Sunday 18 August 2019

Central to Yuval Sharon’s production of Lohengrin is its dramaturgical concept based on Wagner’s critiques on science and technology

Wagner: Lohengrin - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Lohengrin - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner Lohengrin; Piotr Beczała, Annette Dasch, Tomasz Konieczny, Elena Pankratova, Egils Silins, Georg Zeppenfeld, dir: Yuval Sharon, cond: Christian Thielemann; Bayreuth Festival, Germany
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 August 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An electrically-charged production that sparked the imagination and ignited the audience to a thunderous curtain-call

This masterful production of Wagner’s Lohengrin by Yuval Sharon - born in Chicago in 1979 to Israeli parents and Bayreuth’s first American director - first saw the light of day at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival [see Tony's review]. An electrically-charged and imaginative production, Mr Sharon’s concept mirrors Wagner’s strong views and concerns about the consequences of scientific advancement and how new technologies such as electricity - and even the steam-engine - could upset the balance between the natural world and the steady world of progress.

The 2019 revival of Yuval Sharon's production of Wagner's Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival (seen 14 August 2019) featured Piotr Beczała as Lohengrin, Annette Dasch as Elsa, Tomasz Konieczny as Telramund, Elena Pankratova as Ortrud, and Georg Zeppenfeld as Heinrich der Vogler. Christian Thielemann conducted.

A recipient of the Götz Friedrich Prize for Best Opera Direction for his production of John Adams’ Dr Atomic at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Mr Sharon teamed up with a couple of creative geniuses: the celebrated husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch (set designer) and Rosa Loy (costume designer) who delivered a visual feast of an amazing and intricate set shrouded in blue (a colour favoured by Wagner) plus an electric power generating plant that could have jumped straight out of Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist film, Metropolis.

Born in Leipzig in the 1960s, Rauch - whose work focuses on a bold subject-matter probably reflecting the influence that Socialist Realism had on him as a young man - gathered his thoughts together and inspiration for the sets from actually listening to the score of Lohengrin while working in his studio.

Based on a well-loved German legend the actual story of Lohengrin relates to other traditional and fairy-like stories that belong to the ‘Knight of the Swan’ tradition, a medieval tale about a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat in defence of a damsel in distress, his only condition being that he must never be asked his name. Therefore, the fairy-tale elements in Lohengrin are strong with the Good represented by Lohengrin and Elsa of Brabant and the Bad by Ortrud and Frederick of Telramund.

I felt a nod was given to the fairy-tale element by Mr Sharon inasmuch as the central characters were adorned with diaphanous wings (made of thin semi-transparent gossamer cloth) but here they represented flying insects - and like all insects, attracted to the light. There was a lot of electricity and light in this production to bug them.

The original scenario of Lohengrin - centred upon the Flemish city of Antwerp on the banks of the river Scheldt in the 10th century - was cleverly reinterpreted by Mr Sharon. For instance, the city’s Gothic-built cathedral became a cathedral of modern technology: in this case an electric power generating plant set in the midst of a vast mountainous waterfall landscape. However, traditionally-designed Flemish dress clothed the peasantry while ruff collars (as worn by 17th-century Flemish aristocrats) adorned the nobility apropos an Anthony van Dyck painting.

Wagner: Lohengrin - Elena Pankratova - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Lohengrin - Elena Pankratova - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)

Receiving its première in Weimar on 28th August 1850, Lohengrin was conducted by Wagner’s great champion and future father-in-law, Franz Liszt, who chose the date to coincide with the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who had lived in Weimar. Wagner, of course, wrote the libretto, based largely on the medieval poem, Wartburgkrieg, but he was not present at the performance (which wasn’t that much of a success) as he had fled Germany on account of his revolutionary sentiments [a warrant for his arrest was issued in Dresden in May 1849, and the ban on him returning to Germany only fully lifted in 1862].

Overall, the casting was good and Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala (reprising the role of Lohengrin in which he made his Bayreuth début last year) delivered a brilliant performance of the title-role while Georg Zeppenfeld excelled in the role of King Henry. His deep rich bass voice was just the quality needed for such a role.

Not looking princely or regal whatsoever, Lohengrin turned out to be a maintenance electrician in a production that often turned up a surprise or two. Kitted out in a light-blue standard-fare uniform he arrived not as a knight-in-shining armour in a grand and ceremonial way but landed on top of the generating plant by means of a silver-coloured drone announced by a streak of white lightning (a touch of Metropolis here!) and seen through the clock-face of the plant’s tower with the hands modelled in the style of flash lightning which, in fact, also mirrored his sword. Perhaps the image of the clock acted as a countdown to his eventual unmasking in the last act when he regretfully (and sadly) returns to Mont Monsalvat owing to his identity being blown.

When we first meet the love of his life, Elsa (admirably sung and acted by Bayreuth favourite, Annette Dasch - the poor victim of an intrigue by Count Telramund and his hateful wife-cum-witch, Ortrud - she’s being dragged to the stake by a couple of Satanists for her Christian beliefs.

And following the famous aria, ‘Elsa’s Dream’ (describing the handsome young knight who comes to her aid in time of need) that moment of absolute glory came in the best tradition of Flash Gordon. She’s saved in the nick of time by her unknown Electrical Hero in an amazing white neon-flashing light sequence that flooded the stage in an extravagant piece of theatre. It provided a magical touch by lighting designer Reinhard Traub whose overall lighting scenario focused on a shrouded-blue set, a colour greatly favoured by Wagner.

The sword fight at the end of Act I also produced another extravagant piece of theatre while showing off the large Festival Chorus to good effect while Mr Sharon’s expertise in crowd scenes was carefully and skilfully handled. Gathering slowly together round a roped-off area in the shape of a boxing-ring, the peasants were seen pushing and jostling for the best position to watch the combat between Telramund and the Stranger Knight while a couple of aerialists (representing good and bad fairies?) re-enacted the scene unfolding below thus adding a colourful and extra dimension to the overall stage picture. The latter-named, of course, wins the day but magnanimously spares his opponent’s life with the scene ending on a high note with the chorus (so well trained by Eberhard Friedrich) in full voice championing the victor.

The opening of Act II focuses on the disgraced couple, Telramund and Ortrud, forcibly arguing the toss with one another over Elsa. The scene was brilliantly executed by another Polish singer, bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny (who made his Bayreuth début in this role last year) and Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova.

By their very nature, turbine halls of power stations are cathedral-like in structure and appearance possessing extremely long ‘naves’ therefore the pomp and ceremony of the bridal procession in the turbine hall of Neo Rauch’s creation fitted this delicate scenario to a tee. And in preparation for the bride’s entrance, flower petals were being spread here, there and everywhere to make a ‘perfumed’ path for the long aisle walk but, obsessed about the origin and name of her fiancé, it proved a procession of doubt, despondency and desperation.

But the groom - walking tall and proud - was adorned with a silver-coated breastplate and a pair of long thin wings (biting nasty insect or pretty dragonfly?) while Ortrud was beavering away adding poison to Elsa’s dilemma at every conceivable turn. And just at the crucial moment of the ceremony, Ortrud appears ominously once more asking those fatal questions with Maestro Thielemann (who commented that his interpretation of the score was greatly influenced by Mr Rauch’s sets) seemingly on fire in the pit leading the orchestra in some powerful and inspiring playing that thrillingly closed the act on a skilfully-mixed note of doubt and joy.

And just as Lohengrin came to Elsa’s aid in a shaft of burning light saving her from the burning stake, the situation was completely reversed on her wedding night as in the confines of the wedding chamber, dominantly decorated in a ghastly fluorescent orange, she becomes his captive. Still too curious as to his identity, Elsa plies him with a series of awkward questions but, having none of it, the Silent Stranger suddenly acts strangely, forcibly and sadistically to her by employing the fetish of bondage tying her to an overhead mast with an electric piece of cord in a flush of passion, domination and sexual excitement.

She forcibly asks him again the forbidden question about his identity when a high-voltage flash of energy fires through the mast that she’s tied to releasing her from captivity and breathing new life into her. Now a self-determined, confident young women powerfully dressed in a smart two-piece orange-coloured suit with a pack-back to match, she exercises modern-day women power by dumping Lohengrin fair and square. The end of her dream! The end of his torture!

Altogether, Mr Sharon conjured up a tale of female empowerment in his realisation of Lohengrin observing that the female characters propel most of the action. He delivered a sure-fire ace at the end of the opera by crazily drifting away from the libretto offering a bizarre twist to the plot inasmuch as Elsa and Ortrud are spared their lives (the strong women survive to develop a new order?) while everyone else drop like flies. Perhaps they sailed too close to the wind and perished in the blinding white light. Elsa’s long-lost brother Gottfried (the young duke of Brabant) is traditionally turned into a swan by the evil magic of Ortrud but in yet another twist to the plot he reappears in this production as a Green Man perhaps in the guise of an insect-catcher or, maybe, in disguise as Telramund? Who knows? I’m still thinking about it!

In many respects, Lohengrin is most probably the most beautiful and romantic score Wagner ever penned and in the playing of the well-loved Prelude, based almost entirely upon the theme of the Holy Grail, Maestro Thielemann captured the very essence and beauty of Wagner’s score which he romantically and accurately described: ‘Out of the clear blue ether of the sky there seems to condense a wonderful yet at first hardly perceptible vision and out of this there gradually emerges, even more and more clearly, an Angel Host bearing in its midst the Holy Grail. As it approaches earth, it pours out exquisite odours, like streams of gold, ravishing the sense of the beholder. The glory of the vision grows and grows until it seems as if the rapture must be shattered and dispersed by the very vehemence of its expansion. The flames die away and the Angel Host soars up again to the ethereal heights in tender joy.’

Wagner: Lohengrin - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Lohengrin - Bayreuth Festival 2019
(Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Lohengrin
Wednesday 14 August 2019, Bayreuth Festival
Conductor: Christian Thielemann (Bayreuth Festival Orchestra)
Chorus-master: Eberhard Friedrich (Bayreuth Festival Chorus)
Director: Yuval Sharon
Stage design : Neo Rauch
Costume design: Rosa Loy
Lighting design: Reinhard Traub
Lohengrin: Piotr Beczała
Heinrich der Vogler (King of Germany): Georg Zeppenfeld
Elsa von Brabant: Annette Dasch
Friedrich von Telramund (Count of Brabant): Tomasz Konieczny
Ortrud: Elena Pankratova
The King’s Herald: Egils Silins
First Noble: Michael Gniffke
Second Noble: Tansel Akzeybek
Third Noble: Marek Reichert
Fourth Noble: Timo Riihonen
Bayreuth Festival (

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