Financial Times, July 26 2010
Andrew Clark
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 25 July 2010
Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, Germany
The stage is swarming with rats. Well, they move like rats and behave like rats, and are dressed in rat-like costumes. They show rat-like intelligence and appear, as rats do, by the dozen.

You might wonder what these vulgar rodents could be doing in the Bayreuth festival theatre, the Wagner world’s holy temple, in a performance of Lohengrin. Most of Sunday’s first-night audience, including Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and other dignitaries, were wondering too. The rats looked repellent but were often comical, especially when a mother rat shuffled downstage with a string of baby rats in tow.

It’s a type of Wagner interpretation you would never encounter in the English-speaking world, but German audiences expect provocation. In German Regietheater (director’s theatre), the more provocative you are, the more discussion your work creates. Just occasionally, this will lead to a deeper questioning of the assumptions we make about all great works of art.

Such is the case with this new Lohengrin. It is staged by Hans Neuenfels, a 69-year-old enfant terrible notorious for dressing his choruses as insects and animals. So the Bayreuth audience knew roughly what to expect. What they might not have expected was that Neuenfels’ Lohengrin would emerge, rats and all, as more thought-provoking than your average operatic scandal.

For starters, it had brilliant visual clarity, based on the simple lines and helpful acoustic of Reinhard von der Thannen’s all-white classical-modern set, designed to represent a human laboratory. The technical execution was up to Bayreuth’s world-renowned standard, with virtuoso crowd control and intense solo acting, underlining the sexual chemistry of the Lohengrin/Elsa and Telramund/Ortrud partnerships. Neuenfels and Thannen laid on a series of theatrical coups – hanging the rats’ coats on hooks high above the stage, turning the bridal procession into a feast of summer dresses (tails attached) – that kept all eyes glued to the action.

The finale brought to mind the foetal star-child in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Wagner stipulates the arrival of a minor to take the place of the departing swan-knight, Neuenfels provided an adult-size figure, half-foetus, half-alien, that emerged from a simulated egg and started cutting up its own umbilical cord.

Sunday’s audience, which had grumbled and tittered its way through the performance, was stunned into silence. Suddenly, Lohengrin had become a more troubling, more ambivalent work than we all imagined it to be. In place of utopias, it spoke of false dreams, taboos, uncertainty. The rats’ herd-like belief in a better life had been smashed, just as Lohengrin’s quest for unconditional love had failed. No wonder Wagner called Lohengrin his saddest opera.

The clinching factor was the performance’s musical character – not just the superlative festival chorus and orchestra but the conducting of Andris Nelsons, whose daringly slow, serene handling of the Elsa theme midway through the second act was outstanding.

No less notable was Jonas Kaufmann’s Bayreuth debut – the Lohengrin of one’s dreams, a fusion of Mozartian sensitivity, Italianate fluency and Germanic intelligence. Annette Dasch’s Elsa was too sterile for my taste but made an effective foil for Evelyn Herlitzius’ squally, histrionically riveting Ortrud. With capable support from Hans-Joachim Ketelsen’s Telramund, Samuel Youn’s Herold and Georg Zeppenfeld’s King, this Lohengrin puts Bayreuth back in the vanguard of Wagner interpretation. (4 star rating)

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