Between the reeds and the power plant: ′Lohengrin′ at the Bayreuth Festival | Music | DW | 26.07.2018
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Between the reeds and the power plant: 'Lohengrin' at the Bayreuth Festival

The Wagner Festival opens the season with a production dominated by powerful images and strong voices – meeting with loud ovations for the soloists and only polite applause for the production team.

A set shrouded in blue, a power plant straight out of the expressionist film "Metropolis," costumes seemingly inspired by Rembrandt paintings and protagonists wearing insect wings are some of the enduring images in the new production of "Lohengrin." The images created by German artist Neo Rauch and his wife Rosa Loy dominate everything else in this rendition of Richard Wagner's Romantic opera.

It's as though the spectator is drawn into a painting, with little to disturb the mise-en-scène. Even conductor Christian Thielemann said that his interpretation of the score was influenced this time by the set. Over long stretches of time, the protagonists sing their parts as statuesque figures. Stage director Yuval Sharon does not overlay the score with an independent vision but does have an original take in the third act.

Read moreYuval Sharon: "You really feel the Bayreuth myth"

Bayreuth Festival 2018 | set of Lohengrin (Bayreuther Festspiele/E. Nawrath)

Fitting the set, Elsa's hair is blue, while Lohengrin wears the garb of a technician

A twist on the story

To understand that, the plot in brief: In "Lohengrin," the title figure comes out of nowhere to rescue Elsa, a princess and the victim of an intrigue by Count Telramund and his wife Ortrud. The mysterious stranger agrees to fight for Elsa and to take her hand in marriage on one condition: she must never ask who he is, where he comes from and what his true nature is. They marry, but seeds of distrust planted by Ortrud bear fruit, and Elsa does ask the forbidden question — at which Lohengrin is forced to abandon her.

The twist on the plot comes in the wedding chamber, which is bright orange in the blue landscape. When Elsa starts to ask uncomfortable questions, her husband sings of love but ties her up with an electric cord.

Only when she asks him the forbidden question point blank is she able to free herself, as the mast overhead buzzes with electric energy.

Never do the two show love or tenderness; the liaison is a political arrangement.

Elsa and Ortrud are supposed to fall dead to the cataclysmically sad music at the end — so it says in Wagner's score — but Yuval Sharon has everyone else fall dead instead while Ortrud, Elsa and her revived brother Gottfried remain standing. The strong women survive, apparently to develop a new order.

Long stretches

It's a tale of female empowerment, explains Sharon, who correctly observes that the women characters in "Lohengrin" propel the action.

But before one arrives at that final insight, long and mostly uneventful hours pass with little to occupy the eye apart from the fairy-tale set.

In an outdoor scene with dark, ominous clouds in Act Two, the singers move in and out of reeds randomly and repeatedly for no apparent reason.

It's up to the viewer to guess why the court nobility wear diaphonous wings or why the sword fight between Lohengrin and Telramund takes place with the characters suspended mid-air.

Bayreuth Festival 2018 Lohengrin set (Bayreuther Festspiele/E. Nawrath)

Neo Rauch's landscape is strange and poetic

A feast of voices

The soloists earned strong applause and many bravos, beginning with Georg Zeppenfeld in the role of King Henry. Piotr Beczala proved to be a virile, energetic Lohengrin who not only hits the high notes but sculpts the vocal lines. A triumph for the Polish tenor — and for his compatriot Tomasz Konieczny, whose warm baritone belies the character of the evildoer Telramund.

Read moreTomasz Konieczny: 'Bayreuth is a dream come true for a performer of Wagner's works'

As Elsa, Anja Harteros is vocally strong enough to make everybody forget for the moment that her role will be taken over by star diva Anna Netrebko in two performances next year.

The longest ovations, however, went to Waltraud Meier, a Bayreuth veteran in the roles of Kundry, Waltraute and Isolde who has been absent from the festival for 18 years. As a high-decibel Ortrud, the 62-year-old filled the auditorium with her voice. Gone is some of this singer's edginess and shades of nuance, but she was celebrated no less frenetically.

Having left in rage, Meier seems now to have wanted to make her peace with the Bayreuth Festival, adding that "it's best to quit when things are best." This season will be her last on the Green Hill.

Generous ovations also went to conductor Christian Thielemann although he was plagued by orchestra and chorus drifting apart at several points in the first act.

The production team of Neo Rauch, Rosa Loy and Yuval Sharon finally appeared before the curtain to take their bows to noticeably subdued, polite applause, which will probably be booked on the positive side at the Bayreuth Festival, where stage directors are traditionally booed at the premiere.

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