This is neither a Lohengrin to seek out for its direction, nor to avoid because of it. As drama, it can’t begin to touch the rats of Hans Neunefels that populated Bayreuth’s previous Lohengrin, already a modern classic. Arguably it’s even a bit lame, but it’s also very pretty and (perhaps involuntarily) traditional. This leaves plenty room to focus on the performances—which is a good thing, as I will elaborate below.
It is unusual to identify an opera production with the set designer rather than the director, but it’s not unheard of. Just in Bayreuth, the 1994 “Rosalie” Ring comes to mind, nominally directed by Alfred Kirchner. Maybe the 2011 Tannhäuser, where Atelier Van Lieshout’s set appeared to hijack Sebastian Baumgarten’s (sneakily excellent) direction. And this Lohengrin is clearly Neo Rauch’s. Not only do his masterly painted sets—largely two dimensional, except for the singular exception of an old-timey transformer station—dominate the stage; but the take of director Yuval Sharon (the first American to put on a production at Bayreuth) is also surprisingly reluctant, subtle, timid, conventional, vanilla—perhaps a function of him being so late in joining the creative team after Alvis Hermanis withdrew at the eleventh hour?
What we get is the visual of a modern fairy tale set in blue. Why blue? Presumably, this is Rauch’s visualization of Nietzsche’s synaesthetic comment that the music of Lohengrin was “blue, of opiate-like, narcotic effect”. The result is a very clean, very readily appealing aesthetic that marks this darkly lit production. It also reminds of the color-and-light minimalism of Wieland Wagner’s neo-Bayreuth. Rauch (working together on this production with his artist-wife Rosa Loy) would have you see his setting of Lohengrin in a reed bed (we don’t get a view of the Scheldt river, per se) as a “flight from reality and as an entry into the realm of morbidity where the rational and the subconscious clash and merge”. If that’s fancy-speak for the set subtly helping us suspend our disbelief (always a plus in opera), it works.
Between the employed Biedermeier-style, a few romantic visual cues, and the little touches of the fantastical, we are transported to a place and time that is specific but never particular. The opening scene, for example, reminds of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. But the power station intimates an impending techno-industrial revolution. The costumes are part baroque and part modern, but the strict color scheme of muted blues and the neat, clean cuts give it a homogenous appearance. It’s all so pretty, it undercuts all questions as to what the direction might do or have wanted to do.
There’s a theme of electricity going through the opera. An out-of-order transmission tower may symbolize the benighted Brabant—a dark place that awaits its bringer of light, a promethean Lohengrin. This Lohengrin comes full of idealism and with a lightning bolt for a sword: a technocrat from the future, sporting a blue jumpsuit and tie. There’s also an insect/mode-of-flight theme: Lohengrin’s swan is a set of ceramic or glazed polycarbonate wings. This is high tech compared to the fly’s wings that Friedrich von Telramund and King Henry sport, or the smaller fairy-wings the ladies—daintily shaped for Elsa and more jagged for Ortrud—are endowed with. Strangely, neither visual promise for a story to come is then fulfilled in any substantial manner. Sure, the wings come in handy when Telramund and Lohengrin fight their duel in the air (!)—the fight ending when Lohengrin rips out one of Telramund’s wings. But other than that, they remain purely cosmetic. Much the same goes for the electricity-gizmos, which make for good backdrops but don’t shape the dramatic proceedings.
Lohengrin’s “don’t-question-me” attitude, which justifiably seems a bit arbitrary to Elsa (as Waltraud’s wonderfully, subtly scheming Ortrud points out quite rightly), is made more poignant when he starts to tie her up to a ceramic bushing insulator for their ensuing nuptial night. “But is that love?” Elsa questions her initial submissive attitude, and in doing so questions Lohengrin himself and his potentially less-than-savory aspects. We know this brings the show to an end; Lohengrin (who had adapted to the Brabant society by dressing more like them and accepting an honorary pair of insect wings) takes the next swan out of there, after his extended Sayonara. (Performed with the two usual cuts: Wagner’s own and the post-WWII cut from “O Elsa, was hast du mir angetan?” to “Nach Deutschland sollen noch in fernsten Tagen / des Ostens Horden siegreich nimmer ziehn!”) In the end Gottfried appears as the Green Man, in a head-to-toe garb of AstroTurf, and neither Elsa nor Ortrud dies on stage. This could raise interesting questions, but the direction doesn’t make you ask them, if you don’t want to.
You can tell Christian Thielemann is in his element, from the overture on. Smoothly powerful, supple, compelling, never-ending streams of sounds emanate from the Bayreuth pit. The playing is rock solid. And most importantly, he has the orchestra play true piano and pianissimo sections. This, in turn, aids Anja Harteros’ Elsa, whose on-the-money intonation, whose vulnerability and delicacy-in-strength makes her one of the most compelling Elsas of our time.
Piotr Beczala’s Lohengrin, tested in Dresden and Zurich before taking it to Bayreuth, might not have been the most intuitive choice, but he acquits himself very nicely indeed, especially for jumping in on short notice. (Roberto Alagna couldn’t be bothered to learn the text in time.) Beczala has no tendency to push Wagner like the grand Italian opera that’s generally his métier, and features several moments of great tenderness and beauty (“…vom Himmel eine Taube” and “Das süsse Lied verhallt; wir sind allein”). Waltraud Meier’s leave-taking of one of her favorite roles is impressive and touching to witness. Dramatically she can pull all registers and Thielemann makes sure she does not have to strain. Georg Zeppenfeld’s is a model of noble restraint and articulation—a joy to behold. Only Tomasz Konieczny’s Telramund doesn’t match everyone’s excellent pronunciation and does not manage to establish his character as a tragic, major element of the story. On the upside, he’s barked worse in Wagner before (and since) and the costume and makeup department made him look pretty cool.
The Blu-ray offers a pristine, crisp picture and excellent sound, enhancing the visual-acoustic appeal of a dramatically stunted but inoffensive production.