The Guardian, 1 August 2010
Fiona Maddocks
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 25 July 2010
Bayreuth festival 2010
The colourful Wagner sisters have taken control of the Bayreuth festival amid rumours of discord and hopes for a new era. Meanwhile, the subtleties of a rat-infested Lohengrin were lost on the starry first-night audience…
Lab rats, a dead horse and bridesmaids with long, pert rodent tails and hybrid dahlias on their heads hardly feature in the original of Wagner's Lohengrin. Nor does a fat, cloned baby which crawls out of its placenta and severs its own umbilical cord, tossing it to the people of Brabant like a string of raw Bavarian sausages: a doubtful new era begins.

Hans Neuenfels's alarming but laser-etched new production opened the 99th Bayreuth festival last Sunday amid mayoral pomp, red-carpet splendour and a roar of boos when the director, making his Bayreuth debut at the age of 69, took his bow. Wagner was a revolutionary, unlike his often unimaginative fans.

This was the start of the festival's own uncertain new era, the first without the composer's grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, who died in March having run the festival for more than half a century. Now his daughters, half-sisters Eva (65) and Katharina (32), are at the helm: anything could happen. By the end of the opening weekend, shy Eva had committed herself to hospital for observation, suffering from stress. Perhaps it was the only place to shun the public glare. Who can blame her?

The story of the medieval knight who won't reveal his name becomes, in Neuenfels's hands, a high-voltage examination of the morality of truth. What is it and what right have we to know it? The citizens of Brabant are part of a clinical experiment gone wrong. Identikit rats wearing numbers scurry in and out of cages and tomography chambers, part-human, part-rat pack – "Ratten-Slapstick" as one German newspaper labelled it, responding with a mix of approval and despair.

Reinhard von der Thannen's designs look crisp and spectacular. Rich with visual reference, from Petipa's Swan Lake and spooky Max Ernst to Saatchi-favoured contemporaries such as Katharina Fritsch (the rats) and Maurizio Cattalan (the horse), this is highly political theatre. It makes a brilliant contrast with the opulently imaginative Parsifal which was new here in 2008 and is also being staged this year. Many of these subtleties may have been lost on the glitzy first-night crowd, who sniffed and hooted in irritation as yet another pink rattus scampered on in its rubber flipper feet.

Neuenfels is best known for an Aida starring roast chickens, and an Idomeneo initially banned for inciting Muslim hatred with its depiction of Mohammed, saved only by the sensible intervention of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was also in this audience, clapping hard, with her shy scientist husband, fondly known as the Phantom of the Opera since it is one of the few places he voluntarily shows up.

When conservative Wagner-lovers boo, the floor reverberates, especially in the glorious acoustic of the composer's Festspielhaus, the all-wood, purpose-built theatre which opened in 1876 for the performance of his "music of the future", and his alone, and has maintained that tradition ever since. The cheers and foot stamps, almost as inevitable as the boos, were saved for the singers, led by the charismatic star tenor and local Munich boy Jonas Kaufmann, and his ardent Elsa, the Berlin-born soprano Annette Dasch, leading a mostly impressive cast.

The young Latvian, Andris Nelsons, turning heads in the UK as music director of the Birmingham's CBSO, made a persuasive conducting debut, drawing shimmering orchestral playing, expertly co-ordinating stage and pit and observing broad but never dragging tempi. If his cheers were not as loud as deserved, it was as if the first-night audience, preoccupied with saving their breath for anti-production clamour and diva-whoops, had scarcely realised how much this slight, boyish figure had achieved. Subsequent performances, minus the claque and the celebrities, will surely be more responsive..............

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