Monday, 6 August 2018

Comic book shallow Lohengrin, Bayreuth

photo : Bayreuther Festspiele : E Narwath
 When Piotr Beczała jumped in for Lohengrin at Bayreuth, I breathed a sigh of relief. If Roberto Alagna couldn't be bothered to learn the part for the highest profile Wagner mecca in the world, he should stick to other things. Though there were a few moments when his voice sounded pushed - hardly surprising since he jumped in at short notice - Beczała is a natural Lohengrin, with the right purity and ping.  He's at least thought about who Lohengrin might be, which ought to be the starting point of any production.  Why is Lohengrin so touchy about revealing his identity ? If he believes in love, should't he at least acknowledge Elsa's need to know who she might be sleeping with  "If" might be the operative word. Lohengrin carries cosmic baggage.  Beczała created a "human" Lohengrin, ethereal and sublime, but also a man with conflicts.  Wagner poses questions : it's up to us to figure out possible answers.  Alas, this production, directed by Yuval Sharon, goes out of its way to avoid depth of thought or understanding.

Is Wagner without ideas Wagner at all  ?  Sharon gives us comic book shallowness, cutesy visuals that resolutely defy anything more than surface engagement.  Lohengrin isn't a fairy tale. Though parts of the plot are fantasy, the drama unfolds against a background of tension and metaphysical disintegration. King Heinrich comes to Brabant to mobilize Christendom against the barbarians of the East, and Ortrud represents a tradition even older than Christianity.  Replace that with faux-medieval costumes, origami collars and cartoon psychology and reduce the opera to picture book emptiness.   Blue light does not in itself tell the story, even if it fulfils the modern diktat that opera should above all be pretty to look at in isolated stills. How can  Lohengrin be merely "beautiful" when horrific cosmic forces  are being unleashed all round  ? 

Christian Thielemann's conducting is divine, but even with a good cast,  he's not a magician. We now live in times so bombarded by TV-realism and audio-only listening that we may have lost the art of visual literacy.  Visual literacy is like poetry.  Just as music is more than the markings on page, you have to engage with the oblique and ambiguous, one way or another. there's never any single answer.  Refusing to think in the first place is no answer at all.   As in poetry, meaning reveals itself slowly, and evolves.  Modern audiences, used to judging things from single images, like photos, are conditioned to think like Beckmesser, marking their slates as fast as they can, without really paying attention.  Sachs was different.

So we see Elsa (Anja Harteros) with moth wings on her back ?   Of course she's vulnerable, but she's a lot more than anonymous cipher.  What's that coil behind her ? If Sharon is suggesting Elsa's a bug drawn to bright light, it's an image that doesn't go very far and isn't developed.  So we see swords embedded in the ground. Vaguely phallic, but there's more to Lohengrin than sex.  On the 3Sat broadcast, we could see Telramund (Tomacz Konieczny) and Ortrud (Waltraud Meier), lit up against the darkness, which might either have been a comment on their situatiion or a chance to get away from the cutesy staging.  Ortrud is an unsympathetic part, especially in contrast to Elsa. But there;s a lot more to it, which Meier in her prime might have made more of.  Here, she's fine to listen to, but she doesn't inhabit the part as she she would have done in the past, and isn't helped by the non-directing. Harteros is a fine Elsa, but why the grey wig. Images should hint at something, not merely exist as decoration. Why is a guy painting in oils before the entry of the Herald ?   Another possible image that goes nowhere.  Even more telling, Georg Zeppenfeld's King Heinrich, so well characterized in the recent Royal Opera House Lohengrin (please read more here), seemed sidelined in Bayreuth.  Butterfly wings appear on Ortrud and also on Lohengrin, for no apparent purpose.  the insect imagery seemed a direct steal from the Neuenfel's rats Lohengrin, which was much better thought through. (Please read more here)

Wonderful orchestra and chorus for the wedding scene, but I couldn't understand the brightly coloured pillars.  You don't need to get everything at once, and good stagings can take a while to digest, but this baffled me.  The coils again   The rope might signify the ties that bind, but as we know, this isn't a marriage that will last, and the violence against women in this opera doesn't come just from Lohengrin, but more so from the people of Brabant.  Thank goodness again for Beczała singing sublimely, clear, ringing tones warmed with sincerity and tenderness. Magnificent orchestral, playing for the scenee of the banks of the Scheldt, but comic book staging again, complete with cardboard cut-outs.  Later Lohengrin's sword becomes a thunderbolt and Lohengrin shows Elsa a box with a light, by way of explainging who he is.  The feeble electric coil/moth imagery again !  It's cute, but delimiting. Then little brother Gottfried wanders in, a green Lego figure against Elsa's orange and the blue all round.  This Lohengrin should be popular with audiences who prize fairy tale prettiness but arguably that isn't what Lohengrin, or Wagner, for that matter, might be about. Thank goodness, all the more,  for Piotr Beczała, Thielemann and the rest of the cast for saving the show.

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