Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

This intriguing production by Hans Neuenfels, now in its third year, concentrates on the people rather than the distant historical setting in which Wagner sets his opera. The stage action starts already during the overture with Lohengrin in an antiseptically white room trying to get out, which he eventually achieves by simply walking backwards through the door. Like the Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin desires a redeeming human love, but being forced to reveal his true origins in Act III he must return from whence he came.

King and subjects, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

Yet he is on a mission to the land of Brabant, and finds it in uproar. The king is weak, unable to walk a straight line without wobbling, and the people are rats — shy creatures unable to do much when faced with forces beyond their control. Ortrud and Telramund’s scheming to capture the crown is displayed in video imagery of rats, and after Lohengrin defeats Telramund, the dialogue between the schemers at the beginning of Act II is set in the context of an overturned coach signifying their crash, with rats coming out of nowhere to take whatever wealth they still possess.

Elsa wounded by the accusations

Elsa, victim of her own naivety, has become reliant on semi-divine intervention to exculpate her for the disappearance of her brother. She is blind to Ortrud’s clever sorcery, unaware that its diabolical power caused her brother to vanish. But Elsa’s great fault is to question her redeemer rather than her accuser, and when she finally compels him to reveal his origins, the lighting for In fernem Land was superb. Lohengrin was warmly lit in centre stage, while Elsa stood front stage-left in a very cold light. After this distressing scene heralding the end of their love, the boat that comes for Lohengrin carries an egg containing an embryo who stands and severs his own umbilical cord. Elsa’s brother has returned and a new era dawns, but Elsa is beyond help.

Ortrud and Elsa

Such are the essentials of this production, and Annette Dasch sang Elsa beautifully, her first entrance showing huge purity of tone, pitch, and presence. Both she and Lohengrin were the same singers as last year, and Klaus Florian Vogt gave an outstanding performance as the title character. Like Elsa he started with great vocal purity and lack of assertiveness, yet quickly took a bolder attitude when addressing the king. This year Wilhelm Schwinghammer sang the king, portraying him as a very weak character, and Samuel Youn made a very fine Herald, just like last year. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan Maclean as Telramund and Ortrud were very strong, both in characterisation and vocal power, but the main plaudits must go to Dasch and Vogt, who were cheered to the rafters, with particularly insistent stamping and cheering for Vogt.

Elsa and Lohengrin

Conducting by Andris Nelsons was super — the overture was terrific and the Act II dialogue between Elsa and Ortrud reached sublime musical heights. There was huge audience appreciation for everyone, except a smattering of boos for the director — but they do like to boo at Bayreuth. This is a clever production, very well revived, and the dramaturge, Henry Arnold has a particularly good essay in the programme, discussing Wagner’s intentions.

For an alternative perspective on this production, see my review from last year.

Performances continue until August 25 — for details click here.

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