The New York Times, 4 August 2010
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 3 August 2010
Avant-Garde Director Gathers Rats Into a Wagnerian Maze
BAYREUTH, Germany — It has become practically a part of the tradition at the Bayreuth Festival for the director of an avant-garde Wagner production to be vociferously booed on opening night. So it was on July 25, when the festival opened with the new Hans Neuenfels production of “Lohengrin,” which I saw here on Tuesday, the second performance.

If regie-opera (productions driven by a director with an imposing agenda) has a ringleader, it is probably Mr. Neuenfels, especially notorious for a 2001 “Fledermaus” at the Salzburg Festival that turned this frothy, waltzing comedy into a festering exposé of kinky sex and proto-Nazism.

What is mostly inciting the ire over Mr. Neuenfels’s “Lohengrin,” with sets and costumes by Reinhard von der Thannen, is his depiction of the nobles and commoners of 10th-century Brabant as rats in a sterile modern-day laboratory. Only the main characters — the Christian knight Lohengrin, the fair lady Elsa, King Henry the Fowler of Germany, the conniving Count Friedrich von Telramund and his wife, Ortrud, who practices the occult — are presented as fully human and, consequently, superior.

The concept is laden with symbolism, and Mr. Neuenfels’s presence as a director-commentator pervaded every scene. Yet provocative and insightful ideas fire this intriguing staging. And, as always at Bayreuth, the production values are so high that every set, costume and prop looked great.

What mattered most, of course, was the overall, and exceptionally strong, musical performance. In his debut role at Bayreuth, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was a magnificent Lohengrin. He looked the part of an earnest, pensive and dazzling young knight, come to defend Elsa against falsehoods and marry her. The fast-rising 31-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, also making his Bayreuth debut, drew a glowing, supple and richly detailed performance from the festival orchestra. During the prelude to Act I, the penetrating warmth of the soft strings in this acoustically miraculous house, designed by Wagner, was spellbinding.

In an interview for the program book Mr. Neuenfels says that Wagner’s music “thinks, and thinks grandly,” that this is music of “concepts.” The question is whether the music should be allowed to convey its concepts free of a director’s explicit ideological imagery.

During the prelude the house lights went up to reveal a white-walled room with metallic gates to the sides and a rear wall with eerie portals poking through. Mr. Kaufmann’s Lohengrin, his back to the audience, looking Christlike with his arms spread, put his shoulders to the task and slowly pushed the back wall into the rear of the stage: an effective and richly metaphorical touch.

But in the first scene, when King Henry, recruiting troops to fight the Hungarians in the east, calls an assembly of noblemen and the people of Brabant, the chorus appears dressed in gray, loose-fitting rat costumes, complete with long tails, floppy feet and see-through head masks, red eyes aglow.

We get it. The commoners and even the nobles are trapped in a society in which they have circumscribed roles to play and are used by the powerful. But could the same not be said of, say, Telramund, who is manipulated by his consort, Ortrud, or even, in a way, King Henry?

Elsa relates a dream she has had in which God sends a white knight to defend her. When that savior, Lohengrin, appears to rescue her from charges that she has murdered her noble brother, and a trial commences, the choristers remove their rat frocks for the duration of the scene. Men and women alike wear rich yellow suits and matching hats. So there are times when they are allowed to transcend their rat roles? I was not sure, though the choristers certainly looked wondrous in their striking yellow garments.

Still, fine music making drove this rich evening of Wagner. Mr. Kaufmann earned many fans at the Metropolitan Opera this spring with a one-two punch triumph: singing Cavaradossi in the new production of “Tosca” and Don José in the new production of “Carmen.” On Tuesday in Bayreuth he did not sound in his very best voice. Some pianissimo phrases were breathy, and he lacked a little of his trademark burnished power. Overall, though, he sang splendidly, with soaring phrases and earthy vocal colorings. His singing is an ideal balance of keen intelligence and vocal charisma.

When we first see the soprano Annette Dasch as Elsa, she is in a shining white coat pierced with arrows representing the false accusations that have been shot at her. Lohengrin plucks away the arrows. But Ms. Dasch conveyed Elsa’s wounded dignity so naturally that she did not need this lamely obvious metaphor. She was a touching Elsa who sang with warmth and pliant phrasing, but for a few strained high notes during some of the impassioned outbursts.

The soprano Evelyn Herlitzius brought hard-edged, sometimes wobbly vocal intensity to her vehement portrayal of Ortrud. The role need not be sung with such continuous ferocity. Still, Ms. Herlitzius was a maniacal force as Ortrud, and her top notes shook the house. The veteran Wagnerian baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a grave and fitful Telramund. The bass Georg Zeppenfeld as King Henry and the bass-baritone Samuel Youn as the Herald were excellent.

By Act III Mr. Neuenfels had worn down my resistance. As the citizens of Brabant sang the famous wedding march to Elsa and Lohengrin, the impressive Bayreuth choristers looked adorable lined up as rows of white rats, black rats and little pink kiddie rats, waving to the newlyweds, fidgety with excitement. Strange, I know. But oddly moving.

The production team did not take bows for this performance. The ovation for the cast, chorus and conductor went on for 20 minutes. This is the first Bayreuth festival presented under the new team of co-directors, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, who are half-sisters and Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughters. Their father, Wolfgang Wagner, died at 90 this March after running the festival for more than 40 years. The new directors have announced their intention to make the festival less elitist and more approachable. It looks as if regie-opera, for better or worse, will continue to define productions here.

“Lohengrin” runs though Aug. 27 at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany;

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