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WAGNER: Lohengrin

spacer Dasch, Lang; Vogt, Rasilainen, Zeppenfeld; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Nelsons. Production: Neuenfels. Opus Arte OA 1071 D (2 DVDs) or OA BD7103 D (Blu-ray), 209 mins. (opera), 26 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Everybody has heard about the rats by now. In the Hans Neuenfels production of Lohengrin, first seen at Bayreuth in 2010 and filmed for DVD in 2011, the members of the chorus are all lab rats subjected to scientific experiments. The costumes, by Reinhard von der Thannen, are all color-coded. The gentlemen are black rats, the ladies are white, and everyone has red eyes. The prospect of Lohengrin’s duel with Telramund brings a change to natty yellow suits for all, set off by snappy yellow boaters. Lohengrin’s arrival humanizes the rats, except for their hands and feet, but his victory causes them to move in militaristic lockstep formations. By the end of the opera the chorus has become an entirely human army — loyal not to their homeland of Brabant but to Lohengrin. The experiment, it seems, is the introduction of Lohengrin into this specific ecosystem, and the allegory, it seems, is the rise of a charismatic leader who achieves cult leadership with unintended consequences.

In this final result, the Neuenfels conception is coincidently similar to the Richard Jones Lohengrin in Munich, which ends with the mass suicide of the chorus. But the Neuenfels production is ultimately much more interesting for another story it tells. Neuenfels does not see the plot as driven by Ortrud’s ambition for her husband. He has recast the story to show that everything is a result of Ortrud’s jealousy of Elsa. Lohengrin’s devotion to Elsa is causing her to mutate into a swan. She is always in white, until the final scene. Her wedding dress is a gigantic hoop skirt of swan feathers; after the big day is ruined she is reduced to pitiful broken-wing gestures. (The male rats don tuxedos for Elsa’s wedding. Her attendants are adorable pink mice.) Ortrud, on the other hand, is in black until the final scene, and she attends the wedding in a giant black knock-off of the swan dress. By the finale, when she thinks she has triumphed, she has dressed herself in a hideous parody of the white ensemble Elsa wore in Act I, to which she has added her own shabby little white crown.

Not all of Neuenfels’s ideas are carried through, and not all of them withstand a great deal of analysis. (A dramaturge and a conceptual collaborator are also credited.) Three computer-generated video animations by Björn Verloh, shown during the three preludes, muddy the interpretive waters with such images as a horde of bloodthirsty rats who gnaw a pit bull down to its skeleton. There’s also a certain amount of humor. Although humor is a much-ignored aspect of Wagner’s operas, Lohengrin is the only one that lacks it. On the other hand, religion is a primary aspect of the libretto, and Neuenfels sidesteps it except for a brief moment at the end of Act II. 

But there is a far bigger question hanging over the Bayreuth festival, which is now codirected by two of Wagner’s great-granddaughters. In our day there are dozens of productions that have engaged with Wagner’s librettos. There are also many productions that engage with the performance history of the work at hand, which is a much more recent development. The current Bayreuth Parsifal, directed by Stefan Herheim, is one of them, as is Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth Meistersinger. Far fewer productions, however, engage with Wagner’s music. Bayreuth’s previous Parsifal, directed by Christoph Schlingensief, was one that did, and Ms. Wagner’s Meistersinger was another. It’s hard to find a single moment when Neuenfels engages with the music, and, along with so much else about the production, that is something to ponder. 

The music is in the hands of the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons. He tends to rush through fermatas, and he probably has not found all of the eerie orchestral colors in the section preceding the unison conclusion of the Ortrud– Telramund duet. But he may be seconding the particular production onstage, and the sonics recorded from Bayreuth’s covered orchestra pit are perhaps determined more by the engineers than by the conductor. The Lohengrin and Elsa, Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch, are the same as on Marek Janowski’s recent CD recording. His pure-toned Eagle Scout singing is similar here, but she brings more detailed phrasing and a gift for storytelling to this version, and her face is alive at every moment. Masks or no masks, Eberhard Friedrich’s Bayreuth chorus is the musical highlight of the performance. spacer


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