Thursday, 26 July 2018

Wagner - Lohengrin (Bayreuth, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Bayreuth Festival, 2018

Christian Thielemann, Yuval Sharon, Georg Zeppenfeld, Piotr Beczala, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier, Egils Silins

BR-Klassik - 25 July 2018

The premiere of Bayreuth's new production of Lohengrin for their 2018 festival tends to emphasise the colourful fairy-tale qualities of the work, but whether it gets to the mythological qualities that Wagner's opera aspires to is another matter. Whether the values the work puts forward have any meaning or application to the world we live in today is questionable in any case. Dresden's production would seem to think not, retaining the work's medieval legend setting, but Bayreuth usually take a much more adventurous analytical probing of Wagner's works for continued relevance and contemporary meaning, as the previous production by Hans Neuenfels demonstrated. With Lohengrin, there's always the tricky question of its legacy to consider, which Olivier Py's production for La Monnaie recently explored. The intentions of the latest Bayreuth production are a little more difficult to fathom.

Whether you take it at face value or probe deeper and more critically, Lohengrin however is inextricably related to the matter of German nationalism, Wagner seeking through mythology and legend to identify the characteristics that define the German people. Whether it's critical of certain unpleasant and dangerous aspects of that nature or laudatory and idealistic is questionable, but it's possible to see it both ways. Doing so of course risks polarising those aspects into broad definitions of 'good' and 'evil', and the fairy-tale setting does tend towards such a Manichean division at the cost of any finer nuance. There are certainly other elements that suggest other ways of looking at the work, but it has to be said that initially, the symbolism is confusing and difficult to pin down.

Part of the reason for this of course could be down to the fact that the set designers, the artist Neo Rauch and his wife Rosa Loy, worked independently on their conception of the work and then tried to integrate that with director Yuval Sharon's ideas. There's a clear difference of views then on what the intention, purpose and relevance of Lohengrin is, but that can also provide an interesting dialectic that can promote some interesting new thoughts on the work. Even if it's hard to fathom, I have to say I'm more taken with the visual aesthetic in this new Bayreuth production than with the contradictory thoughts that LA Opera director Sharon - the first American director invited to work on a Bayreuth production - entertains on the work.

Visually the production design is stunning, a vision in pale blue. There's nothing naturalistic about the mythological fairy-tale setting of Lohengrin, so there's no need whatsoever to have it in any realistic/idealistic depiction of medieval Brabant. Rauch and Loy's designs do pay lip service to period in the stylised costumes, but they also have more eccentric fairy-tale touches like wings attached to the backs of the main characters; long insect wings mostly, and little bat wings for Ortrud. There no real sign that these are used for flying, although the sword-fight challenge between Telramund and Lohengrin takes place in the air on wires. What does stand out as incongruous but spectacular is the huge wireless electrical generator tower where Lohengrin makes his appearance and the giant Tesla electrical coils that the accused Elsa is tied to in preparation for burning at the stake.

The imagery and the conflict of characterisation in this production does have a tendency then to highlight the divisions between good and evil. Is God on the side of the German people or against them, and is the struggle between Ortrud/Telramund and Lohentrin/Elsa a contest really to determine God's will as a resolution to King Henry's concerns about how to unite the people behind him? Admittedly, this view is probably influenced more by Waltraud Meier's brilliant interpretation in her expression of the word 'God' while she sets out to manipulate Frederic von Telramund. There is however also something about the division between old ways and new ways, between faith and magic that is highlighted in the traditional ceremonial heraldry and the 'magic' of electrical forces, the gods of technology.  There is even some hint of visual reference to Fritz Lang's Metropolis in this, where there is a similar need to reunite heart and mind in order to bring the people together as a nation.

Whether that's relevant to today is of course open to interpretation, but certainly viable in that it can be applicable to all kinds of contemporary issues, and perhaps particularly German ones. Yuval Sharon however takes a somewhat contrary viewpoint to the meaning and contemporary relevance of the work, seeing it as some kind of an expression of #MeToo and women's rights. His questioning in an interview whether "Can real love exist if you aren't allowed to know the partner?" and his view that Elsa and Ortrud are strong women who need to assert their own personality over "corrupt men" (including Lohengrin), since "blindly trusting and obeying someone is not permissible in our society" seems to me to be the complete opposite of the intended view of the opera on questions of faith and trust. There's nothing wrong in challenging or updating that view, and Wagner's views are certainly open to reevaluation, but I don't think that the director makes a convincing case by imposing modern gender politics onto the work when the real issues surely lie deeper than that on placing one's faith and trust in the concept of a nation.

The question is at least relevant in terms of power - if you want to consider the references to electricity simply in those terms - in who has the right to wield it and how they wield it. Nothing of course is that clear cut, and inevitably, by the time we get to the third Act it becomes harder to tie all the different symbols and imagery together into something meaningful. Frederic von Telramund's body isn't brought onto the stage for the last scene, but his detached wings are pinned to a flat piece of scenery that looks like a bush. The people carry flickering moth-shaped lamps, and the concluding return of Godfrey, the heir to the throne of Brabant, turns up not as a swan or a child on a swan but as a fully grown green man who resembles an East Berlin traffic light Ampelmann carrying an illuminated green shoot (the merging of nature and technology - who knows? It's Bayreuth).

Whatever you make of it all, it's a great Lohengrin that looks and sounds terrific and is certainly thought-provoking. Christian Thielemann can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned, conducting this performance with pace and vigour, but never aggressively, allowing the full Romantic flow of the work to dominate. The casting on paper looks close to ideal, but the few concerns you might have are borne out to some extent. Little needs to be said about Georg Zeppenfeld's clear authoritative King Henry; his acting abilities are maybe limited to eyebrow raising, but there's not a lot of room for interpretation in the role. Tomasz Konieczny is a superb Telramund; no cartoon villainy here, he combines a steely formidability in his voice with a weakness towards the machinations of Ortrud. Waltraud Meier is evidently not the force she once was, but her experience and interpretation count for a lot, bringing much to a vital role that deserves more than caricature. I've never been completely convinced with Anja Harteros as a Wagnerian singer, but she is capable of surprising you in the right role. Elsa is not the right role.

The star of the show as far as I was concerned (and the Bayreuth audience as well from the sound of it, although Meier also got a long enthusiastic and respectful ovation) was Piotr Beczala. Drafted into the production at short notice following the departure of the scheduled Roberto Alagna, who found himself not fully prepared for the role, Beczala was a luminous heroic Lohengrin (despite Sharon's misguided attempt to paint this Lohengrin as some kind of cruel authoritarian figure), his voice clear, bright and lyrical, his diction superb, sounding genuinely otherworldly. It's great to hear a different voice from the ubiquitous Klaus Florian Vogt in this role (quite how Alagna might have sounded is anyone's guess, but it might be intriguing to hear that one day) and Beczala, who already demonstrated his capability for the role in the Dresden production in 2016, is even better here, completely in command. There's no question whose side God is on here.

Links: Bayreuth Festival, BR-Klassik