Neuenfels’ Lohengrin at Bayreuth – 2010 / 2011: a (P)review
Bayreuther Festspiele 2010
Andris Nelsons – Conductor
Hans Neuenfels – Stage Director
Reinhard von der Thannen – Set Design
Reinhard von der Thannen – Costume Design
Franck Evin – Lighting
Björn Verloh – Video
Henry Arnold – Dramaturg
Susanne Øglænd – Conceptional Collaborator
Eberhard Friedrich – Chorus Director
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I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.
In his perceptive and engaging review of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco Ring David Dunn Bauer described Schenk and Schneider-Siemssen’s now retired Ring at the Metropolitan Opera as a “Classics Illustrated” visualization of the Ring. One could equally describe the Seattle Ring in the same terms, which doesn’t make me any less fond of it. It didn’t take the world long to see the ridiculous in Wagner’s shaggy dwarves and helmeted Valkyries. Long before Classics Illustrated there were Liebig’s Meat-Extract cards, spreading operatic culture wherever in the world beef broth is prized. Along with the the visual stereotype, there comes the musical purple passage, the extract (Excuse me!) from the score which has stuck in the public’s mind above all else. In the Ring it is the “Ride of the Valkyries.” In Lohengrin it is the chorus “Treulich geführt,” ubiquitously watered down to the thinnest of musical Rumfordsuppen at countless marriage ceremonies. The image of Elsa of Brabant in her medieval garb and the staid knight in his armor inspires cynical curls of the lip as much in the opera house as among connoisseurs of Liebig cards. A traditional staging is a more fearsome obstacle to comprehension in Lohengrin than it is in the Ring.
Lohengrin, as a literary work, is especially fascinating. In performance, the opera can come across as a simple love story with supernatural overtones, Wagner’s text is dense with language and backstory, the sad story of Elsa, who loses the otherworldly knight who saved her life through a trial in combat with her accuser, because she cannot restrain her curiosity, is only the foreground of more complex events which concern entire peoples. The Met used to perform a version that was a good half hour shorter than the average performance today—cuts that favored the love story. There is no reason to think that attitudes among audiences were much different in Europe. Lohengrin became Wagner’s most popular opera in the nineteenth century on its romantic appeal. Between drastic excisions and dramaturgical and interpretive distortions that quickly became performance tradition, Lohengrin by 1860 was no longer the work Liszt conducted at Weimar in 1850. Hence the importance of Ludwig II’s 1867 revival of the 1858 Munich production, in which Wagner himself participated. Although the performance was intended as a corrective, not everything met his approval. Yet it became a model for other productions, until the “authentic” 1894 premiere at Bayreuth. Notably, the set design shifted the period of the action from the tenth century to the High Middle Ages, a reflection, it is thought, of changes in Wagner’s ideology and his accommodation to Ludwig’s tastes, which undermined the political focal point of opera, the figure of Heinrich der Vogelsteller, King of the Saxons.
There are two other, equally significant focal points in Lohengrin. First, the mythological character of the story. Wagner first became aware of the Lohengrin story in Paris in 1841-2. He developed his conception, reading the medieval poem, while on a cure at Marienbad in 1845. In the process he became especially excited by the prospect of creating a pure myth, a simple symbolic tale of the people, for the stage. Secondly, there was the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose concept of pure, unconditional love, which Wagner saw as the antithesis of materialistic greed and lust for power. It was this progressive Hegelian stream which fleshed out the relationship between Elsa and Lohengrin and linked it to its social surroundings: the Hungarian threat to the Germans, the leadership of King Heinrich, the political instability of Brabant, and the machinations of Ortrud and Telramund. Heinrich himself, the third point, was regarded as a powerful, forward-looking leader, a precursor of the foundation of the German Empire, and a striking contrast to the despised Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the romantic monarch, who believed in a restoration of the medieval state under Hapsburg rule, with the Prussians as the military arm of the Empire, and after a brief flirtation with liberalization, showed himself as the true reactionary he was. These three ideas came together in the years leading up to the March Revolution of 1848, when Wagner’s liberal position was to force him into an exile of many years’ duration. Even at the Weimar premiere in 1850, Liszt, who was in charge, was more capable of realizing Lohengrin’s musical qualities than its philosophical content. As Lohengrin‘s popularity grew in subsequent years, Wagner’s intentions evaporated, not that they had ever been present in the public mind, and they first element, the mythological, was the only one to survive in any form at all, as a romantic myth of impossible love. Without its Feuerbachian underpinnings, the love story quickly degenerated into the sentimental drivel that made it the most beloved of Wagner’s works for generations. By 1868 Wagner seemed to have lost interest in correcting the public understanding of the work. The political issues of the Vormärz were old hat by then. In the 1890’s the orthodoxy of Cosima’s Bayreuth, represented most prominently by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, eagerly sought to repress notions of Wagner’s dependence on the ideas of others, especially the liberal, Feuerbach, who was considered by many to be hopelessly out of date. Later, Hitler was to identify himself with Lohengrin, and King Heinrich was seen in a propagandistic light as well.
These are only a few of the ways one might consider Lohengrin. They are familiar in the literature and relate directly to issues that concerned Wagner while he was at work on the subject, the libretto, and the music. This historical background is no longer very fashionable, but it tells you something about what Wagner was thinking in his praeternaturally complex life. I won’t attempt to relate it closely to Neuenfels’ interpretation, but the connections should be clear enough, if only intermittent.
In Lohengrin‘s heyday before the Second World War, the mysterious knight and his swan boat, and Elsa and her seemingly fatuous, easily manipulated curiosity flourished as beloved absurdities. While many opera-goers considered Elsa to be the stupidest of Wagner’s heroines, she was decorative, aristocratic, and pure. After the war, Lohengrin lost much of its old popularity. Those who were braced by Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner’s productions at Bayreuth were lucky. The traditional imagery had become hard for the more vocal audience members to live with. The Robert Wilson production at the Met, which replaced the quite serviceable traditional production by August Everding, eliminated almost all visual details in favor of Wilson’s standard metaphysical murk. Lohengrin’s swan was reduced to a disembodied wing. I saw it twice and tried to be open-minded, but the fact remained that my imagination was working overtime filling in the missing color, movement, and pageantry, so vividly evoked by the music. A concert performance would have been more satisfying…and less harmful to the singers. Our re-imagining of this crucial work in Wagner’s career is an ongoing process which has reached no stable plateau. Lohengrin continues to challenge audiences, stage directors, and designers.
Enter Neuenfels. Hans Neuenfels, now seventy, is a man of many-sided creativity. He has been producing plays and operas, and writing fiction and poetry, since his twenties, and has attracted a reputation as one of the fathers of Regietheater, which is enough to damn him in the minds of many. It is clear that, for him, stage production is creative work, rather than re-creative, and an integral part of his oeuvre. Neuenfels is also a highly literate gentleman, who is entirely willing and able to take a work like Lohengrin seriously, both as an artefact of German culture and as a potent creation in itself. The problem with Regieoper is that many of followers of the pioneers, like Herr Neuenfels, are neither educationally prepared to work with classic texts or patient enough to do the necessary homework. Their working method is quasi-improvisational, and the productions are often, so it seems, dashed off in between flights around the globe. Whatever one thinks of the result, that is not the way things are done at Bayreuth, nor is this kind of Schlamperei congenial to Neuenfels. Clearly a great deal of thought and preparation went into his Lohengrin, and his work—along with Reinhard von der Thannen’s sets and costumes—were nothing if not elegant. The epicurean elements of opera, lamented by Bertolt Brecht, if realized on a high level, can go a long way in ensuring the success of an otherwise debatable production—a principle the Wagner sisters seem to understand very well.
Neuenfels faced the double task of dealing with the clichés of Lohengrin—as well as with the unfortunate political baggage that seems to weigh more, rather than less, on German theater, as the Third Reich recedes into history—and of creating a compelling modern vision of the classic. The reception of a classic work is sufficiently problematic in itself in Germany, and many directors will find some way to distance their audiences from works which have populated state-funded stages for scores, if not hundreds, of years. Neuenfels has resorted to shock devices in the past, details which upset our everyday notions of religious and sexual behavior, for example, but he avoided that in Lohengrin. (This production is in fact his Bayreuth debut.) The extent of the shock is the transformation of Brabantian citizens and knights into laboratory rats, brilliantly realized with a combination of elegance, metaphor, and creepy detail by von der Thannen. The ratty elements undergo various transformations, as the creatures shift from rodentine form to human and back again. It takes a burlesque form in the kitschy parodies of 1950s party dresses worn by the females in the bridal scene. And the discreet bit of sexuality which emerges when the males stroke the females’ tails is hardly bland. It is really in the wedding scene that we experience the rattiness and tackiness of the costumes most as a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. The audience had its customary awkward giggle at the chorus “treulich geführt…,” but Neuenfels added further depth and bite in his troubling irony.
The first thing we see during the First Act Vorspiel, is the at first shadowy, later entirely present Lohengrin and his yearning to break through into the material world. Instead of angelic hosts bearing the grail, as Wagner described in his program note, we observe Lohengrin haunting the glass doors that separate his world from ours, touching the boundary physically, as he tries to push through. This Lohengrin is possessed by a desire to know the lower world inhabited by King Heinrich, Elsa, Ortrud, and Telramund in all its aspects, including the sexual, we learn later. This almost fallen Lohengrin was most effectively embodied by the scruffy superstar tenor, Jonas Kauffmann, partly by his virile, but somewhat hangdog appearance, but also by the way he projected the pain experienced by a lighter being who discovers the weight of the knowledge he has sought, as he acquires it.
At the beginning of the first act, we find an ailing, even unsure König Heinrich, appearing before the people of Antwerp to call them to join in the defence against the Hungarian invaders. The rats appear, black ones, as rather sinister guards, followed by a more benign white variety. When Elsa appears as the accused, many arrows protrude from her torso, as if she were a female Saint Sebastian—fully clothed, however, in a somewhat military double-breasted coat, reflecting the authority of her station in Brabant. She can sit and speak, but, as she threatened by the bows and arrows of the black guard-rodents, she collapses. Lohengrin, when he appears, can remove the arrows and start her back to recovery, but she remains traumatized, morally as well as physically weakened. During Telramund’s false accusations of Elsa, a screen drops down, and we are shown the first of three short educational films, “Wahrheit I,” (“Truth I”), followed later “Wahrheit II” and “Wahrheit III.” In these impeccably produced animations, telling the story of the struggle of white and grey rats for predominance and their leaders’ hunger for power, Neuenfels reaches for the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, with sophisticated treatment and trenchant communication. The refined sarcasm of the scenes and the un-Brechtian “culinary” quality of their refinement carried the day.
In the Act I, as throughout the other two acts, the rat-concept undergoes many transformations. They have opportunities of doff their costumes and to appear in humanoid form. At times they appear fully human, and other times their massive tails betray them. (One poor lady rat lost hers during the wedding festivities in Act III. She calmly stuck it back where it belonged.) Still the basic guise in which we remember them is as laboratory rats confined to their cages. Is it that Lohengrin’s appearance inspires a situation of political and social experimentation, much like the many conservative, bourgeois, and radical models which proliferated in the 1840s, when Wagner was creating Lohengrin, while taking an active part in the political struggles, as they were concentrated in Saxony. (His responsibilities as director of the Dresden Opera would have made it impossible for him to remain neutral, even if he had wanted to.) Lohengrin’s inspiring purity, which, if understood at a basic, textual level, touched off a powerfully superstitious reaction among a people very much inclined to it, whether pagan or Christian. Whatever utopian tendencies develop from their perception of the mysterious knight are doomed to failure, like Lohengrin’s quest for unquestioning total love. The experimental laboratory conditions seem to exist only for their own sake; the sterile conditions never lead to any real progress, however appealing the lady rats may seem in their brightly colored frocks. In retrospect, it is hard not to think of Dr. Moreau and his island.
From the interviews he has conducted, Neuenfels has shown that he is primarily interested in Wagner’s characters and their interrelationships in concrete human terms. Rehearsals are said to be an intense process under him. This makes the concepts behind the action all the more vivid and lively to him. In the interview published in the Festival program, when Reinhard von der Thannen stresses love as Wagner’s leading concept, Neuenfels’ animatedly responds with others: “power, scepticism, doubt, faith, trust!…it is a matter of identity: who am I? What leads us humans towards one another? Musical drama as magical experiment.”
In Act II, Ortrud and Telramund conduct their tête à tête by the carcass of a horse, which seems to have expired while pulling its carriage…a metaphor for the state of their enterprise? For everyone, if they succeed? Rats aren’t the only animals in this show, not to mention the swan, which appears in life, on a litter, as if prepared for a feast, and devoured to the bone. In the interchange between them, one could grasp the full power of Neuenfels’ work with actors, as they torment one another in extreme and violent attitudes. For example, last year Evelyn Herlitzius and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen brought a fierce edge to their scene in Act II.
Lohengrin and Elsa behave rather better in the Bridal Chamber Scene, although the result of their interaction is no less disastrous. Like the laboratory, the bedchamber is blazing white and equally antiseptic in the coolness of von der Thannen’s spare design, inspired by Art Deco. It has been clear that a large part of Lohengrin’s desire to enter the world is his yearning for sex, and his profound love for Elsa no less. Neuenfels treats the scene as a painful failed attempt at seduction. Elsa’s compulsion to ask the forbidden question is not just the product of doubt and curiosity for its own sake, stimulated of course by Ortrud, but a ploy to keep putting off their lovemaking. Lohengrin’s tender words are accompanied by physical gestures attempting to relax and stimulate his reluctant bride. One can perhaps understand that, after being filled full of arrows, she might suffer from a certain avoidance of the physical. The scene moves steadily and inexorably through their give and take to its tragic conclusion—a marvel of pace and structure. This was by far the most convincing and moving treatment of this scene, leaving one to wonder why nobody ever quite got it before, at least in my own experience.
The concluding scene was moving, both in its personal tragedy and in the swings of pubic mood, marred only by the usual Bayreuth cuts, which Herr Neuenfels says in the program book interview is due to the touchy subject of nationalism. It is worth quoting what he says: “Since we Germans are always afraid of being taken for fascists, when we testify about ourselves among one another, we shouldn’t be afraid of Wagner. On the contrary, he is our catalyst: he doubles these anxieties. With Wagner we approach the German critically at the closest range. His work is a magnificent encyclopaedia about Germany and the German. Except for him, no one else has achieved that in opera.” (author’s translation) Where else can a German examine him or herself so critically as at Bayreuth? This is a place for honesty, not self display or mere entertainment. In any case, there should be no cuts at Bayreuth, above all ones that avoid embarrassing truths.
Andris Nelsons’ work in the pit was revelatory. He not only captured the brilliant, other-worldly sonorities of the score and their shifting layers of color, he gave the melodic lines a more moulded, sculptural shape than is usual, as well as a powerful sense of pace and a solid foundation. His sense of the overall structure of the opera was especially compelling. If Gatti’s Parsifal were not as great as it is, it would be easy to say that Nelsons was the most brilliant and insightful conductor of 2010, but they must share the honor. Wagner’s extraordinary writing for strings and winds could not have been played more beautifully or eloquently, and this Lohengrin was perhaps the best chance of all simply to admire the superb musicianship of the Festival Orchestra.
While this is essentially a review of the inaugural Lohengrin of 2010, it is also intended as a preview for this year’s production, which has a substantially different cast. Only Annette Dasch (Elsa), Georg Zeppenfeld (König Heinrich), and Samuel Youn (Der Herrufer) remain the same. Dasch sang Elsa with impeccable phrasing and production. She maintained the beautiful line and and tone one usually expects in Elsa, and her voice, both bright and full, was to be savoured in its own right. It was a capable vehicle for giving her melodies more shape and character than we often hear, and her acting was consistently credible. She displayed most poignantly the semi-confusion of a traumatized person prone to mystical revelations, rather than a critical examination of falsehoods forced on her with skill and passion. George Zeppenfeld’ s handsome, nuanced baritone served him well in his portrayal of an unusually complex King Heinrich, and Samuel Youn, who had a triumphant season last summer, with his fearsome Hunding and his magnificent Gurnemanz, used his larger-than-life qualities in the smaller part of the Herrufer.
Last year, Bayreuth and Herr Neuenfels had a treasure in Jonas Kauffmann, who is the rare kind of superstar who lives entirely up to his reputation. He used his shadowy good looks and stunning dark tenor to create a many-sided Lohengrin, who was entirely human, aware of his lack of certain human joys and pains at Monsalvat, and vulnerable in his tangles with the ordinary world. His strong pointed phrasing and varied color are unique in Lohengrin and were most poignant in effect. Klaus Florian Vogt, a superb singer and a vivid actor who sang a splendid Walther in Die Meistersinger last summer, has a brighter voice (still supported by an interestingly robust lower range, which manifests itself as a sort of chiaroscuro in the tone) and will most likely produce a more conventional sound in Lohengrin, but he is an interesting and imaginative actor, and there are likely to be some interesting surprises.
The 2010 production had a exceptional Ortrud and Telramund in Evelyn Herlitzius and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, whose attractive and colorful bass-baritone made for a highly emotive Telramund who was always well-sung. Personally, I am a great of admirer of Herlitzius as both a singer and an actress, and her portrayal Ortrud was exceptional for its fiery intensity and detail of characterization. It was excellent as singing as well, but Evelyn Herlitzius is a soprano, and I missed the dark chest tones of a true mezzo in the role. This year a mezzo will be taking over, Petra Lang, who is renowned in opera houses, festivals, and recital halls in Europe and North America. I remember her above all for her magnificent Cassandre in Sir Colin Davis’ recorded concert performance of Berlioz’ Les Troyens. She has sung Ortrud often, and there should be much to look forward to in her performance. The distinguished Icelandic Heldenbariton, Tómas Tómasson, will sing Telramund, again an impressive addition to the cast.
With the Festival Orchestra and Chorus in the superb condition they are in, the outstanding roster of conductors, and superb casts that have been assembled, Bayreuth is clearly in top form. With this to support it, they can afford some experiments in Regieoper, especially such absorbing and stimulating ones as Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Meistersinger. On the other hand, recalling that 1894 Lohengrin at a Bayreuth, it might be a healthy exercise if some scholarly looks back to Richard Wagner’s production notes, created a meticulously authentic production of one of the music dramas, and then worked with it to create productions which were true to Wagner’s dramaturgy, but alive and relevant to our own times. Say just one production at a time.