Opera Reviews
22 January 2019
Untitled Document

An electrically-charged production that sparked the imagination



by Tony Cooper
Wagner: Lohengrin
Bayreuth Festival
August 2018

In this new production of Lohengrin by Yuval Sharon - born in Chicago in 1979 to Israeli parents and Bayreuth’s first American director - delivered an electrically-charged and imaginative production that - like Hans Neuenfels’ rat-infested one - challenged the traditional boundaries of opera direction which, hopefully, is now finding favour with Bayreuth’s traditionally-minded audience.

A recipient of the Götz Friedrich Prize for ‘best opera direction’ for his production of John Adams’ Dr Atomic seen at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe three years ago, Mr Sharon replaced Latvian-born Alvis Hermanis as director a couple of years ago while the celebrated husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch (set designer) and Rosa Loy (costume designer) - who had been working on sets and costumes well before the switch of directors - delivered a visual feast that was interesting but equally disturbing as the plot itself.

Born in Leipzig, East Germany, in the 1960s, Rauch - whose work focuses on a bold subject-matter probably reflecting the influence that Socialist Realism had on him as a young man - gathered his thoughts together and inspiration for the sets from actually listening to the score of Lohengrin while working in his studio.

Based on a well-loved German legend written by an unknown German author, the actual story of Lohengrin relates to other traditional and fairy-like stories that belong to the ‘Knight of the Swan’ tradition, a medieval tale about a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat in defence of a damsel in distress, his only condition being that he must never be asked his name.

Therefore, the fairy-tale elements in Lohengrin are strong with the Good represented by Lohengrin and Elsa of Brabant and the Bad by Ortrud and Frederick of Telramund.

I felt a nod was given to the fairy-tale legend by Sharon inasmuch as the central characters were adorned with diaphanous wings (made of thin semi-transparent cloth) but here they represented flying insects - and, like all insects, attracted to the light. There was a lot of light in this production to bug them. Those worn by Elsa, though, would have perfectly fitted the part of the Fairy Queen Iolanthe in Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta of the same name.

The original scenario of Lohengrin - centred upon the Flemish city of Antwerp on the banks of the river Scheldt in the 10th century - was reinterpreted by Sharon who swapped things round a bit. The city’s Gothic-built cathedral became a cathedral of modern technology: in this case an electric power generating plant set in the midst of a vast mountainous waterfall landscape. However, traditional Flemish dress clothed the peasantry while ruff collars (as worn by 17th-century Flemish aristocrats) adorned the nobility with some of the characters looking if they had just jumped from a painting by Anthony van Dyck.

Overall, a fine cast was gathered together and this production certainly went down well with just a few boos here and there, I gather, on opening night. That’s power to the cause, I suppose. But the biggest ‘boo’ needs to be levelled at the French tenor, Roberto Alagna, who did the dirty on Bayreuth by pulling out of the title-role literally days before the start of rehearsals. However, Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, making his Bayreuth début, quickly filled his boots and made a damn good job of the wonderful opportunity afforded him. Hopefully, we shall see him back on the Green Hill in the not-too-distant future.

Not looking princely or regal whatsoever, Lohengrin turned out to be a maintenance electrician in a production that often turned up a surprise or two. Kitted out in a light-blue standard-fare uniform he arrived not as a knight-in-shining-armour in a grand and ceremonial way but landed on top of the electric power generating plant by means of a silver-coloured drone (that’s what it looked like to me, anyway) announced by a streak of white lightning and seen through the clock-face of the plant’s tower with the hands modelled in the style of flash lightning which, in fact, also mirrored his sword. Perhaps the image of the clock acted as a countdown to his eventual unmasking in the last act when he regretfully (and sadly) returns to Mont Monsalvat owing to his identity being busted.

When we first meet the love of his life, Elsa (admirably sung and acted by German soprano, Anja Harteros, also making her Bayreuth début) - the poor victim of an intrigue by Count Telramund and his hateful wife-cum-witch, Ortrud - she’s being dragged to the stake by a couple of Satanists for her Christian beliefs.

And following the famous aria, ‘Elsa’s Dream’ (describing the handsome young knight who comes to her aid in time of need) that moment of absolute glory came in the best tradition of Flash Gordon. She’s saved in the nick of time by her unknown Electrical Hero in an amazing white neon-flashing light sequence that flooded the stage in an extravagant piece of theatre. It provided a magical touch by lighting designer, Reinhard Traub, whose overall lighting scenario focused on a shrouded-blue set favoured by Wagner.

The sword fight at the end of Act I also produced another extravagant piece of theatre while showing off the large Festival Chorus (dressed like characters in a Pieter Bruegel painting) to good effect while Sharon’s expertise in crowd scenes was carefully and skilfully handled. Gathering slowly together round a roped-off area in the shape of a boxing ring, the peasants were seen pushing and jostling for the best position to watch the combat between Telramund and the Stranger Knight while aerialists re-enacted the scene unfolding below adding a colourful and extra dimension to the overall stage picture. The latter-named, of course, wins the day but magnanimously spares his opponent’s life with the scene ending on a high with the chorus (well trained by Eberhard Friedrich) in full voice championing the victor.

The opening of act two focuses on the disgraced couple, Telramund and Ortrud, forcibly arguing the toss with one another over Elsa. The scene - brilliantly staged and brilliantly sung - featured Polish tenor Tomasz Konieczny (also making his Bayreuth début) and that great Wagnerian super-star, Waltraud Meier, triumphantly returning to the stage of Bayreuth, after, surprisingly, an 18-year absence. I understand that this will be her last season at Bayreuth.

Now in her early sixties and a Bayreuth veteran in the roles of Isolde, Kundry and Waltraute, this well-loved German singer - whose rich-sounding mezzo-soprano voice radiated round the vastness of the Festspielhaus with consummate ease - has near legendary status here and at curtain-call the audience made it known. They shouted, applauded and stamped their feet wildly in praise of her performance. Deservedly so, she lapped up every second.

Turbine halls of power stations are, by their very nature, cathedral-like in structure and appearance and they possess extremely long ‘naves’ therefore the pomp and ceremony of the Bridal Procession in the turbine hall of Neo Rauch’s creation fitted this delicate scenario to a tee. And in preparation for the bride’s entrance, flower petals were being spread here, there and everywhere to make a ‘perfumed’ path for the long aisle walk but, obsessed about the origin and name of her fiancé, it proved a procession of doubt, despondency and desperation.

But the groom - walking tall, proud and grand - was adorned with a silver-coated breastplate and a pair of long thin wings (biting nasty insect or pretty dragonfly?) while Ortrud was beavering away adding poison to Elsa’s dilemma at every conceivable turn. And just at the crucial moment of the ceremony, Ortrud appears ominously once more asking those fatal questions with Maestro Thielemann (who commented that his interpretation of the score was greatly influenced by Rauch’s sets) seemingly on fire leading the orchestra in some powerful and inspiring playing that thrillingly closed the act on a skilfully-mixed note of doubt and joy.

And just as Lohengrin came to Elsa’s aid in a shaft of burning light saving her from bondage and the burning stake, the situation was completely reversed on her wedding night as in the confines of the wedding chamber, gaudily and dominantly decorated in an awful brightly-coloured orange, she becomes his captive. Still too curious as to his identity, Elsa plies him with a series of awkward questions but, having none of it, the Silent Stranger suddenly acts strangely, forcibly and sadistically to her by employing the fetish of bondage and ties her to a mast with an electric piece of cord in a flush of passion, domination and sexual excitement.

And the mast that she’s tied to gives way to a quick burst of electrical energy as if breathing new life into her. Now a self-determined, confident young women brightly dressed in a smart two-piece orange-coloured suit with a back-pack to match, she exercises modern-day women’s power by dumping Lohengrin fair and square. The end of her dream! The end of his torture!

Altogether, Sharon conjured up a tale of female empowerment in his realisation of Lohengrin observing that the female characters propel most of the action. He delivered a sure-fire ace at the end of the opera by crazily drifting away from the libretto offering a bizarre twist to the plot inasmuch as Elsa and Ortrud were spared their life while everyone else dropped like flies. Perhaps they sailed too close to the wind and perished in the blinding white light. Elsa’s long-lost brother Gottfried (the young duke of Brabant) is turned into a swan by the evil magic of Ortrud, but in another twist of the plot he appears as a Green Man - in the guise of an insect-catcher or, perhaps, in disguise as Telramund? Who knows? Food for thought! I’m still thinking about it!

In many respects, Lohengrin is most probably the most beautiful and romantic score Wagner ever penned and in the playing of the well-loved Prelude, based almost entirely upon the theme of the Holy Grail, Christian Thielemann, captured the very essence and beauty of the score which Wagner romantically (and accurately) described: ‘Out of the clear blue ether of the sky there seems to condense a wonderful yet at first hardly perceptible vision and out of this there gradually emerges, even more and more clearly, an Angel Host bearing in its midst the Holy Grail. As it approaches earth, it pours out exquisite odours, like streams of gold, ravishing the sense of the beholder. The glory of the vision grows and grows until it seems as if the rapture must be shattered and dispersed by the very vehemence of its expansion. The flames die away and the Angel Host soars up again to the ethereal heights in tender joy.’

Text © Tony Cooper
Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath
Buy CDs/DVDs from amazon.com!