Thursday, 9 August 2012

Lohengrin at Bayreuth, or, Briefly Rising Above the Rats

For one all too brief scene two singers in this production rise about its lunacies. This blessed occurrence happens in Act Three Scene One. After the opening the chorus are not on stage and we have just the interaction between Klaus Florian Vogt's Lohengin and Annette Dasch's Elsa. The set is still not without its problems – I didn't think the cordoning off of the bed as if it was an art exhibit or the emergence of the swan boat from within the bed added anything to the scene – but for virtually the only time in the evening Vogt and Dasch were allowed to explore the relationship between their two characters without a lot of pointless busyness disrupting the engagement of the characters. For that one scene staging was in harmony with music. It was a telling illustration of just what a great house Bayreuth could be if they actually hired directors interested in achieving this on a more regular basis.

Unfortunately, as will now be clear, the rest of the opera does not match this – at least for me. It is not as awful a production as Marthaler's Tristan for two reasons – the principals are allowed to interact with each other most of the time and there is a certain fascination from trying to work out what the hell director Hans Neuenfels is trying to say, but as I found the former was surrounded by the silliness of the latter and I found it impossible to discern what the point of the latter was it was a pretty close run thing.

According to people I talked with at the interval the setting is supposed to be an animal testing laboratory in which Lohengrin is the only normal person. Consequently the chorus are all dressed as white, black or pink (Elsa's bridesmaids) rats. There are also a number of people wandering around in blue nuclear protection suits. The fact that Lohengrin is not from this place is indicated by his spending the Act One prelude trying to break into it. Quite why he wanted to break into it was never established and while I was watching this dumb show it was not in fact clear to me that that was what he was doing. What any of the rest of them are doing in an animal testing laboratory, what their roles are there or how any of this setting is supposed to illuminate text or music was not apparent to me either.

Instead it was my distinct impression that the point of the concept was, as usual, to make sure there was plenty of stuff going on so that one should under no circumstances have time to become bored with the music. Thus one could ponder the reasons for the carriage without a wheel at the start of Act Two, drawn by the deceased horse which Ortrud for some reason appeared to desire to have sexual congress with, or the swan ornament in Elsa's room with the bizarrely flexible neck, or the fact that periodically the chorus would divest themselves of their rat costumes and appear in yellow (later black) suits, or Bjorn Verloh's ineffective video projections. As far as I was concerned all this added up to a lot of busyness which did nothing for effective characterisation or storytelling. I also felt that Neuenfels's basic stagecraft left quite a bit to be desired. The Rat Chorus have some quite amusing choreography but Neuenfels struggles to make the Chorus an effective power on the stage – too many entrances and exits plus general milling about on stage when they are there all contribute to the basic concept being unconvincing. Neuenfels's direction of the principals is also problematic. We move on from the love affair with the walls of Tristan to the love affair with the floor, and Neuenfels also resorts to the lets have all the principals circle round the stage aimlessly in the Act Two finale to no good effect. The concept concludes with a final visual oddity of a new-born child emerging from an egg and throwing bits of umbilical cord into the crowd. Don't ask me why.

What added a further layer of oddity to this was that for much of the time the principals seemed almost to be in a different show. That's to say that a lot of the time they were giving fairly conventional performances of their roles towards the front of the stage, bar oddities like Heinrich's apparent inadequacies as a monarch. This disjunction further hinders the concept and the evening as a whole from attaining dramatic coherency.

Fortunately, once again the directorial inadequacies are to some extent mitigated by the excellent musical standards. This was my first experience of Vogt who was in fine voice throughout but rose to especially commanding heights in Act Three. I should think Bayreuth is probably the only house where the opening of “In fernem Land” could be delivered so softly and beautifully. Dasch's Elsa is smaller voiced than the part would I suspect require in a larger house but has the merit of looking the part far more than is often the case and aided by the Bayreuth acoustic gave a generally impressive vocal performance. Vogt and Dasch had all the chemistry sadly lacking between the leads in Tristan the night before. Again as in Tristan the supporting parts were all well taken – Thomas J. Mayer's Friedrich, Susan Maclean's Ortrud (though I slightly prefer Petra Lang in the part) and Wilhelm Schwinghammer's Heinrich. Samuel Youn made the most of the part of the Herald. In the pit Andris Nelsons delivered a fiery, dramatic reading of the score drawing excellent playing and singing from orchestra and chorus (though I think a trick was missed in the Act Three prelude by not having any extra brass on stage – Runnicles at Deutsche Oper scored over Bayreuth here).

But opera is not just about musical excellence. If it were we could simply have concert performances, keep the art form alive at much reduced cost and get rid of all these directors. A truly great operatic evening requires staging and music to be united to pack the punch. This did not happen in this production for me. Perhaps it is a testimony to my ignorance that I could not see the point of Neuenfels's concept but I can only say that I was certainly not alone. Thus while large sections of the audience gave this a standing ovation, there was absolutely no way that I was going to be coerced into joining them.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to make the trip to Bayreuth. Wagner does sound different there. The musical standards of the house are exceedingly high. But the nature of these two productions I frankly find somewhat appalling, and even more that they have been revived multiple times with, apparently, no diminution in ticket sales. For me muscial excellence alone is not enough, wild horses would not drag me back to either of these stagings again. Bayreuth is clearly a unique place for Wagner, it's a pity that on this showing the current artistic management is wasting that potential with such classic examples of the paramountcy of the director.

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