Epoch Times, July 26, 2010
Rosemarie Frühauf
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 25 July 2010
'Lohengrin' at the Bayreuth Festival
BAYREUTH, Germany—“Thank, God; nothing is serious” seems to be the message of the new production of Wagner´s Lohengrin that opens this year´s Bayreuth Festival.

Director Hans Neuenfels has a naked plastic swan with spread wings fly from the ceiling at the end of Act 1 and almost everybody in the audience laughs—so abandonment to hilarity, spiced with some boos, leads into an applause of hardly one minute before the curtain falls.

A burden seems to have fallen from the shoulders of the audience: Wagner can be so easy, so entertaining ...

Neuenfels put this medieval German romance into an experimental laboratory: the choir is completely dressed as rats (they don black and white suits with rat paws on their hands and feet.) Only the main protagonists seem to be human.

Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin appears more as the nice guy that, by chance, happens to unfold supernatural abilities, rather than as the radiant hero Wagner had in mind—no wonder, as he is in casual wear with his sleeves wrapped up. Yet he convinces us with the great dynamic range of his multifaceted voice and makes thrilling and frequent use of his enormously subtle pianissimos.

The charmingly soft and refined Elsa (Annette Dasch) meets her stage enemy in the brilliant and fiery Ortrud of Evelyn Herlitzius. Telramund, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, hits sharp heights and uses a declamatory, sometimes more acting than singing approach to his part.

Cheers for Tenor at Bayreuth’s ‘Lohengrin’
BAYREUTH, Germany—“Thankfully, nothing is serious here” seemed to be the message of the new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin that opened this year’s Bayreuth Festival on the sunny Sunday afternoon of July 25. A burden seemed lifted from the 2,000 people attending. They seemed to be thinking, “Wagner can be so easy, so entertaining...”

Thanks to director Hans Neuenfels (and set designer Rheinhard von der Thannen), a plastic swan with spread wings flew in from the ceiling at the end of Act 1 and made almost everybody laugh. Amidst the jubilant music, the audience doubled over with hilarity (spiced with some booing) and the curtain fell, accompanied by applause that lasted hardly a minute.

Opera enthusiasts had eagerly anticipated the debut at Bayreuth (lovingly nicknamed the Green Hill) of the young Germans Jonas Kaufmann (40) as Lohengrin and Annette Dasch (33) as Elsa. With this dream team on stage and the equally young conductor Andris Nelsons (31) on the podium, all looked forward to musical delight.

But the impression left on the listener by the acclaimed singers and the fast-paced conducting of the young Latvian was uncomfortably middle-of-the-road. I suspect that the evening will fade from my memory soon; it certainly didn’t deliver on the anticipation.

The Softest Lohengrin Ever

After Jonas Kaufmann’s first Lohengrin in Munich 2009, in which he had to act prosaic as a family man and do-it-yourselfer, fans wondered if he would have the chance to unleash some swan knight-splendor in his Bayreuth appearance. The answer? No.

In Act 1 Kaufmann enters, apparently a dreamer, walking along, casually dressed, with sleeves rolled up. His swan was carried in on a little boat that looked like a coffin—to be buried like all the other essential requisites of traditional Wagner staging.

The other elements showed up playfully surrealistic: a sword and shield stick in a flowerpot, and the German oak stands as a miserable small plant with its leaves gnawed off; the choir is a crowd of human-size rats kept in a laboratory; the strong King Heinrich collapses several times. These are typical of director Neuenfels’s upside-down view of Wagner’s original intentions.

Yet Kaufmann’s interpretation could not be smothered. In an enchanting performance, he sings half of the role in hushed tones. The thrilling gentleness of all the pianos and pianissimos that the handsome Jonas Kaufmann delivered in the swan knight role, his beautiful multifaceted voice, remained and created an astonishing experience.

He can be called the softest Lohengrin of all times, as he seems to sing with a head voice that no one else possesses.

An Interpretation That Confounds

When you look at the Bayreuth Festival’s tendency to invite progressive directors, then it is a wonder that the board hadn’t hired Neuenfels before. He is a notoriously provocative German opera director, and given that he is already 69 years old, he is long overdue to work there.

So you cannot blame Neuenfels for doing what he always does, but his intellectual approach often raises question marks above the heads of the audience, similar to the one projected over Lohengrin during the Gralserzählung (The Tale of the Grail).

The German hero Lohengrin, or Knight of the Swan, comes from a variety of medieval sources and is akin to the Arthur legends in Britain. The tale first appears in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Lohengrin is the son of Parzival in search of the Holy Grail. He rides in a boat pulled by swans to rescue Elsa.

The relationship of Lohengrin and Elsa in modern understanding is a rather dominant-submissive one. Lohengrin demands the impossible of Elsa: that she never ask his name, who he is, or where he comes from. But since she fears losing her beloved husband, Elsa’s trust isn’t strong enough to avoid the forbidden questions.

The story of Lohengrin often has been interpreted as the genius looking for a normal life (based on Wagner´s own life), but the supernatural hero emphasizes that he didn’t come on human business. Maybe he eventually planned to take Elsa to the wonderful world of the grail where only “the purest humans” reside. If this is the case, then the test of her belief would make sense. But this question is not resolved or even taken up by the director’s interpretation.

The Conductor

The gifted Andris Nelsons shows great potential, but since he is only 31 years old, he has not yet grounded his musical personality. Here he has either extended or rushed the tempi so that his conducting reflected the gist of the evening: a lack of artistic stability and temper.

It was everything from pathos to operetta-lightness that floated from the most magical of all orchestra pits. Unfortunately, his conducting exactly matched the happenings on stage that were likewise up and down.

The exaggerated ease that Nelsons asked of the wedding choir made a highly romantic moment slip into triviality, and the choreography of black, white, and pink rats compounded the problem.

But there were shining moments. In the Overture, for example, he created long stretches, translucent clouds of sound, in which different groups of instruments were sensitively accentuated. And last, but not least, in the unheard-of interpretation of Gralserzählung (with “unheard of” referring to Jonas Kaufmann’s hushed tones), Nelsons bedded the intense pianissimo phrases of the tenor on gracious simplicity.

Unusual Casting

That Jonas Kaufmann and Annette Dasch are not classic Wagnerian singers made the performance especially interesting. Annette Dasch, a celebrated Mozart interpreter, gave a lovely and honey-sweet Elsa that bloomed into the warmest smoothness in the wedding scene.

This critical love duet in Act 3 fit each singer’s natural tessitura and singing style best. The all-important dialogue of the drama—the moment when Elsa dares to ask the damning question—here, the tension between Elsa’s broaching the unavoidable question and the hero’s unfulfilled desire for love becomes the most touching scene and the artistic peak of the evening. The music flowed harmoniously and Kaufmann and Dasch could unfold beauty of their voices; luckily, they were not upstaged by distracting stage designs.

Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sang Telramund (as an alternative for Lucio Gallo) with sharp dramatic moments and a more declamatory than singing approach to his part. A gifted actor, he played the part as a misled fault-finder and had his best moments in dialogue with Ortrud. In the end, though, he garnered little applause.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud played her role with burning intensity that was an ideal opposite to Dasch´s sympathetic Elsa. Her cry for revenge in Act 2 became one of the rare moments where the music could erase the strange scenery from the audience’s mind. This dramatic soprano has grown in power and volume since her last visit to the Bayreuth stage.

The Final Applause Said It All

Twenty years ago, the “Lohengrin” audience applause lasted a full half hour—minimum—after each performance. It took only 17 minutes at this opening night to be done with it.

The first curtain calls were dedicated to the choir of the Bayreuth Festival and to its director, Eberhard Friedrich, as well as to the main protagonists. For Jonas Kaufmann, the audience rose spontaneously from their seats for standing ovations.

When Neuenfels, along with the set and costume designer Rheinhard von der Thannen, finally entered the stage, festival chairwomen and Wagner’s great-granddaughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, took the old man between them, as if they wanted to protect him from the boos to come. And it worked. Comparatively less animosity showered down on him.

A small group of supporters stood amidst the amused, smiling majority who abstained from any noisemaking at all. Most remained silent because it’s hardly possible to be angry with somebody looking so sheepish while throwing kisses.

We left with the feeling that we had witnessed something strange accompanying Wagner’s music, and had a vague sense that at least we all had some fun.

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