – unfolds the totally dominant personality ‘pulling the strings’ is Petra Lang’s Ortrud. She is new to this staging and eyes are drawn to her even if she is not singing. She is melodramatic, manipulative and Machiavellian; this is one of this fine singer’s signature roles and her incredible vocal range is never heard to more thrilling effect than in her demands for revenge in Act II – ‘Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!’

King Henry is Amfortas-like and enfeebled; Elsa is easily manipulated and vacillates with increasing anguish between the asking, or not asking, the questions she clearly wants answers to. She is a martyr to her cause right from the start of the opera with the arrows that are in her back. Someone else easily led is Telramund and late in Act II Ortrud is dressed as the ‘Black Swan’ to Elsa’s white one and acts more like Rothbart, the evil magician is Swan Lake, as she cajoles Telramund onwards to his act of defiance. Annette Dasch was very good as the troubled and ‘wounded’ Elsa with her pliant soprano voice only occasionally revealing, at times, it is perhaps a little too small for Wagner.

Last year we had the more macho Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin but here he was replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt and he was a bit of a wimp by comparison. He doesn’t even really win his Act I swordfight for Elsa, all the ‘fight’ leaves Telramund with one withering look of distain from Ortrud – although again I could not fathom why this happened. Vogt sang with his typical incredible ease, impeccable phrasing, eloquence, delicate pianissimos, and flute-like tones. He is totally believable as an other-worldly Lohengrin but for me has little charisma and I like a more heroic sound with some earthy vocal colouring.

Samuel Youn was an imposing Herald and through eschewing all sense of majesty in a portrayal of King Henry as fitful and anxious, Georg Zeppenfeld was equally excellent. Sadly though he acted well as the tendentious Telramund, Tómas Tómasson was the weakest link in one of the most exceptional casts of recent Bayreuths. Andris Nelsons seems to have got much of the measure of Lohengrin this year with a supple performance, rich in detail, and the long dramatic spans of each Act were impeccably sustained with the climaxes as thrilling as could be hoped for. However there was just a sense that the tempi drifted a little when Vogt sang … a case perhaps of indulging his star tenor just a little too much?

This Lohengrin will have had the biggest audience of any single performance in Bayreuth history with a live broadcast on TV, internet-streaming and the outdoor Bayreuth screening on 14 August. The singers (there was a different Telramund), chorus, conductor and orchestra thoroughly deserved this recognition for their outstanding musical achievement.

Jim Pritchard