Richard Wagner - Lohengrin
Bayreuth Festival 2011
Andris Nelsons, Hans Neuenfels, Reinhard von der Thannen, Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, Jukka Rasilainen, Petra Lang, Samuel Youn, Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew
It’s refreshing to see Wagner approached with a critical eye, one that doesn’t just accept his work with a deferential, respectful attitude, played straight and full of grandiose pomposity, but rather strives to find the deeper qualities in his work and consider how - or even whether - they still have meaning and relevance to the world of opera and to the world in general. It’s also refreshing - surprising for some, shocking for others - that it’s at Bayreuth, the home of Wagner and under the directorship of the composer’s great-daughter Katarina Wagner, that some of the most radical and irreverent productions are being undertaken. Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin, recorded here at the Festival in 2011, is consequently another radical reworking of Wagner’s own mythology that has generated some amount of controversy and bewilderment, and it’s not hard to see why.
Lohengrin has always been one of the most difficult Wagner operas to approach, partly because of where it stands in the development of the composer finding his own voice and partly because of the history that has become attached to it through its association with Nazism. Even though the work is often grouped as one of the three earlier operas (along with Der Fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser) that saw Wagner still finding his way towards the reformation of opera into a music-drama artform that would exalt and give expression to essential German characteristics as expressed in ancient myths and legends, it is nonetheless the most clear and consistently ‘Wagnerian’ of those earlier works. If there is any fault with the work, it’s not so much musical as the fact that it tends to put across those ideals of German purity across in a way that allowed them to be treated simplistically and seized upon in later years as an expression of Aryan supremacy. With its bold choruses of Germanic voices chanting 'Sieg Heil', the subsequent history of the work beyond the composer’s lifetime can’t be ignored, and it means that a director needs to be very careful about how such scenes are staged.
Hans Neuenfels’ idea then isn’t in itself necessarily a bad one. He correctly sees that there is much more to Lohengrin than solemn declarations of Germanic might and purity, but that there is an essential element of humanity and romanticism in the work. And not only does it subject those noble characteristics to examination, but there is a wider consideration and a deep understanding in Lohengrin of the flaws and weaknesses in the German character also, as well as a sense of humour that is often ignored in Wagner. In some respects then for Neuenfels, Lohengrin represents a kind of social experiment for Wagner, where he pits conflicting German characteristics against each other - often in very broad terms of good and evil - and explores the impact they have on society, here in its setting of Brabant. Little did Wagner realise how those German characteristics would later find expression in Nazism, or how much the work itself would play a part in the formation of those ideals, but perhaps Lohengrin’s social experiment does indeed prophetically shed a light on just how German society can give rise to those kind of sentiments.
The difficulty with Neuenfels’ direction of Lohengrin for Bayreuth however is in how he and production designer Reinhard von der Thannen take the idea of the opera as a social experiment through a reductio ad absurdum where Brabant literally becomes a laboratory and its citizens run around for the most part dressed in black, white and pink mouse costumes. It all looks very silly indeed and definitely not how you expect to see Wagner traditionally produced. But then again it’s clearly the intention of the director to totally break down those preconceptions and the historical baggage that comes with the opera, and at the very least you can safely say that there has never been a Lohengrin like this one. The staging is colourful and well-choreographed, while the modernist, clean-line, brightly lit stage that is now a distinctive feature of Bayreuth in recent years is far from the dark theatricality that you normally associate with opera productions. Using animated sequences moreover, the production takes a Rashomon-like perspective on the nature of Truth (Wahrheit) in relation to the alleged drowning of Gottfried, the heir to the throne of Brabant, by his sister Elsa, and highlights the changing reaction of the people (the rats), to the unfolding of these events. Along with the people’s reaction to the call to arms by King Heinrich “The Fowler” to fight against Hungary that comes at the same time, this is definitely an interesting angle to explore.
As a theme then, the production certainly has validity and relevance to Wagner’s work, remaining relatively faithful to its narrative progression despite the often absurd imagery that is used, and it is at least fascinating to watch and highly original. Rather than bringing out any underlying complexity in the work however, it seems to either just exaggerate the broad black-and-white characterisation in the most simplistic terms with blatant symbolism (swans on one side, rats on the other) and obvious colour-coding, or else smother it in obscure references and imagery when the fit isn’t quite perfect. It hardly deals with the more problematic questions raised by the work and its historical legacy, and despite the attempt to draw out the type of humour from the work that you might find more readily in Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, it doesn’t seem to work particularly well with the musical language employed by Wagner either. It’s more of a “commentary” on Lohengrin than a vision that makes a true meaningful connection with the work. Whether this failing to fully connect with the heart of the piece is a problem for the performers or not is hard to say, but although it’s wonderfully played by the orchestra, Andris Nelsons at least seems to struggle to find a tone to match the uneven and bizarre antics on the stage.
The singing too - something unfortunately not always given due consideration at Bayreuth - is again not really strong enough here to make the idea work, although some singers manage better than others. Klaus Florian Vogt is simply made to play Lohengrin, singing it here - as he does in the Kent Nagano/Nikolaus Lehnhoff production already available on Blu-ray - with a beautiful lyrical purity of tone that seems wonderfully fitted to his character. His voice could hardly be more of a contrast to that of Jonas Kaufmann who sang the role in this production last year. Georg Zeppenfeld is also very impressive as King Henry, singing wonderfully with authority but also with an edge of character instability that works well with the concept here. Petra Lang alone gives the kind of powerful, commanding Wagnerian performance you would expect. She is absolutely stunning on those high passages - although not always as strong across the range - and she consequently cuts an appropriately fearsome figure as Ortrud. She seems to adapt better to the ‘baddie’ role than Jukka Rasilainen, who looks and sounds hopelessly out of place here as Telramund. Annette Dasch too clearly finds the singing and the interpretation something of a struggle - but Elsa is by no means an easy role and there are enough good points to admire in her performance here. The chorus work - notwithstanding its members having to wear rat costumes - is simply outstanding.
On Blu-ray in High Definition, the brightly lit and colourful stage looks most impressive, the cameras finding plenty of low and high angles to capture the whole scope of the stage direction without getting too carried away. The audio tracks, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are exceptionally good, with the orchestra and singing well recorded and mixed. Instead of the usual bland Bayreuth Making Of feature, the extras principally consist of four five minute interviews with Katarina Wagner, Hans Neuenfels, Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch, but also include a Cast Gallery and the three animated Wahrheit sequences. The booklet contains an essay with further information and interpretation of the ideas in the production, and a full synopsis.