Unflagging Energy  in Bayreuth’s Rat-Infested Lohengrin

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2015 [4] Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 4.8.2015. (JPr)

Photo credit Enrico Nawrath Lohengrin final scene of Act II

Director – Hans Neuenfels
Sets and Costumes – Reinhard von der Thannen
Lighting – Franck Evin
Video – Björn Verloh
Dramaturgy and Assistant Director – Henry Arnold
Chorus director – Eberhard Friedrich

Cast included:
Heinrich der Vogler – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa von Brabant – Annette Dasch
Friedrich von Telramund – Jukka Rasilainen
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Der Heerrufer des Königs – Samuel Youn

‘Leb wohl, leb wohl, mein lieber Schwan!’ But the audience did not want to let this swan go after six glorious years. I did not like it as much as most (review click here ) when it was first seen in 2010 but I am very sad I will never see it again now except on DVD!

I do not expect I must remind anyone who reads this that Reinhard von der Thannen provided basically a single white, shiny, and sterile looking laboratory set within which a sociological study is played out 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. Thoughts of the classic British TV series The Prisoner come to mind and Number Six’s catchphrase ‘I am not a number. I am a free man’ which in this case might be reinterpreted as free rat! As the director, Hans Neuenfels, explains in the programme this is the crux of his Konzept: ‘Wagner’s music always paints pictures of the world, the individual and society … In Lohengrin it culminates in an often zany and ridiculed, and yet in my view absolutely not ridicule-worthy, but radical and outrageous thesis. “Never shall you ask me.” That’s the burning climax. Like mice or rats around bacon, the characters circle the forbidden question, especially Elsa. It is about identity: Who am I? What leads people to each other? The musical drama as a magical experiment.’

Lohengrin is the outsider breaking into the experimental world, King Henry is Amfortas-like and enfeebled whilst Elsa is easily manipulated, vacillating with increasing anguish between asking – or not asking –  those questions she clearly wants her own answers to. She is shown as a martyr to her cause right from the start of the opera with all the arrows that are in her back. Telramund is also someone easily led and he doesn’t lose his swordfight with Lohengrin; but it is just that all the ‘fight’ leaves him because of one withering look of distain from Ortrud. Late in Act II Ortrud is memorably costumed as the ‘Black Swan’ to Elsa’s white one and acts more like Von Rothbart, the evil magician in Swan Lake, as she cajoles Telramund onwards to his act of defiance.

Just as in The Prisoner when Number Six asks ‘Who is Number One?’ I have been obsessed since I first saw this production by the significance of rat Number 79, especially if we remember there are 130 of them? Early on it tries to stab King Henry before being led away by blue hazmat-suited attendants who seem to be slapping its back. Then it leads Elsa in whilst training a bow and arrow on her before returning near the end of this Act helping to bring on the swan. It could also be the rat that puts its thumbs in its ears and wiggles its fingers in the time-honoured gesture at Ortrud as she leaves the stage. At the start of Act II Number 79 is there scavenging with others amongst the belongings of Ortrud and Telramund’s overturned coach that are seen scattered about. Finally in Act III it is revealed as one of Telramund’s co-conspirators when they attack Lohengrin in the bridal chamber – intriguingly Telramund was not a rat before but is now! Is this meaningful  … Who knows? … Who cares? I go back to my Tristan und Isolde review that included a quote about how perhaps not everything has to have a meaning and this Lohengrin has made me realise over the years that you cannot always expect answers at Bayreuth only more questions … and surely that must be good?

All that I can be certain of is that over the years Neuenfels’ black and white rats have got the upper hand more and more. Thanks to their wonderfully choreographed acting and movement, as well as, their extraordinarily committed singing, the chorus were as much the stars of this Lohengrin as the principal singers were. It is the black male rats – with glowing red eyes, long waggling fingers and toes – that greet King Henry at the start of the opera. They soon shed their outer-rat persona when Lohengrin is first sighted and are now dressed in canary yellow. Much the same happens to the caged male rats in Act II before the wedding preparations and they return later with a bald pate and appearance made famous by a British music hall star of yesteryear called Max Wall. Their female counterparts have extravagantly long tails and are in wedding dresses of a variety of pastel shades and wear lavish hats.

As it all unfolded before me for the umpteenth time the rats’ appearances – especially a cute gaggle of small pink ones in Acts II and III – generated even more ‘Oohs and Aahs’ of appreciation than ever from the audience and confirmed this production as Bayreuth’s answer to a popular Disney musical which could have run and run. I have never worked out the significance of the intrusive ‘Wahrheit’ (Truth) cartoons that are seen from time to time but even these were not the distraction they seemed before. Perhaps they showed the occurrences from the rats’ perspective?

In Act III the rats’ heads are just helmets and the men and women – all now bald – are in uniforms with L on the front and a swan silhouette on the back. Another question that will never now be answered is how did they know his name was Lohengrin as he has not told anyone yet? Elsa who asked the ‘forbidden question’ appears totally distraught about it near the end and is dressed as if in mourning. Nevertheless she tries to get to grips with Lohengrin to complete the consummation of their marriage but it is all too late for them both. Soon her lost brother, Gottfried, who will become the new ruler of Brabant, emerges from a large swan’s egg as if his ‘incubation’ had been interrupted. He looks like a genetic experiment that has gone wrong and tears apart his umbilical cord to free himself. Everyone else is prostrate on the ground apart from Lohengrin who wanders to the front of the stage as the curtains close.

Annette Dasch after a year away from the production sounded better than ever as the troubled and ‘wounded’ Elsa. Klaus Florian Vogt as the otherworldly Lohengrin is so beloved by the Bayreuth audience that the fact went unnoticed that – despite all his still impeccable phrasing and flute-like tones – it apparently was never as easy for him this year as in previous years … or was it just overlooked? His sound does appear to be darkening and it will be interesting to see if it changes further next year as Parsifal or as Walther von Stolzing in 2017. Samuel Youn was an imposing Herald and was so much more suited to this role than to the previous night’s Dutchman. Wilhelm Schwinghammer gets no chance for any sense of majesty as this King Henry was fitful, nerve ridden and frail but he sang exceptionally well as did Jukka Rasilainen as the downtrodden Telramund. There was no weak link in one of the most exceptional casts of recent Bayreuths.

I have mainly left one character – Ortrud – to last as she remained in this staging the totally dominant personality and this sorceress is the undisputed manipulator of most of what we see. Petra Lang is probably now the Ortrud of her generation and no one else is so obviously downright evil, deceitful, manipulative or melodramatic. All are nearly powerless in the face of her monomaniacal force and this is one of this fine singer’s signature roles and her remarkable vocal range is never heard to more visceral effect than when she demands revenge in Act II – ‘Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!’ Her Isolde next year is eagerly awaited.

Andris Nelsons had conceded the baton to Bayreuth debutant Alain Altinoglu and very impressive he was too. Whereas – with the benefit of hindsight – Nelsons was possibly more mystical, with Altinoglu the energy was rawer and it certainly was much more animated and the climaxes even more thrilling. He brought a definite sense of unflagging energy to this Lohengrin and the performance seemed to race along and be over all too soon. The applause went on and on and the singers, chorus, conductor and orchestra thoroughly deserved it for their outstanding musical achievement.

Leb wohl, leb wohl, mein lieber Schwan!

Jim Pritchard

Look on this site for other recent reviews from the 2015 Bayreuth Festival and for more about the Bayreuth Festival visit click here.