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Bayreuth 2012: Lohengrin, a Rat’s Tale About Humanity

“Three years may be the acid test for a production” says Hans Neuenfels about the 2012 performances of his Lohengrin in Bayreuth. That’s quite a reasonable statement in Bayreuth, where it is possible, up to a point, to continue fine tuning a production from inception to the end of its run. If it still – or especially – works, even after the cast has changed, it might be considered a success.

And Neuenfels’ Lohengrin is a success. For starters in its musical manifestation in 2012, with a good cast headed now by Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, and utterly compelling, sensitive music-making from the pit, where Andris Nelsons held the reins of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Visually – “it’s the one with the rats” – the production is compelling and gorgeous (unless you suffer from acute musophobia), dramatically it makes wonderful sense, and the craftsmanship of every of its aspects is top notch. It doesn’t rival Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for profundity (part of which lies in the nature of the respective operas), but it’s one of those productions that anyone who has seen it, shan’t be forgotten for a very long time.

The chorus of rats – large brown ones for the Brabantians, smaller white ones for the women’s chorus, and adorable little pink ones as flower girls and ring bearers – is the easy hook for those detractors who like superficial deviance from an expected norm to distract them. But they serve several purposes: They’re a good looking and diverting bunch of rodents. They make an accessible point about crowd- and collective behavior. And they make blocking of the chorus spectacularly successful: There’s not one awkward moment of parading choruses shifting uneasily onto and off stage – which is saying something about a Lohengrin production. Perhaps best of all, the chorus is obviously having a blast in their costumes, and such enthusiasm always helps.

When the rats finally shed their exterior and take human form (King Heinrich, a mild sufferer of musophobia himself, is now no longer disgusted by the crawling, clawing masses) they exemplify a general convergence to humanity: The rats upward from a lowly existence, Lohengrin human-ward from his lofty, god-like standing. The latter is touchingly illustrated when Vogt’s Lohengrin walks towards the audience in his final scene, rather than taking the next swan down the river Scheldt. One minor blooper of sorts: When Lohengrin reveals his name, the now humanoid Brabantians seem to have already guessed it, because they stand at attention wearing belts that brandish a big “L”. Perhaps they rashly assumed his name was “Ladislav” or “Leroy” and got lucky, except not lucky enough, since Lohengrin of course cedes all warring activities to Gottfried, who then climbs out of a large egg, looking half way like a bird fetus, and feeds the ex-rats with bits of his umbilical cord. (The latter being one of the production’s more obscure metaphors).

Whatever Neuenfels doesn’t say through directing his singers, Reinhard von der Thannen says through his impeccably aesthetic sets and costumes which are a pillar of this production’s (visual) magnificence. The black-swan/white-swan gowns for Ortrud and Elsa in Act II are one example, the sharp delineation between Ortrud/Telramund and Elsa/Lohengrin another, or perhaps most poignant in the last scene, where Ortrud, like a crazed Ophelia, wills herself a Queen against all realities by donning Elsa’s white, with a costume of plumes (but upside down), a white copy of Heinrich’s scissor-cut paper crown, and expressively smeared makeup. To complementary dress effect, Elsa appears in mourning-black.

Samuel Youn, in his third year as the Herald, managed to deliver the solid dramatic presence on stage he had lacked in the Dutchman, and rang out his part with clarity and brawn. The young Wilhelm Schwinghammer was the ARD Competition third prize winner just three years ago, and showed more promise than readiness then. Boy, how they grow up. Now he walked on stage as a sonorous Heinrich the Fowler, and filled the shoes of Georg Zeppenfeld, the production’s previous Heinrich, hitchlessly, and very impressively. Thomas J. Mayer, whom I found mildly lacking was Wotan/Wanderer in Munich’s Ring (Walküre/Siegfried), displayed a non-committal sounding voice that didn’t always definitively settle on a tone, but was helped by his dramatic abilities—much like Susan Maclean’s ultimately gripping Ortrud which started on the feeble side before reaching operating temperature.

Annette Dasch struggled for her Elsa to break through to the audience, but she did that commendably, helped by the keen support from Nelsons. Dramatically at least, it’s better when Elsa is on the weak side and partnered with a Lohengrin like Klaus Florian Vogt’s, than when even a fine Lohengrin like Jonas Kaufmann’s is out-sung by his Elsa, as the latter was by Anja Harteros in Richard Jones’ Lohengrin from the Munich Opera. Vogt, whose acquired taste of a glass-bell like voice is becoming increasingly accepted, appreciated, and loved, was made for roles like Lohengrin. Already in the 2006 Lenhoff’-Braunfels Baden-Baden production under Nagano he showed how the introverted Wagner characters are right up his alley, and how his uncanny ability to have the chorister-flavored voice float above the orchestra’s emissions rather than powering straight through them, enables him to imbue these roles with a great lyrical quality. On top of that he brought real force to the table, which led to the most enthusiastic reception of any artist in the whole fifth week of the Festival.

Recommended recordings:

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
A.Nelsons / Bayreuth FO
K.F.Vogt, A.Dasch,
P.Lang, J.Rasilainen
Neuenfels / v.d.Thannen
opus arte Blu-ray

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
R.Kubelik / BRSO
J.King, G.Janowitz,
G.Jones, T.Stewart


available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Lohengrin,
K.Nagano / DSO Berlin
K.F.Vogt, S.Kringlebotn,
W.Meier, T.Fox
Lenhoff / Braunfels
opus arte Blu-ray