Bayreuth Festival 2012 [2]: Nelsons Conducts an Engrossing Lohengrin

GermanyGermany Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 25.8.2012. (JPr)

In the printed programme for this year’s Lohengrin performances its director, Hans Neuenfels, suggests how changes of cast can bring something new to a revival: ‘the singers do interpret the thoughts that we once had, but they interpret them for themselves, through themselves. They must be willing and able to do so, in their own fashion, and thereby there emerges each time a personal utterance, an individual reading.’ Since this production was widely broadcast last year and is available on DVD (see my review) the rats that we see have lost their shock value. That they always represented ‘mass behaviour’ has finally been admitted by Neuenfels and the word ‘behaviour’ is important because we are in a giant laboratory involved in an experiment in social engineering of some sort.

In a more than usually lucid essay in the programme Henry Arnold tries to address the ‘Why rats?’ issue reminding his readers about the fable underlying this most romantic of Romantic operas: ‘Against the backdrop of a very remote historical period – the reign of German King Henry I (Henry the Fowler) – Wagner tells us a legendary tale which is somehow intertwined with Christian mythology: In the story, a man gets transformed into an animal, a duel is arranged as an instrument of divine punishment [author’s own italics]; a marriage is celebrated, in front of an interested audience whose bridal song would later become a favourite in registry offices; the blood of Jesus plays a decisive role; and in the end heaven dispatches a dove to bring about a resolution. And of course the hero’s entry into the proceedings is definitely one of the most legendary entrances in all opera … A man is thrown into a troubled an uncertain world. He – as we discover only very late – is on a mission and is subject to a law. And then he falls in love.’ Lohengrin – like the Dutchman and, of course, Wagner himself at the time it was composed – is seeking a woman who will love him unconditionally.

With regards to the rats for me the one unresolved issue is what is the importance of rat number 79? It is first seen trying to assassinate King Henry, then it comes on leading Elsa in at arrow point and towards the end of the act is one of the rats carrying in the swan as Lohengrin enters. This question reminds me of that classic 1960s’ TV series The Prisoner when the lead character was forever asking ‘Who is Number 1?’. Here I need to know what is Number 79?

Generally I have few comments to add about his production that although only its third year is gaining legendary status and I refer readers to my 2010 review. As much as Neuenfels welcomes the new interpreters of certain roles I believe some of the characterisation is less nuanced this year. Wilhelm Schwinghammer (King Henry), Thomas J Mayer (Telramund) and Susan Maclean (Ortrud) provide the 2012 audience with an outline of what their predecessors did without really seeming to internalise their performances – and this is only natural because, after all, they did not create these interpretations. Schwinghammer is less neurotic than Georg Zeppenfeld, Mayer has more of the nobility of a Wotan or Alberich than Jukka Rasilainen’s dissolute Telramund and Maclean – as fine an artist as she undoubtedly is – does not have anything of the stage presence of Petra Lang who I understand returns to the role next year. I actually ‘composed’ this paragraph during the interval before Act II when it was announced that Mayer was indisposed and would be replaced by Rasilainen’s sterling Telramund! One constant over the three years is the sublime chorus and Samuel Youn’s authoritative Herald and he makes much more of this small role than he did as the Dutchman the night before.

On the plus side the focus is now more than ever on Klaus Florian Vogt’s incomparably sweet-sounding Lohengrin and the ease with which he projects such a fearsomely high-lying role is literally stunning. He never produces an ugly sound and his voice appears to have gained some volume – or perhaps it is just that he is getting used to the acoustics of the Festspielhaus?

At the start of Act II ‘Number 79’ is seen once again scavenging Ortrud and Telramund’s belongings from their overturned coach. Watch this act on DVD and see how much everything that seems to happen right up until the end of the opera appears to be prompted by Ortrud. Here there is a distinct change in the dynamics between the leading protagonists in the opera and it is Elsa’s weakness and inability to withstand Ortrud’s manipulative wiles that is now more important. Petra Lang’s Ortrud seemed to gain strength through the weakness of others while Susan Maclean is less all-powerful and domineering and much more subtly conniving. Never before has Elsa so seemed to be Ortrud’s ‘puppet’ as she did here. Later in the act her large fan of white feathers looked unintentionally broken but this was very apt for this ‘white swan’ Elsa who has metaphorically had her wings clipped by her evil ‘black swan’ counterpart. The excellent Annette Dasch gave us an Elsa whose confusion and inability to see a way out of her plight was utterly heart-wrenching.

I reflected at the start of Act III how little the rats now mattered in this performance regardless of whether they were black, white or cute pink ones. All that was really important now the was unfolding human drama between Lohengrin and Elsa – vividly brought to life by a distraught looking Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch revealing how close her character was getting to a nervous breakdown. When Susan Maclean’s Ortrud finally comes on stage to triumph at the havoc she has wrought it takes a moment to register who this insane woman is, as so gripping has been those central two performances. Gottfried returns as that strange oversized foetus of previous years and this seems to detract from a love story, lovingly told.

Bayreuth has been well served by its Lohengrin productions; the first one I saw was the Werner Herzog quasi-cinematic production of the later 1980s and early 1990s remembered for its use of lasers and water, and then there was more water and a great use of symbolism in Keith Warner’s wonderful staging that began in 1999. It has equally been well served by its conductors including Bayreuth regular, Peter Schneider, and Antonio Pappano who has yet to surpass in Wagner the performances he conducted in Bayreuth. In 2012 the baton is in the safe hands of Andris Nelsons who seems to be ready to create his own Bayreuth legacy as he has recently been announced as the conductor of the new 2016 Parsifal. His account has grown in stature over the three years; he has a greater sense now of the work’s structure and does not gloss over the darker quality of some of the music. Nelsons now effortlessly manages to sustain the span of each act and seamlessly integrate all the climaxes without discernible changes of gear; it is compellingly dramatic, as well as, totally engrossing

Jim Pritchard

Further reviews of the final performances of the 2012 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days.