American Director, Polish Lohengrin Bow At Bayreuth

Electricity is a theme running through Yuval Sharon’s new production of ‘Lohengrin’ at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival. A transformer station towers over the people of Brabant.  (Photos by Enrico Nawrath)
By David Shengold

BAYREUTH – Much buzz heralded this summer’s new staging of Lohengrin at Wagner’s self-designed theater. The innovative Yuval Sharon had signed on as the first-ever American stage director employed in these fabled precincts, and renowned star of the art scene Neo Rauch and his wife and artistic partner Rosa Loy undertook sets and costumes. This promised – and to some extent delivered – innovation, though previous Bayreuth Lohengrins have raised far more visual and interpretive scandal.

Triumph: On a few weeks’ notice, tenor Piotr Beczala took over the title role.

Moreover, word came that French tenor Roberto Alagna would sing his first-ever German part with the title role, despite the reputation of conductor and music director Christian Thielemann for favoring German-speaking singers in presenting Wagner. Honestly, I don’t know one operatic professional who thought Alagna would appear for this tough gig. He didn’t, canceling on several weeks’ notice, citing lack of time (in three years!) to master the text. Maybe Alagna could do a concert Lohengrin in one of the beautiful Italian or French translations used until around 1960. But his absence presented no problem, as Piotr Beczala, who first sang the Swan Knight in high-profile 2016 Dresden performances opposite Anna Netrebko, jumped in.

Forging a connection: Lohengrin wields the ‘Parsifal’ spear.

The Polish tenor, making his Bayreuth debut, scored a triumph – reportedly on opening night (July 25) and at the performance I heard Aug. 2. His German diction was utterly convincing. Beczala sang in Linz for five years, wisely biding his time before entering the international circuit with now-rare preparedness. His often exquisite, liquid tone, and his ability to float phrases and attack entries dead-on, evoked recordings by Sándor Kónya, Bayreuth’s miraculous Lohengrin of 1958-1960 and 1967. At times – in ensembles and the more martial passages – Beczala sounded at his dynamic limits, but with Thielemann’s responsive aid he sagely managed never to exceed them.

In his program essay, director Sharon draws a parallel between Lenin’s victorious project of electrifying the entire Soviet Union and Lohengrin’s arrival, which seemingly restored the Duchy of Brabant to the power grid symbolized in Rauch and Loy’s sets. (The backdrops proved strikingly more traditional, their clouds and refracted light evocative of Caspar David Friedrich if not indeed of Claude Lorrain.) Forging a connection with the previous night’s Parsifal, this Lohengrin even brings along his knightly father’s iconic spear in the form of a dynamic Art Nouveau lightning bolt. Electricity (visual, perhaps emotional), idealism, and their all-too-human limits are the crucible here in which Lohengrin – rather than Elsa – fails, very specifically and tawdrily. His openness and supportiveness of his beloved’s “truth” devolves into tying her in literal bondage ropes during the Wedding Duet.

Elsa (Anja Harteros) questions the conditions of obedience Lohengrin imposes.

If Sharon persists in thinking that Lenin’s intent to seize power was in any sense idealistic or beneficent – or that the shortfalls from his rhetoric were only in the personal sphere – he has a great deal to learn about Russian history. Yet I was delighted in my 15th Lohengrin finally to encounter a production that agreed with my feminist conviction following the first staging (August Everding’s at the Met) I saw at age 16: Elsa is absolutely right to pose her questions.

In this context, Lohengrin accomplishes the accused Elsa’s public liberation from the supposed crime of her brother Gottfried’s murder and saves her from theocratically imposed public burning. Yet Sharon posits Ortrud as Elsa’s private liberator. Although Ortrud is traditionally figured as a heathen sower of doubt who slithers her way into the Eden of Lohengrin and Elsa’s union, it is she who correctly prompts Elsa to question the conditions of obedience Lohengrin has imposed.

Waltraud Meier, back in Bayreuth after 18 years, sang Ortrud.

The wonderful Act II duet between the women thus emerged with uncommon tenderness, recalling a line of bel canto rivals’ reconciliation scenes that includes Norma and Anna Bolena. In the pit, Thielemann Thielemann furnished some bel cantesque voice support in accompanying Waltraud Meier, a Bayreuth and indeed worldwide Wagnerian icon, returning here after 18 (!) years with diminished volume but on-pitch, emotionally calibrated phrasing. In fact, with judicious planning Meier was able to haul out considerable power at climaxes, though her final imprecations proved – as for most Ortruds – hard sledding.

Uncanonically, both Ortrud and Elsa survive Lohengrin’s departure in this production. In fact, King Heinrich — and everyone one else — falls dead, save for the quivering Green Giant-colored figure Lohengrin produces and reveals as Gottfried, the rightful heir. Is this an ambiguous endorsement of “green” energy? Gottfried’s startling appearance after three hours of shades of blue and orange understandably made many spectators laugh.

Reinhard Traub’s lighting contributed more positively than Rauch and Loy’s largely Delft blue and rather peculiar costumes, which were unflattering to the attractive women whom Sharon’s production sought to affirm as the opera’s moral centers – soprano Anja Harteros as Elsa, and Meier. The silhouettes not just for the women combined long coats and high Van Dyck collars with distinctly 20th-century touches. Beczala’s trim Lohengrin arrived (via a Swan-evoking space transport that docked atop the central power station) dressed like a dapper official of some uniformed trade. (In fact, he evoked Peter Lind Hayes’ savior figure August Zabladowski in the cult classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.)

Tension and (temporary) joy: The King, Ortrud, Lohengrin, Elsa.

The role of Telramund, Count of Brabant, was sung by fellow Pole and local debutant Tomasz Konieczny, a Viennese favorite whose heavy, huge sound did not balance with Meier’s, and whose diction was less than crystalline, presumably causing the light booing he incurred. Lohengrin and Telramund – or rather, their winged body doubles – performed their trial in the air, a Quidditch allusion. The trial ended when the visitor ripped off one of the count’s wings; all the nobles sported them, and Lohengrin earned his large pair with this victory.

Elsa’s wings vanished between Acts II and III, so that she endured her honeymoon ordeal (“This handsome, sensitive prince is a non-consensual S&M freak!”) unwinged, in orange. The wedding night transpired in what resembled an Orthodox mini-chapel on a family estate, re-purposed as an Airbnb; its electric hook-up extended to a force field that killed the murderously intruding Telramund.

Unfortunately, in her first Bayreuth engagement Munich-based Harteros, proved gravely disappointing vocally as Elsa, though the audience hailed her vociferously. Her timbre emerged edgy and thin, only rarely conveying the tonal sheen her best recordings display. A bad patch, one hopes, but no longer an Elsa timbre.

Egils Silins (Herald) shaded muscular rather than legato, something of a Telramund in training rather than the usual lyric baritone. Alongside Beczala and Eberhard Friedrich’s altogether remarkable chorus, the best vocalism came from silken bass Georg Zeppenfeld, by design playing Heinrich as an uncommonly insecure and unready authority figure.

Thielemann took the initial Prelude at a surprisingly fast clip, somewhat draining it of mystery. Yet his detailed control was even there immediately in evidence, with phrases carefully tapered and shaped and a seamless orchestral blend – save for when he (or Wagner) wanted contrast, as when King Heinrich’s four superb trumpeters issued their bright, crowd-beckoning blasts from center stage. The *banda* emanating from inside the (here invisible) castle that usually cuts through the  sinister murk of Ortrud and Telramund’s Act 2 vigil proved rather muted; Thielemann saved a headlong sense of ‘party music” for the third act Prelude, bracingly delivered. This score can stall and founder in its ensembles; no hint of that under Thielemann, who made the splendid, demanding concertati near the end of the first two acts at once tight and breathtaking.

Critic/lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and other venues; he’s written program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.

Yuval Sharon’s 2018 ‘Lohengrin’ production, mostly in Delft blue, was designed by Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy.