Germany Bayreuth Festival 2018  – Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 29.7.2018. (JPr)
Director – Yuval Sharon
Stage design & Costumes – Neo Rauch & Rosa Loy
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Chorus director – Eberhard Friedrich
Heinrich der Vogler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – Piotr Beczała
Elsa von Brabant – Anja Harteros
Friedrich von Telramund – Tomasz Konieczny
Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
Herald – Egils Silins
Four nobles – Michael Gniffke, Tansel Akzeybek, Kay Stiefermann & Timo Riihonen
Yuval Sharon is widely regarded as one of the most innovative directors working in opera today. He is the first American to direct Wagner at Bayreuth and took over this Lohengrin when Latvian Alvis Hermanis stepped aside late in 2016. Famed artist couple Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy had apparently been working on their designs for six years and Sharon has had to make do with most of what they had already come up with. Most Wagnerians have heard how Nietzsche described the colour of the ethereal Prelude – that he equated with opium use – as blue and blue this Lohengrin certainly is! It is not entirely clear from what we do see – with the deepest respect to Rauch and Loy – what it was that occupied them for that number of years. There are fairy-tale and graphic novel references, but I found during Acts II and III that one of the influences appears to be a BBC TV sci-fi series that dates to 1963, though I wonder if Rauch and Loy have spotted that. Actually Frozen (a film I have never seen) or The Smurfs have been mentioned because of the preponderance of ‘Delft Blue’. Some of the costumes are familiar from the paintings of Van Dyke with ruffs for some.
Wagner’s tale blends history and myth, doubt and tragedy. Elsa of Brabant is accused – by Friedrich von Telramund – of murdering her brother Gottfried, and she is saved by the fortuitous arrival of a mysterious knight. The latter spares Telramund and marries Elsa despite the silence he imposes on her questioning his true identity. Hoping for revenge, Telramund and his wife Ortrud sow doubt in Elsa’s mind and eventually she asks the forbidden question. We find out that his name is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, and he has come to her aid inspired by the Holy Grail. Lohengrin departs never to return, but not before releasing Gottfried from Ortrud’s spell.
In Act I we are at a power plant which doesn’t seem to be supplying much electricity until Lohengrin – in workman’s overalls – provides the required spark. Everybody who is somebody in this society has wings. Because I could not escape reading something about this production I know that Ortrud has been likened to Maleficent from Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty or the subsequent live action film with Angelina Jolie. For me the conspiratorial Telramund and Ortrud reminded me more of the evil Von Rothbart and the black swan Odile from the Swan Lake ballet – that would certainly be more apt for Lohengrin. Elsa is tied to two isolated large ceramic insulators and is about to be burnt but is magically free by Lohengrin’s arrival. Whoever had the idea that Telramund and Lohengrin should fight in the air – Cirque du Soleil-like – on wires will hopefully be rethinking that next year. The mark of Telramund’s defeat is that he loses one of his wings. The chorus sing wonderfully of course but are very static with only a few hand gestures representing supplication before their delirium at Lohengrin’s success when he now gains his own pair of wings.
At the start of Act II Ortrud and Telramund appear behind a scrim showing a darkened night sky. It is so gloomily lit that it is difficult to see much apart from the silhouettes of a clump of trees and some other vegetation crossing back and forth across the front of the stage. Also, there is fleetingly what looks like a cathedral tower or castle turret. Later when it reappears again, and Elsa sings from it, the resemblance becomes clearer and it is nothing less than Dr Who’s famous TARDIS, his – and now her – time machine. For the cathedral steps we are inside the power plant. Its gangways and girders seem to impose limitations on Sharon’s ability to direct his large cast and there is much stand and deliver singing. The playfulness of one of Telramund’s nobles is almost Kosky-like. However apart from Elsa seemingly more conflicted than usual at this stage – and suffering the nagging doubts Ortrud drills into her – there is nothing that would not be seen in any ‘traditional’ Lohengrin. Even Lohengrin now sports a shiny breastplate and looks every centimetre a Fantasy/Romantic Lohengrin of any Wagnerian’s imagination. What becomes noticeable is how prominent women are in this society and Elsa – who came down from the back of the stage through those gangways and girders – is proceeded by several women showering her with flower petals.
For Act III we are inside the TARDIS – because that is what it looks like – whilst it seems to be otherwise disguised as an electricity substation with a bright orange interior. Lohengrin removes his breastplate and still has his wings though he does take these off later. Lohengrin and Elsa have nothing better to do at the beginning of their bedroom scene than read books – 50 Shades of Blue perhaps? At one point as Elsa has increasing misgivings the lights go out confirming how Lohengrin is important in keeping electricity flowing. As Elsa becomes even more anxious Lohengrin appears to have learnt something from what he has read and binds Elsa to a ceramic insulator when she asks the question that should not be asked. When Lohengrin gets attacked he emits a Taser-like electrical charge and Elsa seems stunned as Telramund drops dead.
For the final scene there is a tall pylon with part of a lake to the rear with an electrical grid in the distance. [Spoiler alert!] At the end of the opera Lohengrin – looking like a workman again – gives Elsa a powerpack. Ortrud was about to be burnt herself as, I guess, a witch but with Gottfried’s return as a form of green energy all drop dead apart from Gottfried, Elsa and, most surprisingly, Ortrud. Lohengrin has long since slunk away. I think this might be a production that will benefit enormously from ‘Werkstatt Bayreuth’ and will be worth revisiting.
At Bayreuth in 2018 there have been some wonderful voices but not always have they been Wagnerian ones. Anja Harteros sounded out-of-sorts during ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ sung as if it was just a forthright aria rather than Elsa recounting an out-of-body experience. For me Elsa needs a lighter soprano and Anja Harteros sounded throughout more like an Ortrud. She was at her best in the final act but one of her other roles, Tosca, was never very far away and she was not a typical Elsa. Tomasz Konieczny was not popular with the Bayreuth audience perhaps because of his Alberich-like singing. Indeed, like that character he gets bound at one point, Ortrud does this in Act II with something similar to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. Georg Zeppenfeld brings gravitas and his typically focussed tone to King Henry and Egils Silins was a notably forthright Herald.
Waltraud Meier made her well-publicised return to the Green Hill after 18 years (her last role was Sieglinde in 2000). She was lauded by the audience at her curtain calls but that was possibly for all she has achieved in her glorious career – at Bayreuth and elsewhere – rather than this current performance as Ortrud. Meier remains an incomparable actress however and my eyes were always drawn to her when she was on the stage. On this occasion she was unable to cope with this high-lying role and could not dispel memories of Petra Lang in the previous rat-infested Neuenfels Bayreuth Lohengrin. Unfortunately, Meier struggled through ‘Fahr heim!’ near the end of Act III and it failed to make the impact it should.
As is widely known Roberto Alagna swanned off close to first rehearsals. He had been unable to prepare the role in the time allotted to him that was probably as long as Rausch and Loy had! It was Piotr Beczała who answered the call of someone in dire need, Christian Thielemann, and caught the first available swan to Bayreuth. Beczala was a revelation and sang with radiant musicality and gave all the words he was singing the attention they deserved. He was always willing to take risks with his singing and his crowning moment was a remarkable account of ‘In fernem Land’ starting with him prone on the floor and beginning with a delicate soft-grained voice that still filled the Festspielhaus. His envisioning of ‘eine Taube’ descending created a near-perfect mental image and he brought the opera to its stunning conclusion with a deeply heartfelt ‘Mein lieber Schwan’.
Of course, this Lohengrin was impressively played the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Christian Thielemann seemed to dissect and reassemble the Prelude to Act I and the opening to Act II, but the famous Prelude to Act III and the ‘Bridal Chorus’ were suitably exhilarating. Overall Thielemann’s conducting was authoritative, excellently paced and deeply involving. This is only to be expected from someone who has now conducted each of the Wagner operas which are performed at Bayreuth since he came there for the first time 18 years ago.
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