WAGNER: Lohengrin (complete opera), Blu-ray (2012)
Georg Zeppenfeld (King Heinrich)/ Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)/ Annette Dasch (Elsa)/ Jukka Rasilainen (Telramund)/ Petra Lang (Ortrud)/ Samuel Youn (Herald)/ Bayreuth Festival Orch. and Chorus/ Andris Nelsons
Director: Hans Neuenfels
Producer: Katharina Wagner
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD7103 D, 2012 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080P HD
Audio: PCM 2.0, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish
Extras: Cast Gallery; Interviews (26 minutes); Animations
Length: 209 minutes
What on earth is happening at Bayreuth? There are so many rats in this production of Lohengrin that I thought they were escapees from an aborted Nutcracker. By “rats” do I mean miscreant singers and subversive musicians? No, I mean rats, and plenty of them—a whole chorus worth to be exact. This is the now infamous production from 2010 at Bayreuth that featured the direction of Hans Neuenfels, the controversial writer, poet, and director whose previous productions have scandalized even many of the participants themselves. This one, which is more a commentary on the legend of Lohengrin than a telling of the story itself, is immersed in psycho-babble imagery and in-your-face provocations which many will consider genius, and others—well, just plain stupid. He uses animations of rats as well, and the whole concept allows for the stage to become a giant maze with the colors and actions of the chorus—er, rats—changing according to the actions of the principle characters. Does it work? Not in the least, and here is why.
Many directors have been trying to find ways around the intense and sometimes overblown German nationalism that surfaces in this piece. [You’re being polite; I feel that way about All Wagner, except for the Siegfried Idyll…Ed.] It was, after all, supposedly the favorite Wagner opera of Hitler, and with approbation like that little else needs to be said. And the story is after all a fairy tale; so it would seem reasonable, if not plausible, that certain liberties could be taken in order to convey the essence of the story, of a man who appears to champion a woman’s innocence yet puts almost unfathomable conditions on his continued help. Woven into this fabric is the secondary idea that the hero’s actions have profound effects on the king and townspeople as well, that these effects are not sought out, and that henceforth a sort of control is being exercised over them. This is a legitimate field of inquiry, and we come away from Lohengrin with a feeling that his own selfish interests and vows, no matter how noble, serve to the detriment of those around him, and therefore put a façade of deceit around his supposed virtue.
Hans Neuenfels has decided the easiest way to convey some of these ideas is by hitting us over the head with them the way a clown might present images to kindergarten children. The chorus really is dressed up like giant rats, who change color as the opera progress, to reflect the oppression being imposed on them at different times. The symbolism might be apropos, but the result is something that looks so exceedingly kooky and ridiculous so that continuing to watch it takes no little act of will. The entire opera is so symbolic that the real story gets lost, and we are immersed in a giant operatic Cliff Notes about Lohengrin instead of the story itself.
What ultimately saves the production is the singing—it is superb on all levels. Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch are the Lohengrin and Elsa of the future. I have already reviewed their recent Pentatone recording and found them both superb there, as they are here. Vogt’s light tenor is revelatory in this music, redefining what a Wagner tenor should sound like, and Dasch has a wonderfully controlled instrument that soars with ease among Wagner’s lines. The only real fault I found in the recording was the somewhat disappointing soprano of Susanne Resmark in the role of Ortrud. That has been corrected here, Petra Lang completely in charge of her seminal role and a fine actress to boot.
The sound is excellent, the video a real video in that we see some things—like roof shots looking down—that the Bayreuth audience cannot see. It is a total and complete package well-conceived for the medium, and the Bayreuth orchestra is fabulous. This is a Lohengrin that needs to be heard and not seen, and for that reason I can recommend it, but it is not the last word stage-wise, and those wanting a video should look for something that at least is in the realm of what Wagner would recognize.