In his informative lecture on Tristan this morning, Juilliard Professor John Muller reminded us of Berlioz’ reaction to the famous Prelude to that work: “I have listened to it with the profoundest attention and a lively desire to discover the sense of it; I have to admit that I still haven’t the slightest idea what the composer was driving at.”
This sums up my response to Hans Neuenfels’ production of Lohengrin, now in its third year of workshop in Bayreuth. I simply couldn’t follow it.
The chorus creates the critical context of the action of Lohengrin — it portrays the people of Brabant who are being urged to join Henry’s army; who are called to witness the trial by ordeal between Telramund and the mysterious stranger; who seek leadership in the absence of their prince Gottfried, and accept the stranger as that leader; who attend and affirm the marriage of Elsa and the stranger; who accept the legitimacy of Telramund’s killing; and so forth. I’m afraid I never got off the ground with the world in which the story of this Lohengrin transpired.
Either the people of that world are rats (except for the named characters and certain “tenders” in moon suits), or they are people who from time to time dress as rats and make gestures of rubbing their noses and ears like rats, but occasionally doff their rat outfits. At least one of these people/rats tries to assassinate Henry, who seems either drunk or sick for some reason unknown. Some of the people, when decked out in party dress, nevertheless sport rat feet, rat hands, and detachable rat tails that they use to express displeasure. The moon-suited people lift things and guide the people/rats about. There is a plastic dead horse whose anal region Ortrud caresses. At least once the chorus takes on the role of a stage chorus — that is to say, they wear very bright outfits, step in time, and coordinate their flamboyant hats in time to the music.
This is not to make fun of the work of the director, costumer, scenic artist, and others. It’s to document that I simply didn’t get it. I lacked a frame or a bookend, a sense of narrative causation that set the work in a world where people (or rats) dealt with each other in ways that bespoke meaningful interaction. When, in Act III, Telramund enters to slay Lohengrin decked out in a full rat costume, and when the chorus in the final scene (having discarded all remnants of their rat costumes and, indeed, shot their inanimate masks with pistols) were bedecked in uniforms featuring the letter “L” (which was a good guess insofar as the plot requires that they not know his name), I just gave it up and considered it was all some sort of expensive and guideless search.
The director made a perfectly straightforward drama extremely difficult to follow — indeed, for me it was impossible. In his program notes Neuenfels observes that, during the three years of the production, “the metaphor of the rats… [was] ever more accepted as a sensual metaphor for the masses and for mass behaviour… Behind this clash lies the notion — and that was our declared aim — to take away the fear of Wagner, to unmask a false cult, and to lay bare the realities that his music reveals in all its multifacetedness.”
I don’t know what this means and I don’t know what the production means. One always seeks to learn from talented people who have devoted years of their careers to studying and making production decisions about a major piece of theatre. An audience owes a production an attentive eye and an inquisitive mind, ready for new insights from a fresh intellect. But a production owes the audience something too, and this one didn’t give it to me.
Except that Klaus Florian Vogt offered the most extraordinary performance as Lohengrin. I have seen his work only once before, when he shone as Walter in an execrable production of Meistersinger. He certainly doesn’t let anything get between him and his music. His voice is pure, without strain or gut. His head tones mix with a vibrant chest but with no sense at all of pushing. And it hurts not at all that he has the look of an emissary from heaven. The one time I was deeply moved in the performance was during the transition to the final scene in Act III, when Vogt was alone on a bare stage, realizing the profound loss he had just experienced.