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Getting Over the Rats

Bayreuther Festspiele
07/27/2012 -  & August 2, 8*, 13, 19, 25, 2012
Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Annette Dasch (Elsa), Susan Maclean (Ortrud), Thomas J. Mayer (Telramund), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (King Henry), Samuel Youn (Herald of the King), Stefan Heibach (first nobleman), Willem Van der Heyden (second nobleman), Rainer Zaun (third nobleman), Christian Tschelebiew (fourth nobleman)
Bayreuther Festspiele Orchestra and Chorus, Andris Nelsons (conductor)
Hans Neuenfels (director), Reinhard von der Thannen (sets and costumes)

(© Enrico Nawrath)

One tendency in Bayreuth’s recent history has seen the premiere of a controversial new production that everybody seems to hate morphing into an effort that is accepted and eventually even beloved. Patrice Chéreau’s centennial Ring of 1976 set the standard, but Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin, famous for the chorus’s rat costumes, is the latest production in this category. Its introduction in 2010 was denounced as “Eurotrash” par excellence. Last year’s revival was still greeted with widespread disbelief. But its third outing this summer seems to have put it on the fast track to becoming really beloved. The not very German word “Super” was the one most frequently heard upon exiting the Festspielhaus after the final curtain came down.

To be sure, the musical performance must have had something to do with this. For two summers running, the star tenor Klaus Florian Vogt was the only soloist in all five productions to receive a standing ovation. A lithe, sparkling voice lost none of the title role’s ethereal heroism while sustaining a voluble contribution to lore of Wagnerian performance history. Paired with Annette Dasch’s superb Elsa, delivered with a seemingly effortless charm and innocence, it was a fine effort, indeed. The villains of the opera were in every vocal and dramatic sense the equals of its heroes. Thomas J. Mayer’s Telramund forcefully reminded us of his successful performances as Wotan on European stages. The role’s understated difficulty, especially its demanding descending scales, fell before this compelling singer’s superb musicianship. It is tempting to sing the beguiling part of Ortrud, who must tempt Elsa into woe and doubt, with an overdone upper range shrillness at the expense of vital subtlety. The accomplished mezzo Susan Maclean deftly avoided this with a full bodied projection that recalls the intense studies of the great Margarete Klose. Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s King Henry could have been louder, but Samuel Youn, in the role of the King’s Herald, sang a beautiful reminder of how excellently he performed the Dutchman in this summer’s new production. The opera’s fine choruses were sung to superhuman perfection by Bayreuth’s chorus, arguably the world’s best. Warmly deserved plaudits rained down on chorus master Eberhard Friedrich. Andris Nelsons, who turns 34 this year, brilliantly conducted with an absorbing intensity that drew wild cheers.

Neuenfels’s production is often breezily dismissed as “Lohengrin with rats,” but this does not capture the essence of his message. Indeed, the close moments between the principal human characters unfold with an alluring intimacy. If the chorus appears in rat costume, it is because the larger concept presents the opera as a scientific experiment in which nebulous human concepts of loyalty, trust, discretion, and leadership are placed under observational study. At many turns in the plot, technicians in sanitary costumes enter to direct the action, place crucial props, and form the challenges that drive the opera. Video projections show rats charging forward in inexorable herds, inhabiting human brains, and attacking each other over crowns and other symbols of power. Since the plot ultimately ends in a series of failures – Telramund’s failure to seize power, Lohengrin’s failure to dispel doubt, Elsa’s failure to remain steadfast in faith, – it makes sense that the entire cast except Lohengrin dies at the end of what can only be a scientific failure. One imagines a frustrated researcher somewhere in the wings of the Festspielhaus still grasping at what makes humanity work. The fetus that represents the restored Gottfried, whose disappearance launched the whole opera, goes a bit too far, but the suggestion appears to be that something new and different will replace a corrupted humanity.

Paul du Quenoy



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