Opera.uk, November 2010
Hugh Canning
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bayreuth, 3 August 2010
Bayreuth, Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels has had a long wait for a Bayreuth debut. The grand-pére terrible of German Regietheater won notoriety in the early 1980s for his infamous Frankfurt Aida in which the titular Ethiopian princess was portrayed as a cleaning lady with a mop-and-bucket, provoking pandemonium in the auditorium, outrage in the press and a string of offers of work from other `we-want-a-scandal-too' German opera houses.

Thirty years on and Neuenfels still polarizes opinion. After each act of his new Bayreuth production of Lohengrin there was a certain amount of preparatory booing and partisan cheering, but it was nothing to the storm unleashed by Neuenfels's curtain appearance with his team, Reinhard von der Thannen (sets and costumes), Franck Evin (lighting), Björn Verloh (video), Henry Arnold (dramaturgy and assistant director), and Susanne Øgland (conceptual collaborator!).

Neuenfels's particular brand of Regietheater is, of course, provocative, and he must be used to the boos, but his shoulder-shrugging 'what-do-you-expect?' reaction to the barrackers was, at the very least, a just response. No one, surely, goes to a Neuenfels production hoping to see text-book fidelity to the work in hand. I had seen only one of his productions before -a Rigoletto at the Deutsche Oper in which the jester dresses up as a pig and keeps his black-skinned daughter on a fantasy desert island `to make her feel at home'(!) -and found much of his Lohengrin riveting, stimulating, and often ravishingly beautiful to behold.

In this Lohengrin -commissioned by the late Wolfgang Wagner but presumably encouraged by his daughter Katharina, a professed Neuenfels disciple/fan-it is his chorus of rats that gets up the noses of the protestors. During the second-act orchestral introduction, disrespectful members of the audience made ratty scratching-noises on the floor, provoking unseemly sniggers. They had a point: the rat costumes -all numbered and neatly hung up on designated hooks that descended from the flies-did look funny. Neuenfels was drawing an analogy between the political manipulation of the masses and laboratory experimentation on rats. Von der Thannen's clinical white sets, with large openings in the walls suggesting the holes in cartoon-mousetrap cheese, and the cages from which the rat-chorus emerged, certainly hammered home the point. How much this has to do specifically with Lohengrin may be questionable, but it was certainly a novel take on Wagner's romantic drama.

Neuenfels, of course, seeks to subvert audiences' expectations, and in doing so he offers up some fascinating ideas and striking stage pictures. Von der Thannen's staging certainly didn't deserve a hostile response. Lohengrin's swan, initially paraded in a coffin-like boat, descends from the flies at the end of Act 1 like the hovering dove in Parsifal, but plucked as if oven-ready for the Sunday roast. In Act 2, Ortrud straddles the phallic neck and head of a ceramic swan ornament, and for their showdown in front of the Minster they wear identical black-and-white feathered gowns, like Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. At the denouement, the revelation of the lost Duke Gottfried is a Macduff-like bloodied embryo emerging from a huge egg, shedding his umbilical cord¬an image of science-fiction horror. The future of the Brabantine `rats' looks far from rosy, indeed the Grail Knight's intervention in their affairs has brought calamity.

Neuenfels takes nothing at face value, portraying the `good' (white) and `evil' (black) couples as mirror images of one another: Christian Lohengrin wins Elsa by white magic, while pagan Ortrud has employed the black arts to gain the hand of the powerful regent of Brabant and would use them again to overcome her opponent. In the final scene, Lohengrin and Elsa wear mourning black, while Ortrud and Telramund appear in pristine white-she in a swan-feather stole and paper crown, he on a hospital trolley swathed in a shroud. Nothing in Wagner-even in his early `romantic operas'-is a simple case of black and white.

Neuenfels and von der Thannen save their most arresting image for the opening of Act 2, which looks like a scene from Dracula: an overturned coach, a dead horse, Ortrud and Telramund lie helpless as a group of rats raid the trunks of gold and cash they have been making off with. It looks breathtaking and evokes the Grand Guignol atmosphere of Ortrud's Lady Macbeth-like seduction of Telramund to perfection.

Lohengrin is no knight-in-shining-armour, either. As played by Jonas Kaufmann, he is a tousle-haired rebel, who barges his way into von der Thannen's `laboratory' during the prelude and treats Elsa roughly at their first encounter, plucking out the St Sebastian arrows-she is a martyr to Ortrud and Telramund's slanders-from her body to her obvious discomfort. From the outset Neuenfels poses questions about who Lohengrin actually is, and what his motives are, rather than just accepting the misogynist Wagnerian notion that a woman should know her place and not ask awkward questions. It's a valid idea.

Kaufmann's Lohengrin-his first appearance at Bayreuth and possibly his only one (he will be replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt next year)-was of course the other talking point. He, too, divides opinion in Germany where the airy, flutey crooning of Vogt is mystifyingly regarded as the benchmark for this role today. Kaufmann is his diametric opposite, a dark-toned tenor with a heroic, burnished, Italianate ring, yet one capable of singing the sweetest of pianissimos (his 'Mein lieber Schwan' was exquisite, a rare vocal 'hold-your-breath' moment at Bayreuth in recent years). This was a golden-age Lohengrin, and I doubt if Bayreuth has heard its like since Sandor Konya in the 1950s and '60s.

Kaufmann's colleagues may be less remarkable singers, but Evelyn Herlitzius's flame-haired, histrionically magnetic Ortrud is certainly the best I have seen at Bayreuth. Her squally soprano contrasted well with Annette Dasch's cool, glassy-toned but by no means submissive Elsa. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen offered solid, experienced Stadttheater routine as Telramund, but he was a late replacement for Lucio Gallo. Georg Zeppenfeld's nobly-phrased Henry the Fowler-played as a fretful paranoiac-and Samuel Youn's sinister, shock-headed, Svengali of a Herald completed the cast of principals admirably. As always, the Bayreuth orchestra and chorus remain incomparable in this music. They were rehearsed and conducted by the hugely promising and temperamental Andris Nelsons, who has yet to find the right pace and instrumental blend for the transcendental pages of the score (the Act 1 Prelude lacked ethereal iridescence). He is as yet a too impulsive, stop-go Wagnerian, but he doubtless has plenty of time to calm down and learn to conceive Wagner's long acts as symphonic wholes in the coming revivals. Both he and Herlitzius sustained a few isolated boos on the first night-undeserved in both cases, I thought.


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