I guess Lohengrin is one of those operas that’s so loaded up with symbols it just begs directors to deconstruct it. Well that’s what Hans Neuenfels’ Bayreuth production, recorded in 2011, does and then some. There is so much going on in this production that I think it would take many viewings to really get inside it. The bit most critics have fastened on is the costuming of the chorus as rats or, on occasion, half rat, half human. It’s visually interesting and since there are also ‘handlers’ in Hazmat suits it’s clear that some sort of experiment is being alluded to. Add in bonus rat videos at key points and there’s a lot to think about. One thing this does do is solve the Teutonic war song problem. A chorus of rather timid looking rats singing with martial ardour is a good deal less Nurembergesque than a similar chorus in armour or military uniforms. Rats aside the story is really told in a quite straightforward and linear way while providing all sorts of moments that one might want to interrogate further,
It’s a very satisfying production from a design point of view. The sets are abstract geometrical spaces with few props; a chair, a cross, a bed, at various times. The walls are moved in and out, all very slickly, to create the needed spaces. It’s elegant and well done. Similarly, costumes play a role in telling the story too. The various degrees of rattiness are paralleled by a changing pattern of monochrome shades for the principals. For example, during the procession to the minster in Act 2 Elsa and Ortrud wear white and black swan costumes respectively in a sort of echo of Swan Lake.
Neuenfels makes some interesting choices in how he characterises the principals. King Henry, for instance, is played throughout as weak, vacillating and lacking both confidence and any sort of regality. It’s a reading that’s carried off very well by Georg Zeppenfeld who manages to act quite neurotically while maintaining enough vocal heft to sing the part properly. The second interesting reading is Elsa. Annette Dasch’s portrayal had me wondering if this Elsa is supposed to be not quite all there, even bordering on madness. Maybe she is in love with the idea of Lohengrin as the perfect knight but she doesn’t seem too keen on his physical manifestation. It’s similar to the way Senta is sometimes played. The other characters are presented more conventionally and straightforwardly with Petra Lang particularly effective as a rather venomous Ortrud.
There’s a great deal to like in the music making. Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role has a simply gorgeous lyrical heldentenor voice. I have a hard time deciding whether I prefer him to Jonas Kaufmann in this role. He’s well matched vocally by Annette Dasch’s bright, clean soprano. They sound good together and are also very easy on the eye. Jukka Rasileinen sings a bluffly straightforward Telramund and Samuel Youn is a ringing, forceful Herald. The chorus sings magnificently which is especially praiseworthy given how much acting they have to do. It’s a very engaged chorus! Andris Nelsons seems at home with the music and the Bayreuth orchestra is pretty good too.
The video direction by Michael Beyer is unusual. He uses a lot of shots from the fly loft. Normally this would drive me to distraction but here, curiously, it seems a good match for the cool geometry of the sets and the intricate patterns of scurrying rodents. The picture quality is top notch; filmed in HD and released as 1080i on Blu-ray. The sound I’m a bit ambiguous about. It’s DTS-HD MA but very mellow and the voices and orchestra kind of blend into each other. I don’t know whether that’s a function of the recording or just what the Bayreuth theatre sounds like. It’s not unpleasant but it’s not as “in your face” as some recent Blu-ray releases. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles. Extras include about twenty minutes of interviews and the animations that are used as video projections at various points in the production. There’s a short essay and a synopsis in the booklet but, curiously, not a detailed chapter listing so it’s hard to cue in if one wants to listen to a specific part of the production.
I would not suggest that this is the definitive Lohengrin. Actually I think the possibility of such a thing is as remote as a definitive Don Giovanni. It is though a very interesting production that I’m sure will repay further viewings and it’s musically excellent. And Annette Dasch has eyes to die for.