Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2018

This is a copy of my review in the Sunday Telegraph on 29th July 2018.

The Wagner Festival in Bayreuth dates from 1876 when the composer’s extraordinary new opera house, with its recessed orchestra pit invisible to the audience, hosted the first complete performance of his four-part Ring cycle.

After Wagner died in 1883, his wife Cosima took charge, followed by their son Siegfried who ran things until his own death in 1930. Then darker forces came into play. Siegfried’s English-born wife Winifred, a great admirer and friend of Hitler, obtained Nazi government funding to make the Festival an annual event from 1933 until its final wartime incarnation in 1944; Thomas Mann later referred to the Festspielhaus as “Hitler’s Court Theatre”.

Six years after the war, Siegfried’s sons Wieland and Wolfgang restarted it, keeping their mother well away, and making Bayreuth a centre of musical excellence. They welcomed edgy productions, and the centenary Ring of 1976 under director Patrice Chereau, ill-received at first, later became a classic. But after a long run of success, decline set in, with productions that repelled both singers and audience alike.  However another Wagner, Wolfgang’s daughter Katharina, has been helping the Festival find its feet again since she took over sole control in 2009.

This year’s edition kicked off on Wednesday in typically grand style with a bold new approach to Lohengrinby American-Israeli director, Yuval Sharon that was attended by Angela Merkel, among others. This 1850 work sees the eponymous hero, a mysterious knight, sail into the kingdom of Brabant to exonerate princess Elsa who stands accused of her brother’s disappearance. Having defeated the scheming Telramund and his wife Ortrud, he weds Elsa, but all is lost when she breaks his one condition: that she will never ask his name nor origin.

What’s striking about Sharon’s interpretation is the way he brings out the work’s critique of establishment authority; Wagner after all, spent many years as a revolutionary on the barricades in his younger years. Here he emphasises both the dying of a kingdom and the way that the tragedy is one of Lohengrin’s making, thanks to his inability to mesh his idealism with reality. Meanwhile the women, Elsa and Ortrud, are left alive at the end, in a change from the original story; they represent a new way forward, rejecting the unquestioning obedience to the traditional patriarchal order.

It’s an interesting take, but the design by the husband and wife team of Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy doesn’t always complement it. The showiest element is some tiresome electrical apparatus which sparks to life to clunkily represent Lohengrin’s electrifying of the nation. Elsewhere, meanwhile, they pay homage to the Old Masters, with flats featuring static thunderclouds, clever lighting that hides and reveals the protgonists, and Dutch-style blue costumes.

But overall, Sharon’s conception works well, and the musical aspects are glorious, with wonderful light and shade under the baton of the Festival’s music director Christian Thielemann. I have never heard the quintet towards the end of Act 1 performed with such clarity, helped by the wonderful Festspielhaus acoustic, and the chorus was outstanding.

Most impressive, though, is the performance of Polish tenor Piotr Beczała in the title role; at just three weeks notice, he took over from Roberto Alagna, who confessed he was unable to learn the role in time. Beczała’s wonderfully lyrical Lohengrin is matched by the beautifully powerful performance of Anja Harteros as Elsa and the sympathetic portrayal of Ortrud by Waltraud Meier, whose return to Bayreuth for the first time in 18 years is a mark of the Festival’s recovery. Georg Zeppenfeld delivers a sonorous King Henry of great stage presence, Tomasz Konieczny a strong if somewhat shouty Telramund, and Egils Silins is a marvellously firm Herald.

As Bayreuth returns to the top rank, its choice of Sharon as the first American director to grace the festival turns out to have been a good one. His daring interpretation confirms Bayreuth’s place in the avant garde, which is where it wants to remain.

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