German Chancellor Angela Merkel ended her weekend at Hitler’s favorite opera house along with a hundred monster rats and a large proportion of her cabinet.
Merkel was one of many guests of honor at the July 25 opening night of the 99th Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Along with politicians, film stars, nobility and Wagner fans, she attended the premiere of “Lohengrin.”
Storms of boos greeted stage director Hans Neuenfels at the end of the 5-1/2 hour evening. Along with the monster rats, his production featured a dead horse, a plucked swan, and a team of laboratory assistants in protective clothing. The cast, starring tenor Jonas Kaufmann, won enthusiastic applause.
Neuenfels, 69, has been known throughout his career as a provocateur. For the Bayreuth Festival’s new leadership, the boos cannot have come as a surprise. Composer Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, directing their first festival, applauded Neuenfels demonstratively. So did Merkel. Eva, 64, and Katharina, 32, succeeded Wagner grandson Wolfgang, who died at the age of 90 in March after 57 years at the helm.
For Sunday’s premiere, police cordoned off the main street and entrance leading to the Bayreuth Festival House, built by Wagner for his operas in 1876. A hangout of the Nazi regime until the end of World War II, Bayreuth returned to its place as Germany’s preferred summer opera festival after a 1950s clean-out. The new regime has announced its intention of blowing the dust of conservatism from the house.
Hours before the opera started, crowds of onlookers gathered to catch a glimpse of arriving celebrities. Die-hard Wagnerians stood on the fringes with “Suche Karte” signs, hoping in vain for a returned ticket. Some 350,000 people applied for the 58,000 tickets available this year, and the waiting list for the world’s most wanted opera event is said to be 10 years long.
Neuenfels and designer Reinhard von der Thannen treated the assembled elite to a feast of nihilistic symbolism. In their hands, Wagner’s consummately German tale of endangered damsel Elsa, wicked schemer Telramund, and enigmatic Grail knight Lohengrin became an allegory of human failure. A chorus of oversized rodents with surprisingly realistic rubber hands, feet, and tails scuttled through the action as protagonists of a flawed democracy, leaving the non-rat principals alienated in a grotesque experimental laboratory.
Swan symbols abounded, often drawing snorts and giggles from the normally solemn Bayreuth public. A plucked swan with a halo at the end of the first act and a giant egg concealing lost Gottfried in the finale both won guffaws. Chuckles also greeted evil Ortrud’s strangulation of Elsa’s giant ceramic swan in the second act. But the dominant mood was one of melancholy. Wagner’s saddest opera found Neuenfels, whose work often features castration, sex toys and quantities of stage blood, in mild and elegiac mode.
In the title role, Jonas Kaufmann remained consummately human throughout, in a performance that was both throatily heroic and emotional. Annette Dasch, as his Elsa, was sweetly lyrical, while Evelyn Herlitzius gave her all as an intensely physical Ortrud. Georg Zeppenfeld was a vulnerable, expressive King Heinrich, and all four made lithe and compelling actors.
Giving his Bayreuth debut, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, 31, kept the drama taut and drew a dazzling range of colors from the orchestra. All newcomers battle with the notoriously tricky Bayreuth acoustic, but if Nelsons sometimes opted for thrill rather than transparency, he made up for it through the fine sensitivity of his work with the singers.
“Lohengrin” runs through Aug. 27. All the performances are sold out. Information: http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de. The festival’s main sponsors are Audi AG, Volkswagen AG’s luxury brand, and Siemens AG.
(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)