Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2011Posted on 28 July 2011
The people of Brabant as rats, Elsa in white, wounded with arrows in her back, and Lohengrin during the overture trying to get through white double doors. In 2010 this was the new production that opened the festival — it apparently got a mixed reception, but seeing it for the first time this year I liked it! And so presumably did Angela Merkel who returned as a private citizen to see it again, sitting in the first few rows rather than the main box at the back.
The video projections of rats fighting and metaphorically trying to take over the kingdom were clever, and I loved the opening of Act II with a dead horse and overturned carriage. Telramund and Ortud were evidently trying to abscond with boxes of gold bars that the rats quickly made off with. They have failed in their attempt to take over the kingdom, and the wrecked carriage is representative of their wrecked plans.
As for Lohengrin himself, Wagner writes in his Mitteilung an meine Freunde (Communication to my friends) that the hero is looking for a woman who “ihn unbedingt liebe” (loves him unconditionally). He longs for the one person who can release him from his solitude, quench his yearning — for love, for being loved, for being understood through love (original German “ihn aus seiner Einsamkeit erlösen, seine Sehnsucht stillen konnte — nach Liebe, nach Geliebtsein, nach Verstandensein durch die Liebe“). He fails of course because Elsa cannot resist demanding the name he can’t reveal without returning immediately to the land of the Grail. When the swan comes back for him, it turns into Elsa’s lost younger brother whom Ortrud bewitched and accused her of murdering, and in this production the brother is an embryo held inside an egg-like container. He rises onto his legs, tears his umbilical cord, and stands there like some far eastern holy man. Lohengrin walked slowly to the front of the stage, the lights went out, and the applause erupted.
Klaus Florian Vogt was an immensely strong and charismatic Lohengrin, assertive against others, yet showing quieter tender moments to the beautiful Elsa of Annette Dasch. Tómas Tómasson sang strongly as Telramund, and Petra Lang was a powerful presence as Ortrud, singing with huge force when the occasion demanded it. Samuel Youn was in good voice and wacky costume as the Herald, and Georg Zeppenfeld showed suitable weakness as King Henry, but sang with firmness, particularly in Act I when he refers to the sword giving a judgement between Trug und Wahrheit (fraud and truth).
Andris Nelsons conducted with energy and what seemed a faster than usual tempo, though I’ve no objection to that since I find this opera can tend to drag despite the beautiful music. In any event, Hans Neuenfels’ production, with costume and stage designs by Reinhard von der Thannen, gives a forward movement to developments and lightens things with a strong splash of colour. I loved the pink mice, and the hugely colourful lady rats at the wedding ceremony. As the mice came on, followed by the ladies I half expected the orchestra to burst into ballet music for Nutcracker or La fille mal gardée, to say nothing of the allusion to Swan Lake with Elsa and Ortrud in their feathered dresses of white and black.
In the end what stands out is: an intriguing production, fine performances from the whole cast, and that wonderful stage moment with the broken carriage and dead horse at the start of Act II. Super.