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

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 Gˆtterd‰mmerung 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 Tannh‰user is not just another case of
‘Shock and Schlock.’

James Sohre

product_title=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
product_by=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.