Opera Now, November/December 2010
Robert Turnbull
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth
Festival Reviews 2010 - Lohengrin, Bayreuth

THE FESTIVAL'S NEW PRODUCTION THIS YEAR, Lohengrin, is enough to challenge even a seasoned reviewer, let alone anyone unfortunate enough to come to this opera for the first time. As with Herheim's Parsifal, there were two narratives working concurrently, one dystopian, the other erotic, but in this case we were subjected to the whims of a German director determined to sew controversy. The 69-year-old Hans Neuenfels is perhaps most famous for incorporating roast chickens into his Aida and for using Mohammed's head in Idomeneo, which caused a storm of protest.

We first encounter Lohengrin during the opera's prelude, desperately trying to escape through a locked door. Once in Brabant, he emerges less as an emissary of the grail than an office worker, ie normal guy, who on encountering the lovely Elsa demonstrates very human insecurities. He fidgets nervously and throws himself at her like a lost and lonely man begging for love and approval. The consequences of Elsa's probing questions and Lohengrin's demand for unconditional love are recognisable human themes played out effectively in the final act of the production. Wagner considered this to be his saddest opera. With some sensitive acting from the two principals the erotic power of the last act is considerable (though Patrice Chéreau might have done it better).

Had Neuenfels been content with telling this story, the evening might have been less excruciating. The set is brightly lit and clinical, a laboratory in which a ghastly experiment has turned the people of Brabant into rats, but apparently happy, well-dressed rodents with pretty pink tails. Yes, you've got it: the people of Brabant, like much of modern humanity have become clones, arch consumers who will eat (or buy) anything put in front of them and follow leaders willy nilly. These rats, moreover, share childish humour, break dance and high five like high school kids. We are all becoming Americans!

The symbolism continues. Elsa has arrows stuck in her back, all of which Lohengrin removes. The swan which returns to collect our hero from his predicament is in fact an egg, out of which emerges a fully formed embryo which scatters its umbilical chord around the stage like lumps of bratwurst.

Of course at Bayreuth there were musical compensations. Opera's current sex symbol Jonas Kaufmann used his beautiful and dark hued voice to glorious effect especially in the final duet. In this he was matched by the burnished tones of the Elsa of Annette Dasch. Evelyn Herlitzius (who sang Ortrud) has a boom in her voice that suits the part, but this small-framed singer should be careful. She is already developing a wide vibrato and her top notes are sharp. The likeness to the British dramatic soprano Gwyneth Jones during her heyday is remarkable. Sadly, her intensity wasn't matched by the Telramund of HansJoachim Ketelson.

The Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons gave a thrilling and passionate reading of the score, full of telling detail in the woodwind and brass and shimmering strings. Like Semyon Bychkov at the Royal Opera last year Nelsons managed to create soft cushions of sound, allowing the principals maximum flexibility in phrasing and dynamics. It's just a pity that his first attempt at this opera should have come with this production.


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