Imaginative production



Now three years old, this imaginative production of Lohengrin by Yuval Sharon - born in Chicago in 1979 to Israeli parents and Bayreuth’s first American director - was an electrically-charged affair and like Hans Neuenfels’ rat-infested production challenged the traditional boundaries of opera direction which is gradually 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 at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Mr Sharon teamed up with the celebrated husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch (set designer) and Rosa Loy (costume designer) who delivered a visual feast that was interesting but equally disturbing as the plot itself. 

Born in Leipzig 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, the actual story of Lohengrin relates to other traditional and fairy-like stories belonging 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 Mr Sharon inasmuch as the central characters were adorned with diaphanous wings (made of thin semi-transparent gossamer cloth) but here represented by flying insects - and like all insects, attracted to the light. There was a lot of light in this production to bug them and those worn by Elsa would have perfectly fitted the part of the Fairy Queen in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe.

The original scenario of Lohengrin, though, centred upon the Flemish city of Antwerp on the banks of the river Scheldt in the 10th century but was greatly reinterpreted by Mr Sharon. For example, 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.

Receiving its première in Weimar on 28th August 1850, Lohengrin was conducted by Wagner’s great champion and future father-in-law, Franz Liszt, who chose the date to coincide with the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who had lived in Weimar. Wagner, of course, wrote the libretto based largely on the medieval poem Wartburgkrieg but he was not present at the performance (which wasn’t that big of a success) as he had fled Germany on account of his revolutionary sentiments.

A fine cast was gathered together and Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, reprised the role of Lohengrin in which he made his Bayreuth début last year. Not looking princely or regal whatsoever he 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 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 blown.

When we first meet the love of his life, Elsa - admirably sung and acted by German soprano, Annette Dasch, a Bayreuth favourite - she’s the poor victim of a conniving plot by Count Telramund and his hateful wife-cum-witch, Ortrud, 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, a colour 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 resembling a Pieter Bruegel painting) to good effect while Mr 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 a couple of aerialists (the Good and Bad Fairy?) 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 note with the chorus (so well trained by Eberhard Friedrich) in full voice championing the victor. 

The opening of Act II focuses on the disgraced couple, Telramund and Ortrud, forcibly arguing the toss with one another over Elsa. Brilliantly staged and brilliantly sung, the scene featured another stylish deuce - Polish tenor Tomasz Konieczny and Russian soprano Elena Pankratova - who took over the role from Waltraud Meier who triumphantly returned to the Bayreuth stage last year after, surprisingly, an 18-year absence.

By their very nature turbine halls are cathedral-like in structure and appearance possessing 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 Mr Rauch’s sets) seemingly on fire in the pit 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 the burning stake, the situation was completely reversed on her wedding night as in the confines of the wedding chamber, decorated in gaudily bright 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 tying 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 eventually gives way to a quick burst of electrical energy freeing her from her bondage state and breathing new life into her. Now a self-determined, confident young women brightly dressed in a smart two-piece orange-coloured suit with a pack-back 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, Mr 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 are spared their lives 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 traditionally turned into a swan by the evil magic of Ortrud but in another twist of the plot Mr Sharon portrays him as a Green Man. An insect-catcher or 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, Maestro 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.’

Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2019
Tony Cooper
Photograph, Enrico Nawrath



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