Outstanding singing and music conquer rats in Lohengrin at Bayreuth

by James Bash James Bash writes articles for a variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, Open Spaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy. 24.08.2015

With 130-plus chorus members scurrying about in rat costumes, the production of “Lohengrin” in Bayreuth that I saw on August 20th was a strange sight to behold. There were black rats (men), white rats (women), and eight pink rats for the women who sing right after the famous big wedding number. Sometimes they removed part of their rat costumes and became more like human beings. In any case, this production of Wagner’s tragic opera, as envisioned by Hans Neuenfels, will always be known as the “Lohengrin” with rats, even though it could also be known as the “Lohengrin” with Klaus Florian Vogt whose beautiful voice is perfectly matched for the title role.

I became confused by this production when I saw it three years ago – in part because of the rats, but also by the disturbing ending. This time, I attended a lecture by Dr. Sven Friedrich at the Bayreuth Festival’s opera house, and that helped to improve my understanding of Neuenfels's interpretation. Basically, the German folk were rats in a laboratory operated by King Heinrich who was very weak (represented by his black-crown made of paper). The rats were also an expression of the animal-like nature of the people who were under the sway of pagan gods and the leadership of Ortrud and her husband Friedrich von Telramund. The chorus removed part of their rat outfits only when they were influenced by Lohengrin’s Christ-like nature.

After Ortrud succeeded in planting doubt in Elsa’s mind about Lohengrin and his background, Elsa took on certain aspects of the swan that brought Lohengrin into the situation. In particular, Elsa’s wedding dress resembled the puffed-up feathers of the swan, and the bird itself briefly dropped from the ceiling all plucked. In the final, scene, Else appeared in black, the chorus in new black uniforms, and Ortrud in a knock-off wedding dress and a white paper crown. All of them collapse in death, as Lohengrin, in black, slowly walked toward the audience. Behind him, in an egg-shell stood the embryo-child, Gottfried, all bloody, and he tossed sausage-sized portions of his umbilical cord at the chorus. The ugly embryo-child came about because Lohengrin didn’t spend enough time on earth for Gottfried to become a fully-grown child.

In addition, the production of “Lohengrin” featured computer-generated video animations by Björn Verloh. Shown during the three preludes, Verloh’s videos reinforced the idea of the brutality of rats: 1) chasing a dog and eating it, 2) one rat fighting another to become the top rat, and 3) a pack of rats running and running until they all die (sort of like the Nazi army fighting to the bitter end).

One problem with the Neuenfels production happened during the first Act, when Lohengrin stated his conditions to Else (she must not ask his name or know anything about his background). Instead of freezing the chorus in the background and putting the spotlight on Else and Lohengrin, the chorus exited the stage. Then after the exchange between Else and Lohengrin, the chorus had to rush back in all of a sudden and sing.

Speaking of singing – the principals and the chorus were astounding. Vogt’s clarion voice gave Lohengrin an ethereal presence yet very passionate whenever needed. Annette Dasch’s Elsa was superbly brilliant and powerful. In the role of Ortrud, Petra Lang, was a force of nature. Jukka Rasilainen as Friedrich von Telramund was strikingly clear and dominating. Wilhelm Schwinghammer marvelously portrayed King  Heinrich, and Samuel Youn was totally convincing as the King’s Herald.

The scenes between Ortrud and Telramund, Ortrud and Elsa, and Elsa and Lohengrin were superbly done with lots of tension. Also one of the dramatic high points came during Telramund’s accusations against Lohengrin. The singers completely swept the audience into the moment.

The chorus, prepared expertly by Eberhard Friedrich, sang wonderfully, maintaining power and intensity without sacrificing balance from top to bottom. And they did it despite having to project through masks most of the time (kudos to Reinhard von der Thannen for the stage and costume design).

Alain Altigoglu conducted the orchestra with great sensitivity. He took time to stretch out notes a little bit long for the singers whenever they needed it. The last prelude was joltingly tremendous, bubbling with excitement and anticipation.

I understand Neuenfel’s negative take on “Lohengrin,” but the negativity often seemed incongruous with the glorious music.  This production is now in its fifth and final year at Bayreuth, and anyone who would like to view it will have to purchase the DVD. In a couple of years, we will find out if the next production of “Lohengrin” will take a different tact.

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