The first thing that you have to get over in order to strain some type of enjoyment from the current production of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival is that director Hans Neuenfels has dressed the chorus as rats. On the surface, it is an absurd piece of regie-theatre, and those that never venture past the surface were the first ones booing when the production team took their vows opening night in 2010. But if we dig deeper, by going to the source, i.e., if we study the story through Richard Wagner’s libretto we might be able to conclude that the citizens of Brabant are trapped in a society where they are abused by the powerful, and forced to serve. Are they rats as denizens of the lower depths? Rats as specimens in a laboratory? Rats trapped in an Orwellian world? A mixture of all three, I would say. However, an inspired Winston Smith moment arose early in the first act when one of the rats tried to assassinate King Henry the Fowler after he commanded his subjects (the rats) to rise to arms against the invading Hungarians. The creature managed to pull a knife on the monarch, but before he could harm the king the rat was dragged away by thought-police types into a laboratory where surely his brain will be re-programmed to believe that two plus two equals five. Mr. Neuenfels’s metaphors are not stupid, just obvious most of the time.
Last night, the most beautiful singing came from Klaus Florian Vogt. His shining tenor cutting through the orchestra fabric with the kind of sweet intonation that separates him from the usual hefty heldentenors who usually take on Wagnerian roles. Annette Dasch sang and acted the role of Elsa with conviction. She is able to convey a sense of victimization through her acting and her sweet, but at times frail voice. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan MacLean were both very good as Telramund and Ortrud. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a memorable King Henry, and Samuel Youn once again proved that he might just be the busiest singer in Bayreuth these days. After he has taken the role of the Holländer this year his baritone continues to be a focused, beautiful shining instrument.
The most impressive part of the evening was the Bayreuth chorus. Time and time again this ensemble, led by Eberhard Friedrich proves that choral singing can achieve astonishing heights. Last night he took a vow with his group. It was well deserved. The same can rightly be said of conductor Andris Nelsons, who lead an impressive reading of the score.
There were multiple curtain calls at the end, and when Mr. Vogt appeared that ignited the house into my first Bayreuth standing ovation. When the audience at the Green Hill likes a performance it is as if an explosion occurs. It was very exciting to be there and experience this.