Aug 24th 2015

Outstanding singing and music conquer rats in Lohengrin at Bayreuth

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, 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.

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.

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jun 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.   Author Lawson, a true polymath, is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books." ---- "Rounding out his career, Lawson is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies." ----- "I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale."
Dec 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "......, I read all the time in Russian, French and English. Right now I’m finishing the new book of my favorite Russian author Ludmila Ulitzkaya. Of course, I have read most of classics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Akhmatova. I think it’s important to read Russian literature to understand Russian music, to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov in order to feel the depth of Rachmaninov’s music. I also read a lot in French and English. For me, it’s important to go from contemporary writers to the classics and back."
Dec 9th 2021
EXTRACT: Q: "Your new CD is a turning point. Why is it so important to you?" ----- "A: It is all Brahms. I really wanted to do it this way. It is very important to me because it is my first solo CD. I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on Brahms, especially the Brahms Paganini Variations and the Handel Variations. I almost grew up with them. "
Dec 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "A musical theatre legend has died. Stephen Sondheim, the greatest composer-lyricist of his generation, passed away on November 26 at the age of 91. His dramatic genius combined a rare blend of elements, that of an astonishingly versatile and sophisticated composer, and an incredibly witty wordsmith. His extraordinary output includes a staggering 16 musicals as composer and lyricist, a further three as lyricist alone, as well as four musical revues featuring compilations of hit songs from his shows."
Nov 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "Most important  to him, he explained, is maintaining his individuality in interpretation. He feels it was a mistake in his past to pick and choose bits from different teachers and combine them into a finished performance. He has decided to create his own perspective, and 'go for it'."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The 16th International Beethoven Piano Competition came to a rousing climax in Vienna on 21 October with first prizewinner Aris Alexander Blettenberg’s lyrical rendering of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1." ---- "The other two finalists, Austrian Philipp Scheucher and South Korean Dasol Kim, played Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos respectively."
Sep 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "Top prize, worth 22,000 euros, went to Jae Hong Park, a flamboyant, emotive player with and a firm grasp of Rachmaninov, and second prize went to Do-Hyun Kim, who played Prokofiev’s second concerto with some considerable verve. Placing third was Lukas Sternath, a young Austrian who performed Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with cool charm -- the opposite of Park’s style."
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: " .....I have to give everything in these concerts,.... "
Jun 26th 2021
EXTRACT: What do you want to be known as? --- As “Stewart Goodyear, composer and pianist”.
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: Denis Pascal, founder of the French Trio Pascal: ".....recording studios began working again. We recorded our Schubert trios at the end of September. And musicians everywhere are finding that the crisis allows time for a certain introspection and questioning into the way music is performed. Music will play a much more important role after the crisis."
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACTS: "She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8." ..... "I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”."
Jan 31st 2021
EXTRACTS: "A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet .... Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.” "
Jan 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "Jack Kohl is an American pianist and writer with three novels and two essay collections to his credit. His new collection, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist, has drawn critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. In these reflections, he examines the power of ‘hack pianism’, the metaphor of running vs. the piano, and the ‘hidden gift’ of the Covid virus pandemic on solitary practicing. Robert Beattie spoke to Kohl about his music training and how he made the transition from pianist to author. (This edited interview was first published on www.Seenandheard-international.com and is reproduced with permission.)"
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Freedom in Beethoven’s music takes many, frequently overlapping forms. There is heroic freedom in the Eroica (1803), freedom from political oppression in the Egmont Overture (1810), artistic freedom and innovation in the Ninth Symphony (1824). Today, Beethoven’s music remains deeply connected with a true humanism, which has the principles of freedom and self-determination at its heart. The composer’s music grew out of the age of European Enlightenment, which located human reason and the self at the centre of knowledge......"
Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."