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14 Sep 2010

Bayreuth’s Lohengrin: A ‘Rat’-ical Re-‘tail’-ing

It doesn’t take long for the summer’s new Lohengrin to reveal its entire bag of tricks as a large chorus of rats (yes, the chorus-as-rodents) scurries on at curtain-rise into the white science laboratory setting.

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin

Lohengrin: Simon O’Neill; Elsa: Annette Dasch; Henry the Fowler: Georg Zeppenfeld; Herald: Samuel Yuon; Friedrich von Telramund: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen; Ortrud: Evelyn Herlitzius. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Set and Costume Design: Reinhard von der Thannen. Lighting Design: Franck Evin. Video: Bjorn Verloh. Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich.


It was the first of many WTF moments for its own WTF sake. It certainly had nothing to do with Wagner’s opus. Nor really much to with anything else, except for the inexplicable fact that aging bad-boy director Hans Neuenfels can apparently still get producers to lavish considerably large resources on his artistic pretensions.

My point being is that nothing about the production looks cheap. Just horribly, horribly…and willfully…wrong. Reinhard von der Thannen’s multitude of well-crafted costumes run the gamut from menacing rats with lighted red eyes, to Disney rats in alternating grey and white rows, to a cute ‘Mutti’ rat who conducts her tiny brood in ‘singing’ the squires ‘quartet’ in the wedding procession. You get the idea, and there are endless variations as these attention getting devices breed like…well…rats.

Wearing rubber rat feet, hands and tails; and an admittedly clever mesh mask/snout, the Chor occasionally molt their rat coats to reveal, say, blinding golden yellow zoot suits or later, white tails. The ladies come to the wedding procession in garish carnival gowns in Day-Glo hues that Carmen Miranda would have rejected. But ‘ohne Zweifel’ they sure are screamingly colorful. In the last act, the group of choristers are real people at last, in muted black and gray courtiers’ garb, having somehow been transformed from a controlled proletariat rats nest into a free society. Sort of.

The principals by comparison were rather lackluster in their dress, Elsa entering in a white silver buttoned trench coat get-up that was studded with more white arrows than a Saint Sebastian painting. Since two rats were trailing her with bows and arrows at the ready, one must guess that this was supposed to represent that she was a victim of the slings and arrows of malicious public opinion. But who the hell really knows? I will say that when our hero later yanks them out of her back as she winces, it more suggests a chicken being plucked than any high-minded moral imagery.

Lohengrin was in a simple contemporary white shirt with black pants and a loosened black tie, like a bored Prada model in an advert. The dapper King looked disco dressy in his black suit, vest and no shirt, although he did have a black felt crown in the standard-issue Euro-trash Bart Simpson hair-do design (do German theatres buy these by the gross?). Ortrud and Telramund at one point had shiny silver suits that, with the addition of a few spangles, could form the nucleus for the finale of A Chorus Line. It has to be said that the white-bird-black-bird cotillion gowns for Elsa and Ortrud in the wedding procession were beautiful to look at, although perhaps more appropriate for Swan Lake then Lohengrin. The Herald was decked out in grey tails (the prom attire type) and sported hair moussed so wildly Peter Sellars would be jealous.

These divergent costume eccentricities were balanced by Thannen’s clinical white sets, which served as a blessedly neutral backdrop to so much visual busy-ness. The laboratory theme was inconsistent with other settings in that we couldn’t really figure out just where these other places were supposed to be within context of the Konzept. The newlyweds’ bed chamber tracks on nicely from upstage and affords good playing levels, but what are those scattered porthole windows about? Are they meant to be peepholes? Or evocative of a Swiss cheese meant to bait a rat trap? Lest you think I hypothesize too much, the marauding assassins who break into the boudoir to kill the hero are all dressed as rats again, including Telramund. But, who dude…his body is wheeled on in the final scene on a gurney, fully human again. WTF?

Act Two is perhaps most puzzling of all, although perhaps also least maddening. In the middle of the stage a black carriage has broken down and a white horse lies dead on its side. I couldn’t help but think of Cinderella after the coach and horses went past the sell-by date and reverted to a pumpkin and mice (or rats). Except…well, there was no pumpkin. And while no one beat the dead horse, Ortrud and Telramund did beat the ‘demoralized travelers’ image until it had no pulse left, seeming like a scrapping couple bitching that they will never again take a damn’ package tour. (“First the horse dies, then the carriage breaks down, there are rodents everywhere…”).

Franck Evin came up with a complementary lighting design, and Bjorn Verloh devised some very professional videos, although they were far more distracting than they were enriching. Each one was titled “A truth.” The first two offered variations of a white rat (Elsa) pursuing a pink rat (Gottfried) and attempting to kill him; the first time succeeding, the second time being thwarted by another rat (Lohengrin). The third video featured the skeleton of a dog who becomes infested by the rats that he is chasing, and ultimately collapses in a pile of bones. Well produced, but…WTF?

Mr. Neuenfels, having exhausted his interest in placing giant insects on stage in past opera productions, has entered a new anthropological chapter and is clearly the driving force in imposing this mish-mosh of ideas and images. To his credit, the staging of the large crowd scenes are flawlessly put together, the complicated traffic patterns are well rehearsed, and even the semaphoric choreography is cleanly executed. And once in a while, in duet scenes, the characters actual seem to connect once the distractions momentarily abate. But such moments of illuminating repose are rare. The practiced discipline in his traffic management are woefully missing from his conception’s through-line and Mr. N seems hell-bent on throwing one whacked-out idea after another at us hoping one might work. Or better, rankle. Oooooooh. For provocation is what this guy is about. A partial listing:

At the exultant climax of Act One, a plucked swan-cum-rubber-chicken flies in from above like Groucho Marx’s duck. In a parody of court dances, two lines of boy rats, intensely caress the tales of two lines of lady rats with a curiously phallic fixation. Superfluous lab technicians in green scrubs are costumed stage managers and, on occasion, antagonists. A large, Lladro-like swan has its neck bent backwards by Ortrud who rides it like a witches broom, and when she dismounts, it slowly springs back up like an erection. And Hans’s worst effort is reserved for the final moments:

When the boat appears (a black coffin), it carries some large structure that is draped with a black cloth with a white swan image. Lohengrin pull it away to reveal a giant (swan?) egg. Laughter. Then the thing spins around to reveal the ugliest, placenta covered fetus (Gottfried) you can imagine. As the chorus prostrate themselves, the baby stands up, break off pieces from his umbilical cord, and tosses them on the crowd. Frat boy gross out behavior really serves Wagner’s intentions, right?

The musical side of the equation was mercifully in mostly very fine estate, thanks to the propulsive reading by conductor Andris Nelsons who was especially commanding in the frequent powerful dramatic outbursts. Not to imply that Maestro Nelsons was less successful in the introspective passages, since he found great longing and sensitivity in all the great emotional benchmark moments. However, the opening strings might have been more luminescent, and the rhythmic pulse might have throbbed a bit more. The usually flawless orchestra had a few surprising bleeps and blats from the horns and trumpets in the oft-repeated fanfares. I confess to still having a problem with the covered pit’s homogenizing of the orchestral colors. The echoed trumpet call effect didn’t land since all three ensembles sounded almost equally muted. I guess Wagner knew what he wanted, but I much prefer the vibrant colors and email that are able to emanate more fully from an uncovered pit. In addition to enthusiastically executing their demanding staging, Eberhard Friedrich’s large chorus was exceptional in every way, singing with commanding variety, and clearly enunciating every phrase as one voice.

Bass Georg Zeppenfeld stole the vocal honors for his powerfully sung Henry the Fowler. His rich, round tone was equally effective at both extremes of the range and everywhere in between, and his subtle dynamics and pointed phrasing wrung every bit of drama out of his role. In a very close second, Samuel Yuon was a superlative Herald, every bit as impressive as his splendid Gurnemanz last summer. Mr. Yuon has a hint of darkness in his sizable bass-baritone, but his lightness of approach and sound bel canto-based technique allow for gorgeous, arching musical statements. A most impressive vocalist.

Much interest was focused on Annette Dasch in her role debut as Elsa, and the audience enthusiasm for this popular star was not misplaced. Ms. Dasch has an exciting presence and an admirable impression of spontaneity that make for exciting musical and dramatic effects. I felt that her introspective sustained singing just after her entrance was not the strength of her portrayal, and she came into her own when she had the opportunity to interact with others, seeming spurred on by the heat she was being given from her fellow performers. The voice can be pleasingly grainy at lower volumes, but she can pour out full-voiced tone with a hint of steel when things start percolating. And she is lovely to behold, suggesting the cool girlish beauty of Margaux Hemingway. What Annette does not yet have is the artistic serenity for the character, and the vocal cream to enhance the moments of poised stillness in her self-doubt. She is young, she is gifted, she will grow. But already, hers was undeniably a crowd-pleasing Elsa.

The biggest drawing card of the show (sorry, Hans) was to have been recently-world-famous Jonas Kauffman in the title role. Alas, illness felled him for the final two shows and he was spelled on this occasion by a wholly satisfactory Simon O’Neill, who has the heft and staying power for the part. He had many thrilling moments when in full-Geschrei, and acquitted himself most professionally throughout. I found his well-schooled instrument slightly less effective in the quieter phrases, and it must be said that “Mein lieber Schwann” was effortful and a bit insecure (I was holding my breath but he made it through through sheer force of will). The audience was generous with their approval to the point of being almost rapturous, as much for saving the show as for his (mostly) assured singing.

Would that we had been so lucky with our evil-doers. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen offered a decently sung, if undistinguished Telramund, one that for all its bluster communicated little chilling villainy over the footlights. Having admired Evelyn Herlitzius as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde in Cologne not too many years ago, it was shocking to hear what toll the intervening Wagner performances have taken on her instrument. What once was a pleasantly penetrating soprano with a controlled womanly vibrato has become unpleasantly piercing at all but the softest volumes, and turns warbly at forte to boot. Her hysterical approach to the role had her pushing the volume more often than not, and high lying phrases veered considerably off pitch, often encompassing more pitches than those written. I hope Ms. Herlitzius can stop and fix it for she is a sensitive artist, and much of here softer singing still gave pleasure.

What to conclude then about this variable performance? Well, the Festspiel has gotten itself a good rip-roaring Skandal, and everyone is clucking and fussing about it. But what they don’t have, alas, is a very good Lohengrin. With the Ring leaving the repertoire next year, the schedule will inherit three poorly regarded productions and one intriguing Parsifal. The Publikum must be praying that Katerina and Eva are mindful that the new Tannhäuser is not just another case of ‘Shock and Schlock.’

James Sohre

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