Wagner Notes

James L. Paulk
October 2018

Yuval Sharon, the first American to stage a new production at Bayreuth, has created a Lohengrin that is gorgeous and introspective yet very accessible, at least by Bayreuth standards. Focused on the fairy-tale aspects of the story but also on contemporary sexual politics, it features an exotic range of visual references, from Van Dyke’s paintings to the Disney movie Frozen to the BBC science fiction television series, Doctor Who, which has a cult following.

Many of the references and the look of the production are clearly not Sharon’s. A couple of years ago he replaced Alvis Hermanis as director. The project had a long gestation: the German husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch (sets) and Rosa Loy (costumes), both famous artists, had been at work on it since 2012. Their well-established visual styles clearly contributed to the overall look, and it is stunning. Nietzsche described the overture as blue in color, and this is surely the bluest Lohengrin in history, with bright orange touches. Van Dyke’s influence shows up in the costumes, inspired by his portraits. Reinhard Traub’s lighting contributes greatly to the otherworldly feel of the whole affair. Sharon’s biggest contribution is to frame the work in stark, modern #MeToo terms, so that Elsa and Ortrud rise up against “corrupt men.” Lohengrin’s demands for blind faith and absolute trust are seen as unacceptably sexist, precluding “real love.”

The opera takes place around a cartoonish rendition of an electric power plant and grid, framing the discussion in terms of electricity. In the opening scene, the plant is dormant, and in the program book Sharon explains that Brabant is “a land fallen from grace, without power or electricity,” which Lohengrin must bring, “similar to Lenin’s electrification of Russia.” When Lohengrin arrives, he immediately restarts the electricity, saving Elsa, who was about to be burned at the stake. But when he takes her to his bridal chamber, he uses electric cords to bind her to a giant insulator, becoming her oppressor. Elsa, whose tiny house is a replica of the Tardis—an old-fashioned British phone box painted vivid blue with a sort of antenna on top, which serves as a vehicle for time travel in the Doctor Who television series—is visited by Ortrud, whose normally deceptive warning becomes the catalyst for Elsa’s salvation: her rebellion against blind faith and tradition.

Hans Neuenfels’ fascinating Lohengrin production (2010–2017) was a dark inversion of the pious text and dealt with such questions as the post-Christian lack of faith, the destruction this causes and, significantly, whether power destroys love. The chorus was famously costumed as a bunch of laboratory rats. In Sharon’s production, the key figures all wear moth-like wings, and these take on great significance. For example, when Telramund and Lohengrin do battle (suspended on wires), Telramund loses a wing, which his minions then carry in a ceremony. Moths are, of course, drawn to light, but this seems to be more of a fairy-tale conceit than an overarching metaphor.

When Lohengrin vanishes and Gottfried shows up at the end, costumed to resemble a green monster, everyone else, even the Brabantians, drops dead except for Elsa and Ortrud. If the production has the feel of a tele- vision series, this is its season finale, leaving a mystery to be dealt with next year. Which could well be the case… In “Werkstatt Bayreuth” (Nietzsche’s term, later realized by Wolfgang Wagner), productions are frequently revised and reworked in successive seasons.

To my ear, Christian Thielemann is the finest Wagner conductor of our generation, and he led a vigorous, authoritative, deeply introspective reading of the score in the August 10 performance. The fabled Bayreuth chorus sang magnificently, as always.

Roberto Alagna, who had been cast for the title role three years ago, famously cancelled three days before the first rehearsal. Rescue came in the person of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, whose youthful, bright, liquid tone, stamina, and fine phrasing made him a deeply sympathetic figure, not entirely in sync with Sharon’s darker characterization.

German soprano Anja Harteros brought power and stamina to her portrayal of Elsa, but her voice is simply too heavy for the role; she sounded more like an Ortrud. For that role, however, we had the great Waltraud Meier, making her first appearance here in 18 years; she has now retired the role. Occasionally she seemed to struggle, especially in “Fahrheim,” but her vivid dramatic portrayal carried the day. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny was a superb Telramund, ferocious, with torrential power. Georg Zeppenfeld sang the role of King Henry with great dignity and beautiful tone.

© Wagner Notes, October 2018, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

[A version of this review appears in the current issue of the American Record Guide.—Ed.]

James L. Paulk,

a Society member, reviews for a number of opera and music publications.