Rasilainen, Jukka


LohengrinRichard Wagner - Lohengrin

Bayreuth Festival 2011| Andris Nelsons, Hans Neuenfels, Reinhard von der Thannen, Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, Jukka Rasilainen, Petra Lang, Samuel Youn, Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew | Opus Arte

It’s refreshing to see Wagner approached with a critical eye, one that doesn’t just accept his work with a deferential, respectful attitude, played straight and full of grandiose pomposity, but rather strives to find the deeper qualities in his work and consider how - or even whether - they still have meaning and relevance to the world of opera and to the world in general. It’s also refreshing - surprising for some, shocking for others - that it’s at Bayreuth, the home of Wagner and under the directorship of the composer’s great-daughter Katarina Wagner, that some of the most radical and irreverent productions are being undertaken. Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin, recorded here at the Festival in 2011, is consequently another radical reworking of Wagner’s own mythology that has generated some amount of controversy and bewilderment, and it’s not hard to see why.

Lohengrin has always been one of the most difficult Wagner operas to approach, partly because of where it stands in the development of the composer finding his own voice and partly because of the history that has become attached to it through its association with Nazism. Even though the work is often grouped as one of the three earlier operas (along with Der Fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser) that saw Wagner still finding his way towards the reformation of opera into a music-drama artform that would exalt and give expression to essential German characteristics as expressed in ancient myths and legends, it is nonetheless the most clear and consistently ‘Wagnerian’ of those earlier works. If there is any fault with the work, it’s not so much musical as the fact that it tends to put across those ideals of German purity across in a way that allowed them to be treated simplistically and seized upon in later years as an expression of Aryan supremacy. With its bold choruses of Germanic voices chanting ‘Sieg Heil’, the subsequent history of the work beyond the composer’s lifetime can’t be ignored, and it means that a director needs to be very careful about how such scenes are staged.

Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’ idea then isn’t in itself necessarily a bad one. He correctly sees that there is much more to Lohengrin than solemn declarations of Germanic might and purity, but that there is an essential element of humanity and romanticism in the work. And not only does it subject those noble characteristics to examination, but there is a wider consideration and a deep understanding in Lohengrin of the flaws and weaknesses in the German character also, as well as a sense of humour that is often ignored in Wagner. In some respects then for Neuenfels, Lohengrin represents a kind of social experiment for Wagner, where he pits conflicting German characteristics against each other - often in very broad terms of good and evil - and explores the impact they have on society, here in its setting of Brabant. Little did Wagner realise how those German characteristics would later find expression in Nazism, or how much the work itself would play a part in the formation of those ideals, but perhaps Lohengrin’s social experiment does indeed prophetically shed a light on just how German society can give rise to those kind of sentiments.

The difficulty with Neuenfels’ direction of Lohengrin for Bayreuth however is in how he and production designer Reinhard von der Thannen take the idea of the opera as a social experiment through a reductio ad absurdum where Brabant literally becomes a laboratory and its citizens run around for the most part dressed in black, white and pink mouse costumes. It all looks very silly indeed and definitely not how you expect to see Wagner traditionally produced. But then again it’s clearly the intention of the director to totally break down those preconceptions and the historical baggage that comes with the opera, and at the very least you can safely say that there has never been a Lohengrin like this one. The staging is colourful and well-choreographed, while the modernist, clean-line, brightly lit stage that is now a distinctive feature of Bayreuth in recent years is far from the dark theatricality that you normally associate with opera productions. Using animated sequences moreover, the production takes a Rashomon-like perspective on the nature of Truth (Wahrheit) in relation to the alleged drowning of Gottfried, the heir to the throne of Brabant, by his sister Elsa, and highlights the changing reaction of the people (the rats), to the unfolding of these events. Along with the people’s reaction to the call to arms by King Heinrich “The Fowler” to fight against Hungary that comes at the same time, this is definitely an interesting angle to explore.

Lohengrin

As a theme then, the production certainly has validity and relevance to Wagner’s work, remaining relatively faithful to its narrative progression despite the often absurd imagery that is used, and it is at least fascinating to watch and highly original. Rather than bringing out any underlying complexity in the work however, it seems to either just exaggerate the broad black-and-white characterisation in the most simplistic terms with blatant symbolism (swans on one side, rats on the other) and obvious colour-coding, or else smother it in obscure references and imagery when the fit isn’t quite perfect. It hardly deals with the more problematic questions raised by the work and its historical legacy, and despite the attempt to draw out the type of humour from the work that you might find more readily in Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, it doesn’t seem to work particularly well with the musical language employed by Wagner either. It’s more of a “commentary” on Lohengrin than a vision that makes a true meaningful connection with the work. Whether this failing to fully connect with the heart of the piece is a problem for the performers or not is hard to say, but although it’s wonderfully played by the orchestra, Andris Nelsons at least seems to struggle to find a tone to match the uneven and bizarre antics on the stage.

The singing too - something unfortunately not always given due consideration at Bayreuth - is again not really strong enough here to make the idea work, although some singers manage better than others. Klaus Florian Vogt is simply made to play Lohengrin, singing it here - as he does in the Kent Nagano/Nikolaus Lehnhoff production already available on Blu-ray - with a beautiful lyrical purity of tone that seems wonderfully fitted to his character. His voice could hardly be more of a contrast to that of Jonas Kaufmann who sang the role in this production last year. Georg Zeppenfeld is also very impressive as King Henry, singing wonderfully with authority but also with an edge of character instability that works well with the concept here. Petra Lang alone gives the kind of powerful, commanding Wagnerian performance you would expect. She is absolutely stunning on those high passages - although not always as strong across the range - and she consequently cuts an appropriately fearsome figure as Ortrud. She seems to adapt better to the ‘baddie’ role than Jukka Rasilainen, who looks and sounds hopelessly out of place here as Telramund. Annette Dasch too clearly finds the singing and the interpretation something of a struggle - but Elsa is by no means an easy role and there are enough good points to admire in her performance here. The chorus work - notwithstanding its members having to wear rat costumes - is simply outstanding.

Lohengrin

On Blu-ray in High Definition, the brightly lit and colourful stage looks most impressive, the cameras finding plenty of low and high angles to capture the whole scope of the stage direction without getting too carried away. The audio tracks, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are exceptionally good, with the orchestra and singing well recorded and mixed. Instead of the usual bland Bayreuth Making Of feature, the extras principally consist of four five minute interviews with Katarina Wagner, Hans Neuenfels, Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch, but also include a Cast Gallery and the three animated Wahrheit sequences. The booklet contains an essay with further information and interpretation of the ideas in the production, and a full synopsis.

Tristan und IsoldeRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuthe Festspiele 2009 | Christoph Marthaler, Peter Schneider, Iréne Theorin, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle Breedt, Jukka Rasilainen, Robert Holl, Ralf Lukas | Opus Arte

It’s well known that Richard Wagner broke off the composition of his masterwork The Ring of the Nielbeung after the completion of the first two parts of the tetralogy (and up to the second act of Siegfried) in order to write his two other magnificent late music-dramas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. There are various political and commercial reasons for this break, but there remains a clear connection between the themes of these two works and those of the Ring that suggests to me that Wagner needed another outlet for the powerful themes that couldn’t fit within the tetralogy – as huge and encompassing a life-work as it is.

Die Meistersinger seems to want to consider another aspect of the nature of German art and culture and the creation of something new from a revered tradition that is part of what the Ring is about, but approached in a very different manner with a comic tone that can’t be found elsewhere in Wagner’s work. Tristan und Isolde seems to me to be very much connected with the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, a deeper exploration of the nature of love that is so powerful and so beyond our control that it surpasses any rational attempt to contain it, master it or even describe it, not least when it is a love that defies traditional moral constraints, something no doubt inspired by Wagner’s relationship with his mistress Mathilde Wesendonck.

Difficult to describe maybe, but in Tristan und Isolde Wagner makes one of his most persuasive accounts of those mystical feelings and powerful drives, not least through some of the most sublime music ever composed – almost equal to his final masterpiece Parsifal – that weaves contrasting leitmotifs together into a near frenzy of emotional outpourings and conflicting desires. In the same way that Parsifal would dwell at great length at the question of pain and suffering as a redemptive purifying force, Tristan und Isolde contains little real action and little dramatic intrigue in its four-hour-plus running time, leaving plenty of room for the opera to wallow in the sentiments it is concerned with.

Explored in depth they most certainly are, but even so, the structure of the opera would seem to work against a conventional expression of romantic sentiments, contriving rather to keep the two lovers apart or on guard for most of the opera. In Act 1, Tristan strives to keep his distance from the Irish princess that he has promised as a bride for King Marke, transporting her from Ireland to Cornwall, refusing requests from Isolde for a meeting, even accepting when they do meet what he suspects is a poison meant for both of them. Isolde is furious that she has feelings for the young man who, despite his disguise, she recognised and as the one who had killed her former betrothed, Lord Morold, yet still nursed him back to health. To make reparation she plots to give Tristan a poison and herself, for her weakness, but her maid Brangäne switches the draught for a love potion. Act 2 consists only of a furtive encounter between the two secretive lovers that is eventually discovered by the King, while Act 3 sees their separation and reencounter only in death.

Tristan

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of the unconventional nature of the love story, Tristan und Isolde is all the more powerful in its means of expression. The tension that exists in Act 1 is violently broken down by the imbibing of a potion – as a rather melodramatic device one can take this literally or not, but the intent is the same – that removes all constraints, pretences and reveals their true feelings for each other. It’s in Act 2 that the expression of those feelings is given voice – through the words, through the singing and through the music. The expression of that forbidden love is principally characterised by contrasts – in distance and nearness, in hatred and love, in darkness and light, in life and death, but principally through the day and night. Theirs is a love where, through its origin where they expected death in a potion but instead found the birth of love, everything is reversed and meaning turned upside down. Through their furtive encounters when the King is absent, signalled to Tristan by the extinguishing of Isolde’s bedroom light, theirs is also a love that is “consecrated to the night”, existing in a terrible but unquenchable yearning and state of tension that is only fully realised and consummated in the death that comes in Act 3.

With its expression of love as an endless eternal state thriving on contradictions, Tristan und Isolde is reminiscent in this way of Parsifal in its elevation of suffering to a mythical, mystic state, and Wagner’s musical expression of this state is simply astounding and also somewhat punishing (for the performers as well as the audience, the opera at the time of its composition being rejected by Dresden after fifty-four rehearsals as being impossible to play). It maintains an incredible state of mounting tension, constantly revisiting and revising leitmotifs, playing them off each other, only bringing them to a form of release in the climax of the ‘Liebestod‘. It’s a moment of utter musical genius that one can feel more intensely than almost any other dramatic operatic scene has ever achieved.

In terms of dramatic representation, there’s not really much you can do with Tristan und Isolde, which conversely means that an imaginative director can do just about anything with it. Bayreuth doesn’t really seem interested in staging traditional productions of Wagner’s operas, but in an opera like Tristan und Isolde, that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not a historical opera tied to a specific period, it’s a mythological opera about the mysterious forces of love. Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 production for the Bayreuth Festival, recorded here in a 2009 performance, finds a good balance between making the drama and the interaction between the characters intriguing to consider, while still being faithful to the opera’s themes.

Tristan

From the costumes and the décor of the ships interior in Act 1, it looks like it is randomly set in the 1930s, but not over-realistically so – the sets there to create a specific environment that ends up working quite well, rising into three tiers for each of the three acts, maintaining a fluidity and consistency in the piece. The main visual theme however – considering its significance in the second act – is that of lights, from the neon ring “stars” in the sky in Act 1, to the light switches of Act 2, and the pulsing rings of Act 3 that could represent love or life, or the two combined in death. Obviously, this is highly conceptual in a manner that those who like a more concrete, literal stagy representation dislike, but it suits the nature of the opera, and certainly suits the nature of Wagner’s conceptual themes, without distracting from them or imposing a false reading. The performers fit well into the stage directions laid out for them – looking a little incongruous and a little uncomfortable at times with the eccentric mannerisms, but mostly finding a perfect accommodation between the words, the emotions and dramatic interaction with each other.

Iréne Theorin is fairly magnetic throughout as Isolde, capturing her haughtiness and conflicted feelings for Tristan in Act 1 with a degree of precision, and finding a similar level of emotion in the contradictory impulses of the ‘Liebestod‘ in Act 3. Through much of Act 2 she appears to be in a love-potion-induced trance, acting without volition, almost in a state of madness, which may not be how one would expect Isolde to be played, but her childish, playful eagerness to switch off the lights does capture a perfect sense of complete abandon to her condition to the disregard of any rational sensibility. Her singing is strong, only occasionally faltering, but a fine representation of her character nonetheless. It may take a while to warm to Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, but any doubts should be dispelled by his handling of the incredibly demanding final act soliloquy that he delivers magnificently with such impassioned yearning that you almost fear that he, like Tristan, is going to push himself over the edge. Michelle Breedt is a fine Brangäne, her singing strong, her acting in character throughout, and Jukka Rasilanen as Kurwenal delivers a touching performance, particularly in his sympathy for and fidelity to his master in the final act. If there are any minor irritations with interpretation and staging in the first two acts, all should be redeemed by Act 3, and that is certainly delivered here under the baton of Peter Schneider.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray looks good for the most part in terms of the 16:9 video transfer. There are some problems with the quality of the audio, but they are mainly down to the recording, positioning of the actors and the acoustics of the live performance on the Bayreuth stage. The minimal staging, the positioning of the performers and the surrounding walls give a somewhat echoing quality to the singing in places. In Act II’s “Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!” for example, with Theorin and Dean Smith backed up against the walls, the singing fails to rise above the orchestration. The orchestra isn’t ideally clear either and doesn’t make a great deal of use of the surrounds, tending to be mainly focussed towards a centre stage. Extras include an optional conductor camera visible in a small box at the bottom of the screen (a pointless feature when Bayreuth productions otherwise do their utmost to keep the orchestra and conductor invisible in line with the composer’s intentions), as well as an illustrated synopsis and a 25 minute making of that looks behind the scenes at the staging of the production at Bayreuth.