Can unconditional love and absolute trust exist in a
world where virtually everything is conditional? This is the question upon
which veteran stage director Hans Neuenfels has based his new production of
Wagner's Lohengrin. His premise is that the answer can be ascertained
by viewing the plot as an experiment to which we, the audience, bear
witness. Where does the experiment take place? In a hermetically sealed
laboratory, of course, under strict scientific conditions! Although the
principals are all definitely human, the chorus is made up of the most basic
of laboratory animals — rats! Rats? Neuenfels, ever searching for new ideas
even as he approaches his seventieth birthday, may have stretched
associative logic a bit, but his solution is not without rhyme or reason.
Much as the pied piper is able to lead hordes of rats (and, tragically,
later children) in whichever direction he desires, so does the chorus's
loyalty in Lohengrin sway, depending on which character is the momentary
front-runner. True, the rats here do mutate throughout, even to the point of
shedding their skin and turning into archetypal soldiers in Act III — but
there is always some remnant, be it tail or rat foot, to remind us that we
are dealing with the subservient hordes. Some rats try to escape, and
although most are recaptured by lab technicians, several actually succeed.
The initial shock of seeing the citizens of Brabant, as well as the soldiers
of King Henry, in animal form quickly dissipated as one realized that
Neuenfels's concept remained consistent. The director even inserted moments
of levity into the rats-versus-lab-staff story line, a bit of tongue in
cheek that did no harm to the flow of the evening.
In a work in which the chorus plays a dominant musical
role, the Bayreuth chorus (under the direction of Eberhard Friedrich) outdid
even itself. It would be nigh impossible to find an opera chorus with a more
homogeneous sound, with more impeccable diction or with more dramatic
commitment than that heard in this year's Lohengrin. The title
character himself initiates the conflict, seeking a way to restore love and
ideals in a complexly neurotic world. He represents enlightenment in a
symbolically dark age of mistrust, change and war, characteristics typical
of nearly every age, including our own. Although symbols abound in
Neuenfels's realization, they are neither inscrutable nor farfetched. Elsa
enters pierced with cupid's arrows. She makes neither eye contact nor
physical contact with anyone, not even with Lohengrin himself. Her love is
that of a dream. With her rescue comes reality and the expectations of the
real world. As depicted by Neuenfels, Elsa's fragility and inexperience
predetermine her need to ask the forbidden question. Ortrud is just the
opposite. She touches, questions, doubts, connives, manipulates and
willfully destroys. Even though she too ultimately fails in the end, her
failure affects those around her. She destroys the world as it exists
without giving any hope for a better future.
In Neuenfels's concept, Telramund knows he is being
manipulated. He is simply not strong enough to follow his own better
instincts. Heinrich shows signs of mental imbalance. Perhaps he is suffering
from burnout, perhaps he can no longer rule in a world once again on the
brink of war. The Herald has a wild hairstyle, reminiscent of boxing
promoter Don King. He also seems more aware of the proceedings than the King
himself. The sturdy German Oak is reduced to a potted plant; the Crown is
little more than a felt substitute. Video underscores the malleable
definition of "truth" and the subversive nature of power, as well as the
herd mentality of the "folk." Gottfried, being retransformed a year too
soon, is seen as a not quite mature embryo. Brutal, but not illogical!
Neuenfels knows the music: there was not one movement onstage that
contradicted the score. The acting and interpersonal relationships between
and among characters were well thought out and extremely intense. The story
line was always clear, the rats and the laboratory being simply a new way to
spin an old tale. At the performance of August 3, most of the audience
bought into Neuenfels's ideas. Some didn't.
Musically speaking, this was a superb evening, well up to
the highest Bayreuth standards. Although he is just thirty-two years old,
Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is already well on his way to a
distinguished international career. Despite this being his Bayreuth debut,
he had no problems at all adjusting to the Festival House's tricky
acoustics. His reading was fluid, full of youthful energy, precise without
being pedantic, with flights of lyricism countering bursts of the dramatic.
Jonas Kaufmann is surely today's best Lohengrin.
His vocalism was so secure that he was free to interpret at will. His top
notes were stunning, his singing of soft passages was ravishing, his
phrasing exemplary. Annette Dasch may have overextended herself in
assuming the role of Elsa. It is not a question of her vocal quality or her
acting but rather of her ability to sustain a level of excellence in a
lengthy Wagnerian role. On balance, she triumphed, but not without peaks and
valleys. Georg Zeppenfeld was simply outstanding as Heinrich, his pliant
bass voice brilliant in all registers. Evelyn Herlitzius remains a
spellbinding actress. Her Ortrud was so real that it bordered on the scary.
Vocally, she now unfortunately sings at a constant fortissimo. All the notes
are there, but more dynamic shading would have helped round out her
portrayal. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a more than competent Telramund, Samuel
Youn a faultless Herald.