Lang, Petra


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.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Camilla Nylund, Petra Lang, Byran Hymel, Agnes Zwierko, Alan Held, Daniel Grice, Gyula Orendt, Ilse Eerens, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard, Justina Gringyte | Covent Garden, 27 February 2012

It’s somewhat surprising that Dvořák’s gorgeous Lyric Fairytale opera Rusalka has never been performed before at Covent Garden. One hundred and eleven years after its composition, its February 2012 premiere at the Royal Opera House was therefore long overdue, but under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin it was at least a fine introduction to the musical qualities of the work. The far from traditional stage production however - premiered at Salzburg in 2008 and revived here with many of the original cast - without necessarily detracting from the work, certainly confused the audience about the intentions of the piece, the directors attracting a fair share of booing on the opening night performance.

The intentions of the work and its source in European folklore - notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid may not be easily apparent other than it being merely a fairytale, but even on that level there is a richness of imagery and some typical themes in such work on the corruption of innocence, particularly in the context of the destruction of the purity of nature by the actions of humanity. It’s also a tragic love story of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince in the woods and wants to become human. Escaping from the tyranny of the water goblin, with the help of a witch in the woods, she manages to grow legs and appears as a beautiful but mute vision before the prince hunting in the woods. Unable to cope with the complex and inconstant nature of human beings, Rusalka however finds herself banished from her sisters and home, unable to fit into the human world either, and ultimately cursed to live in a limbo state between them.

Rusalka

Quite how the production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito came to be set in what looked like a brothel then and whatever intentions were behind this choice were unclear, but it’s not the first time that the opera has been subjected to a radical reworking. Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Rusalka for the Bavarian State Opera managed to graft the story of young girls being held captive in a dank cellar and abused by a Josef Fritzl-like water goblin quite successfully onto the work’s theme of the corruption of innocence, finding in Rusalka’s dilemma a parallel to the profound psychological damage that abused women in captivity must endure for the rest of their lives. There would appear to be something similar attempted with this production, but its muddled intentions were far less coherent and nowhere near so successfully or powerfully seen through to the fullness of their dark intent.

The key to understanding the production’s concept comes perhaps in its treatment of the Rusalka’s three wood nymphs. Reflecting Rusalka’s innocence of the fact that she is growing up in a brothel - the set dressed with lurid colours and red curtains - in Act 1 the three semi-naked figures in transparent dresses writhe around like exotic creatures of a young girl’s imagination, but it’s only after leaving her home - losing her mermaid tail and literally learning to stand on her own two feet - and having been subjected herself to the acts and whims of men, that the young woman’s illusions are shattered. In Act 3 then, the three “nymphs” are seen more for what they really are, dressed far more conventionally (albeit still in theatrical fantasy terms in unbelievably skimpy outfits rather than with any sense of naturalism) as cheap prostitutes. The scales have fallen from Rusalka’s eyes and, no longer able to return to the world of childhood innocence, the idea of living in a world with this knowledge becomes intolerable.

Rusalka

That’s one interpretation - the best I can come up with - but its manner of expression in the production is far from consistent, mixing this stylised theatrical realism with pantomime-like fairytale imagery, often to bizarre effect. Rusalka quite literally has a mermaid fish tail at the start, which is removed from her by the witch Jezibaba’s giant person-in-a-big-furry-costume black cat familiar. The revolving stage set with its red curtains is asked to stand-in for a variety of locations and the fit isn’t always good, the imagery and mix of concepts proving rather confusing. I’m not sure where the religious elements and use of neon crosses come into the work, although perhaps it views religious intolerance and hypocrisy as being antithetical to Rusalka’s pure and natural paganism.

Regardless of how it’s interpreted, the progression of the storyline and the impact of Rusalka’s dilemma still comes through, expressed principally and convincing by a strong performance from the Royal Opera House orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. They captured the Wagnerian romanticism of the work rather more successfully however than the folk rhythms that Dvořák beautifully blends into the opera, coming across a little too aggressively in such places. It was the quality of the singing however that carried the work through in spite of the peculiarities of the production. Camilla Nylund’s performance and delivery were flawless, meeting not only the technical demands of the singing, but injecting the right note of wistful romanticism into Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” aria, and a sense of distraught confusion at the harsh reality of being a human that leads to her tragic fate. Bryan Hymel was equally as emotive in his delivery of the rather more human failings of the Prince, his singing strong and resonant.

There were moreover no weak elements even in the secondary characters with Petra Lang a formidable foreign princess, Agnes Zwierko compelling as the witch Jezibaba and Alan Held a strong Water Goblin. Particularly impressive however were the Rhinemaiden-like figures of the three wood nymphs, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte. This was consequently a solid performance of Rusalka, exceptionally well-sung by a strong cast, even if the production didn’t always capture the lyricism of this beautiful work in the orchestration or the stage direction.