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Monday, August 15, 2011

Opera Review: The Rodents and the Swan

The rats run amok in a surreal Bayreuth Lohengrin.
Lohengrin, Elsa, and long-nosed friends.
Photo by Enrico Nawrath © 2011 Bayreuth Festival.
A bizarre, claustrophobic environment--an asylum or experimental farm overrun with life-sized rats. That's the first impression from this fascinating Bayreuth Lohengrin (from director Hans
Neuenfels) which was broadcast live today from the Festspielhaus.

The live-cast was a pay event from Siemens, (I'm writing about the three or so hours of excerpts as posted on YouTube) part of the efforts by new festival directors Katherina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier to open the Green Hill to the world and bring the traditions of Bayreuth kicking and screaming into a new century.

Mr. Neuenfels' production, which premiered last year, moves the opera to a white-walled laboratory (or an asylum) where the Brabantines are giant white, black and pink rats with red eyes. They are trapped in some kind of experiment until freed by Lohengrin, and allowed to wear human attire. Fair enough. But if the would-be warriors of Brabant are bad-assed gun-toting ninja rats, then what is Lohengrin's purpose there?

Some clues emerge with the arrival of Elsa (Annette Dasch.) She enters in a white double-breasted trenchcoat stuck with white arrows (think Christian Dior meets Saint. Sebastian) guarded by bow-wielding rodents. As she sings the dream aria, Elsa slowly unsticks the suction cup arrows from
her chest, healing through her visions. Ms. Dasch then lies prone as she sings the second part of the aria, opening up her instrument for the climactic phrases--no mean feat.

This is the start of a strong performance that gets better as the opera continues and the character develops. Ms. Dasch is the heart of this performance, lifting the opera to the next level through her singing and compelling acting. And in Act II, we learn that she is pathologically afraid of...rats. Lohengrin's job is to save her from the rodents.

When Lohengrin finally enters the action, he brings humanity and redemption to this weird world. (He also takes the remaining arrows out of Elsa.) Part of this is because of Klaus Florian Vogt's golden tenor, a sweet instrument ideally suited for the role of the Grail knight turned rat-catcher. Mr. Vogt has a strong three acts, using his instrument to float Lohengrin's long high lines right up with Wagner's divided strings. (He just nails "Heil dir, Elsa" in Act II.) Best of all, the tenor has good chemistry with Ms. Dasch, something that no strange directorial concept can hide. You believe their love is real, at least until she pops the Forbidden Question.

Friedrich (Jukka Rasalainen) and Ortrud (Petra Lang) are paranoid, fascist types in trench coats left over from an old Harry Kupfer production. At the start of Act II, they are loading cash into a briefcase and getting in a (presumably) rat-drawn hansom cab (to get out of the rat race?) Whatever. Their duet is searing, as is Ms. Lang's powerhouse evocation of the Norse gods. King Henry (Georg Zeppenfeld) is another lunatic with a soft cloth crown, a first cousin to Amfortas. Mr. Zeppenfeld is a good actor, but vocally is out of his depth.

In Act III, everything is wedded bliss between Mr. Vogt and Ms. Dasch. The two singers have wonderful chemistry in the often chilly bridal scene, something that does not change even when Lohengrin kills Friedrich (clearly self-defense in this version) and faces up to his deed. Mr. Vogt's "In fernem Land" takes the listener back to the core of the opera, going beyond the gun-toting ninja rats to the essential core of this work.

And then the ending: the swan as a giant egg, and Gottfried, Elsa's brother, the final experiment of this strange laboratory. The future schützer is presented to all from within a white Ovalia "egg" chair: as a half-developed fetus who looks hypoxiated. But the strange zombie baby rises, and walks forth behind Lohengrin: either in horror or terror--I'm not sure which. It's a weird ending, but it fails to ruin a fascinating Lohengrin, one which I'll be seeing again when it is issued on DVD.

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