Bayreuth Opens Up Wagner to a Younger Audience

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2014 (4) – Richard Wagner für Kinder, Lohengrin: Soloists, Bayreuther Kinder- und Spatzenchor an der Hochschule für evang. Kirchenmusik, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt an der Oder / Boris Schäfer (conductor), Probebühne IV auf der Parkseite des Festspielgeländes, Bayreuth, 31.7.2014. (JPr)

LohengrinKinder Photo Credit Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuth Festival
Photo Credit Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuth Festival

Lohengrin: Norbert Ernst
Elsa von Brabant: Christiane Kohl
Friedrich von Telramund: Jukka Rasilainen
Ortrud: Alexandra Petersamer
Heinrich der Vogler: Raimund Nolte

Version: Daniel Weber
Musical adaptation: Marko Zdralek
Director: Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik
Sets: Alexander Schulz

This year’s Lohengrin was a totally different experience to last year’s Tristan and absolutely wonderful as that was this was now a much more serious attempt to introduce the young audience to some real Wagner. Last year I wrote as you can read in the review ‘For me, I would have liked the music to tell its own tale a bit more so that the children could experience proper Wagner moments linked by the dialogue than what we actually heard: it was rather like a “best of” CD having its tracks skipped across’ … and this is exactly what happened now. Instead of having the score hacked to pieces most of the music was left largely alone so that it was still recognisable as Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Richard Wagner für Kinder began in 2009 with, I understand, an hour-long version of Der fliegende Holländer and is now an annual event at the Bayreuth Festival. Aimed at children between 8 and 12 years of age it aims to introduce Wagner’s ‘fairy-tales’ to them in a non-threatening way in the hope it might spark a later deeper interest in the ‘real thing’. Following reduced versions of Tannhäuser, the Ring, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde it is now Lohengrin’s turn. The last four have been released on DVD – and this current opera will be released this September.

Wagner’s Lohengrin is something of a ‘fairy-tale’ in its own right and is perhaps easier to adapt. What we get is almost the complete story in 75 minutes. Naturally there is some laughter encouraged but there is also a genuine attempt made to be true to the original poem, as well as, allowing all the singers the chance to show what they can do. Elsa first appears as if she is reading the legend that she becomes part of.
The parts of the King and the Herald in the original opera are merged, though Heinrich still gets his imposing ‘Mein Herr und Gott, nun ruf ich dich’, Elsa has most of her dream ‘Einsam in truben Tagen’, Telramund is allowed to show what he can do with his vehement ‘Durch dich musst’ ich verlieren mein’ Ehr’ as does Ortrud (here as Medusa) with her vengeful ‘Entweihte Gotter, helft jetzt meiner Rache!’ and Lohengrin is allowed nearly all of his explanatory ‘Im fernen Land’ plus an almost complete bedroom scene with Elsa with their Act III duet played and sung straightforwardly in clever backlit silhouette. These are just some of the vocal highlights and you can add to that an only slightly altered opening mystical prelude as a purely musical highlight for a splendid orchestra of 30 under their enthusiastic conductor, Boris Schäfer.

It all gave the very young children (and those of all ages) present a wonderful story, well sung and performed – but most importantly – it might have been the first music-drama for most of the audience. It actually worked well on every level … whether as a first opera or as the perfect antidote for those ‘experiencing’ Frank Castorf’s Ring in the main theatre! To be honest, there are almost as many laughs to be had from all the pink rats and Perspex swan strangling in Hans Neuenfels’ near legendary 2010 Lohengrin production – that would be performed later the same day – as in Daniel Weber’s reduced version.

Jukka Rasilainen always looks as if he enjoys these shows immensely and last year was a glassy-eyed Kurwenal. Now as the dim-witted Telramund he gets things underway by narrating some of the backstory of the young Gottfried’s disappearance and there is some more dialogue right at the end when Gottfried reappears. Elsa meanwhile has been accused of murdering him and does the unthinkable and asks Lohengrin – her champion – the questions he has expressly forbidden her not to. Mostly it is sung-through by an excellent cast and given first rate musical accompaniment.

I just happened to be on the same bus as a party of young German children going back after the performance and they unanimously told their teacher they had enjoyed it and said out loud their favourite moments. More tellingly the teacher told one of her charges how he had shown he could concentrate for over an hour watching an opera and now she wanted him to do that in class. There was a reply from another adult in the party – possibly not an actual colleague – to the effect that perhaps the teacher should learn to sing!

In 2013 the story of Tristan and Isolde unfolded with the audience sitting on either side of the action. For Lohengrin director, Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik, opted for a more traditional arrangement with some simple staging with the orchestra behind; the youngest children sat on the floor in front of that with a stepped platform towards the back where the adults sat. The costumes were colourful, cartoon-like and fun with some cardboard helmets and wooden swords. Lohengrin swans in(!) on a gaudily decorated extended tricycle. And that was about it apart from set designer Alexander Schulz’s four largish screens that the superb 13-strong young children’s choir shifted about for the various scenes from time to time – singing very sweetly as well when they had to! As Lohengrin begins explaining who he is and what he is doing in Brabant, nine children lined up at the front as NIRGNEHOL quickly re-sorting themselves when all was revealed!

I feel as though I should not single any of the singers out because with Christiane Kohl’s Elsa, Alexandra Petersamer’s Ortrud and Raimund Nolte’s Heinrich overall it was an exemplary ensemble … but I must. Jukka Rasilainen’s Telramund was worthy of any of the world’s great opera stages as was Norbert Ernst’s excellence as an interpreter of Lohengrin. He will probably always be a Steersman/Loge/David rather than the hero because – like me – there is a height issue. However he sings with a very winning lyricism and great reserves of power and seems a fine actor.

More than ever what I concluded last year holds true in 2014: some of this is clearly aimed at ‘big kids’ and not just 8 to 12-year-olds; these of course could be their parents or others young-at-heart. If you have the opportunity to be at one of these performances somehow in the future do go because you will definitely enjoy it as much as I have each time. Meanwhile whatever age you are the DVD of this performance will cheer any music lover up during a cold winter.

Jim Pritchard

Jim Pritchard will conclude his Ring reviews with Götterdämmerung, and will also report on Lohengrin in coming days from the 2014 Bayreuth Festival.

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