Opera News, November 2010
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 3 August 2010

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.

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