Bayreuth 1: Lohengrin Two Towering Portrayals

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2013 [1] Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 5.8.2013. (JPr)

8-9-2013 10-11-57 PM
Bayreuth Lohengrin 2013 Act II
Photo (c)Enrico Nawrath.

Cast includes –
Heinrich der Vogler: Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa von Brabant: Annette Dasch
Friedrich von Telramund: Thomas J Mayer
Ortrud: Petra Lang
Herald: Samuel Youn

Director: Hans Neuenfels
Sets & Costumes: Reinhard von der Thannen
Lighting: Franck Evin
Video: Björn Verloh

A rat-infested production that had the audience scratching its head (possibly for fleas?) on its first appearance in 2010 is now in its third revival and nearing legendary status on the Green Hill. It appears it will be seen again for the next two years before two of the singers that make the evening so wonderful – Klaus Florian Vogt and Petra Lang – move to a new production of Parsifal and the replacement Lohengrin will feature in the 2018 Festival.

Even if we consider the ‘rats’ to be part of a Konzept that can often blight what is put in front of an opera audience, it is the truth that Bayreuth has done well with its Lohengrins in recent years. Many will remember Keith Warner’s very striking intellectual approach that ran from 1999 to 2005 – and he should have been asked back but appears not to have been. Before then there was the wonderfully mystical – and cinematic – Werner Herzog production (1987-1993) with some stunning laser effects: I saw this in 1989 during my first visit to Bayreuth.

I was reminded by a friend that the expression ‘alter Hut’ (‘old hat’) is a German phrase too and that is exactly what Neuenfels’s Lohengrin now is. What was sensational in the first year – and the cause of much debate – now virtually passes without any comment. So his and designer Reinhard von der Thannen’s ‘rats’ now appear early in Act I without any audible reaction from the audience and this is the same for much of the evening including for one of its very best moments when Ortrud sits astride a giant ceramic swan in Act II and throttles it. Possibly because of Werkstatt-Bayreuth (‘the Bayreuth workshop’) – that gives everyone a chance to change something – things might be different than they were in 2010 (see my review of the 2011 DVD), if not in detail then in tone because I think it was somewhat less melancholic and menacing than first-time-round. Also King Henry seems less enfeebled in Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s rather youthful portrayal and certainly Thomas J Mayer’s Telramund is ‘up-for-the-fight’ more than his predecessors were. Did the lights come on at Lohengrin’s first entry in Act I and those on stage look out at all of us in our seats? Did the ‘rats’ having shed their ‘skins’ to reveal canary yellow costumes collapse to the shiny floor during ‘Wahrheit 2’ an animated video that overshadows the fight between the Swan Knight and Telramund? In both these cases it probably was exactly the same before and I have just forgotten, but it is also revealing as to how intriguing and fresh this still now is.

I raised two particular issues in previous reviews and neither have been resolved satisfactorily, despite having spoken to one of the chorus (Rat 71!) who didn’t know the answer: What is the importance of Rat 79, of whom we see a lot, and why is it that in Act III the ‘soldiers’ have an ‘L’ on their uniforms before Lohengrin reveals his name? So there remains a lot like that, equally puzzling for those – like me – who can over-think things but it is great that for some strange reason everything seems to service the story splendidly now. In a discursive essay in the programme Neuenfels reveals more of his thoughts on the ‘rats’ we see whilst giving away little else; his aim clearly is to demilitarise the opera and he explains: ‘This is not Reichsparteitags-musik, but the composed expression of an errant yearning for fixity, a futile conjuration of invariance.’

Scenically, the only natural way that we can experience this is through the rats. It is somewhat different to see 130 rats sing, rather than 130 helmets. This optic touches on everything bizarre – whereby I would like to point out that the rat is a highly intelligent animal, a fearsome, ravenous, vulgarly propagating rodent that is as revolting as could be. Rats eat everything, they are absolute survivalists. And they come out en masse. Over the years it has become clear that the rats neither obstruct the view of the character constellation, nor the flow of the fable. On the contrary they are increasingly becoming accepted as a sensual metaphor for the crowd and its behaviour.’

Although Acts I and III belong to Lohengrin, the middle act appears to come from an unknown Wagner opera called Ortrud so completely does this character manipulate events. With Petra Lang in the vocal form of her life, Ortrud is the hate figure on stage it is impossible to take your eyes off. Lang is venomous and conniving by turns and her curse ‘Entweihte Götter!’ is becoming a tour de force except there is no forcing whatsoever and this too is becoming the stuff of Bayreuth legend in its own way. Earlier the same day the incomparable Stefan Mickisch (see interview) in his introductory lecture to Lohengrin had told those with ears to hear that certain music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake owes a great debt to something from Lohengrin. Neuenfels actually gives us in Act II a confrontation between a white swan (Elsa) and a black swan (Ortrud) but unlike the ballet it is Ortrud who is the equivalent of her male-version, Rothbart, and does all the plotting to bring about Elsa’s downfall. It is all too clear that despite Lohengrin’s entreaties the sorceress has succeeded in sowing seeds of doubt in Elsa’s mind that will lead to her doom-laden questions in Act III that will signal the end of everything for her.

We smile as ever at the ten cute pink rats being ushered in to welcome the bride and groom at the start of the last act and there is a feeling that whatever might have been threatening about this production – despite the rats heads and their glowing red eyes, the often-present ‘warders’ in turquoise hazmat suits or the sight of the rat ‘skins’ hanging on hooks above the stage – has virtually dissipated over the years. We can experience it all as an experiment in social engineering and as this ‘metaphor’ for the action of the Volk (‘people’): how do they react to events unfolding beyond their control – or beyond the control of the controllers? A mysterious stranger (Lohengrin) seeks to resolve a dispute and craves a normal life if only for a brief time. He asks only that Elsa should not ask his name or where he has come from or he will leave. Can Elsa keep quiet despite all Ortrud’s goading: of course she cannot!

Lohengrin tells all and Elsa’s brother Gottfried – who she was accused of murdering – returns but shown as a grotesque foetus with umbilical cord still attached. It is as if the ‘new beginning’ needed more time for its incubation and has been ‘hatched’ prematurely. Lohengrin lives on, it seems, but it is not certain if anyone else involved in this experiment does. If there is any moral to what we see perhaps it is do not ask any questions that you really do not need the answer to!

Having heard the Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim recently at the Proms it is clear that they are definitely, at the very least, second best for Wagner after hearing once again the Bayreuth Orchestra’s resplendent playing – albeit in a rather more superior acoustic than the Royal Albert Hall. Even though there are many regular musicians that return each year this is an orchestra that only comes together for the summer but as a result it plays Wagner with a commitment and coherence no other ensemble can quite achieve. Here rich glowing textures were combined with great transparency and lack of bombast. If there is a minor quibble it is that there was just a slight lack of the otherworldliness the score needs, though Nelsons’ account perfectly matches Neuenfels’s ideas for the stage action.

Petra Lang and Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) deserved the thunderous ovation they received at the end of the performance. The other singers were good but were eclipsed by these two Wagner greats. Vogt sings the title role with impeccable ease and his fluty choirboy-like tones brings in that ‘otherworldliness’ I was not hearing from the orchestra: he is probably unequalled in this role. Annette Dasch is dramatically convincing as the naïve and neurotic Elsa but there was just a little tightness to her voice from time to time and she went a little quiet at several moments to suggest her vocal health was not 100%. Thomas J Mayer was a forthright Telramund; Wilhelm Schwinghammer showed much continued promise as King Henry, singing strongly but appearing as a very weak and unhinged ruler; and Samuel Youn was a fine Herald. Of course it goes without saying that Bayreuth’s ad hoc chorus under Eberhard Friedrich’s direction remains the aural marvel it always is each summer.

Jim Pritchard

Further reviews of the final performances of the 2013 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days, as well as an interview with Petra Lang.

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