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The Neuenfels Bayreuth Lohengrin: Social Science as Music Drama

Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak

 

Lohengrin. Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin), Annette Dasch (Elsa), Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (Friedrich von Telramund), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Georg Zeppenfeld (King Henry), Samuel Youn (Herald); Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Andris Nelsons; Hans Neuenfels (director), Reinhard von der Thannen (set designs and costumes), Franck Evin (lighting), Björn Verloh (video). Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 27 August 2010

 

Lohengrin, the opera, is as much an enigma as Lohengrin, the character. That shimmering soundworld and, as traditionally produced, stage picture of medieval pageantry, is both the highpoint of German Romantic opera and the transition point in the canon to the Artwork of the Future as well as, in the words of its composer, ‘the saddest of my creations’. It is a complex work, filled with psychological, philosophical and sociological lessons just beneath its familiar and comforting fairytale exterior; it is, with Tannhäuser, probably the work in the canon most ripe for re-study in our time. With this new production by Hans Neuenfels and his production team, Bayreuth has given it the depth reappraisal that is its due.

On the surface, like the opera itself, Neuenfels’ production is elegantly simple: laboratory rat packs and human society have a lot in common. Underneath that deceptively obvious top layer, however, lies a treasure trove of nuances and insights. Neuenfels takes Richard Wagner at his word: the work, as mirrored in this production, is supremely tragic and disturbing. From a dramaturgical perspective, there are three, not mutually exclusive, sources for that tragedy and sadness, and those perspectives mirror the changing Weltanschauung of western society over the roughly 150 years the work has been before the public. For its original Victorian audiences, the opera was very much ‘Lohengrin-centric’ – it was principally the Swan Knight’s tragedy in that he has the misfortune to save and love a woman who cannot accept him simply on the basis of on his good deeds and obvious heroism. This manner of interpretation also fitted well with the plight of the progressive artist (i.e. Richard Wagner) struggling for acceptance in a world which rewards only conventional, formulaic, art. In the west, between the world wars and immediately afterwards, came a heightened realisation of, and struggle for, the equality of women in society, and with that feminist momentum came an ‘Elsa-centric’ view of the opera. Seen from the perspective of the heroine, the tragedy is centred on Elsa in that she is paired with a rigid man on whom she is totally dependent, and who makes an unreasonable and impossible demand on her with his requirement that she never seek to know his name or origins. To frame this interpretative perspective on a philosophical basis: Elsa’s dilemma is that she is faced with the classic Feuerbachian double bind, posed by her saviour, Lohengrin, of the incompatibility of faith and love. Indeed, the Neuenfels production could profitably be analysed as a virtual roadmap of the philosophical principles articulated by Ludwig Feuerbach, a key psycho-theological thinker in mid-19th-century Europe, and a favourite philosopher of Wagner’s during the period of composition of Lohengrin.

In our own time, a third, societal, perspective has become dominant in that there is an emerging realisation that entire cultures, perhaps even humanity itself, require salvation from the emptiness of modern technological-era existence. This perspective is similarly mirrored in ‘socio-centric’ views of the opera as a dark, cautionary tale for our time and for humankind. In his brilliant re-study of the opera this season for Bayreuth, Neuenfels succeeds in combining all three ‘core’ perspectives into a unified and overwhelming triple tragedy: Lohengrin fails on his mission to save Elsa, Elsa fails the humanising experiment that would have elevated her from the confines of her restrictive existence in the laboratory, and with her symbolic failure to evolve, all of her community is doomed to remain trapped in the seemingly endless evolutionary cycle. The opera in Neuenfels’ view is a model for the continued failure of our own evolution as a species, as witnessed by our inability, over centuries, to break the cycle of senseless aggression and unquenchable greed for power. The hypothesis in the ur-experiment of humanity is that there is no meaningful differentiation in terms of self-awareness between human beings. At the conclusion of the opera (and this edition of the repetitive experiment), we are forced to face the reality that the outcome of the experiment (i.e. the events of the opera) support this hypothesis, which must yet again be accepted as a true statement of our collective nature.

Neuenfels’ clear and compelling dramaturgy might be outlined as follows. The world consists of rats (i.e. humans) in varying states of psycho-social development, and all are bound in a continuing experiment (i.e. evolution) to achieve a higher state of being. In this depiction of gradations in level of consciousness and social functioning among sentient beings, Neuenfels’ production is strongly reminiscent of the continuing philosophical controversy centred on the relative moral status of humans and the definition of ‘personhood’. The rat pack consists of common black rats, more highly evolved and successful (from the perspective of survival fitness) grey rats and the most highly evolved white rats. The white/black colour-coding of this production simultaneously refers to gender in that black is used to represent male rats and white denotes female – itself a powerful statement that, by nature, the generally less aggressive females are more advanced beings on the evolutionary ladder. Elsa is a white rat and the subject of the present experiment – she is the next most likely to graduate up and out of the natural experiment/evolutionary mill as she is empowered with a higher order of consciousness and does not share the power craze of the others. Telramund and Ortrud are especially aggressive and power-hungry grey rats. The King is an old, decrepit, black rat – basically an elder pack-manager rather than a really vital force in shaping new pathways for the group. The chorus consists of packs of black and white individuals. All are costumed as rats, complete with tails, except for the principals, who are in human form. The Herald is a hybrid creature with an especially imaginative use of the long ‘tails’ of his formal grey waistcoat as evocative of an animal’s tail.

Lohengrin himself is the agent of the experiment (i.e. the ‘independent variable’), and is a former rat that has evolved out of the animal hierarchy on stage and is now returning to challenge/stimulate the next candidate (i.e. Elsa) for natural selection out of the experimental maze. The opening pantomime during the Prelude shows Lohengrin’s own struggle to extract himself from the confines of the experimental ‘laboratory’ of his former existence. As the opera progresses, and his failure to succeed in his mission of salvation becomes clearer, his costume undergoes degradation from predominantly white at the start to entirely black at the end. Likewise the rat chorus takes on a more human appearance, losing their tails and showing bright under-costumes at key milestones associated with Lohengrin’s initially successful progress with his mission, such as his Act I victory over Telramund. As they gather as a unified army for the final scene of the opera, they are in completely human form in black costumes, signifying that the aggression of war is a lower manifestation of their nature, with swan images on their backs and a large ‘L’ on their belt buckles. They are still a ‘pack’, and they clearly anticipate following Elsa out of the experimental maze when Lohengrin completes his rescue of her. This, of course, is not to be, as Elsa cannot resist her own baser instincts. The image of the swan, such a prominent element in the visual and symbolic landscape of any Lohengrin production, also deserves mention. In this staging, the white swan is, initially, a completely realistic figure, and it noticeably degrades to more abstract form as the opera progresses. In Neuenfels’ hands, the swan is the symbol of the goal that all the characters onstage strive for. It is, at first, a fully integrated vision of beauty, unlike any other representations on stage, and it is the polar opposite to the image of, and the emotions conjured up in us by, the rat. The swan powerfully denotes the potential of us all. Lohengrin is introduced as an image bonded to that of the swan, and Elsa is closest to this ideal at the end of Act II as she, fittingly all costumed in white, mimics the graceful gestures of a swan at the fall of the Act II curtain. Ortrud, likewise, aspires to that swan-like goal of dignity and integration, but her costume and makeup at the conclusion of the opera, while incorporating some swan feather elements, is a confused collage of dress topped by a crown – her innate aggressiveness seals her doom and her disorganised costume mirrors her frenetic, shrill, utterances at the conclusion of the work.

As the final curtain falls, a chimera, more disorganised and grotesque in appearance than anything previously seen on stage, is born from a swan’s egg and cuts up its own umbilicus into new rat tail segments which it distributes to the defeated chorus and principals. All have failed the experiment, and Lohengrin slowly walks towards the audience signifying that we were also part of the exercise. It also signals that his failure as saviour, and his own return to an aggressive solution to the conflict of the opera, as signified by his slaying of Telramund, condemns him to repeat the experiment. It is significant that the chorus all display the large ‘L’ insignia on their costumes before Lohengrin announces his identity during the ‘In fernem Land’ narration – they all know who he is from the very beginning of the opera, and they have failed this repetitive experiment previously. The realisation that they (and we) have all been at this critical junction before, underscoring the inability of humanity to learn from its past mistakes, serves to intensify our despair at the conclusion of the opera. In this production, the tenor’s third-act narration becomes not so much a response to the question of ‘who’ he is, but rather ‘what’ he is. As a hybrid, higher, sentient being, he is neither beast nor God – he is man in all his frailties and inadequacies. He is ultimately alone. He is us. We have all failed the experiment of human society, and there will be no rescue.

This Lohengrin is the ultimate, bleakest and entirely necessary cautionary morality tale for our time. On purely technical staging grounds, it must also be noted that Neuenfels successfully and imaginatively ‘solves’ the two predominant, related problems with any staging of this opera: what to do with the chorus, and what to do with the historical elements (i.e. King Henry the Fowler). The massive choruses are completely integrated into the action, the herd-like behaviour of the chorus fully explained by the rat pack model of the production concept. As for the historical elements: recall that the experience of writing Lohengrin persuaded Wagner that he would never again try to marry his principal interests in myth and symbolism with historical ‘period’ elements. Neuenfels is therefore following excellent precedent by concentrating our attention on the universal messages within the opera and simply ignoring the distracting representation of 10th-century Brabantine and Saxon courts.

Lohengrin is, unquestionably, a profound music drama, and Neuenfels has provoked us to consider what the work can mean to us today. Of course, we can never know how much of the deep meaning uncovered by this production was realised by Richard Wagner, but we do know that his own view of human history c.1850, when the opera was created, was marked by his apprehension of the industrial revolution of his own day, and his acute observation of the failed socio-political and artistic experiments of cultures (including his own) after that of Greece in the Heroic Age. Clearly, Neuenfels has tapped something deep, important and consistent with the sensibilities of the composer at the time of the composition of the piece. The production at Bayreuth reinforces our astonishment at how much this masterpiece actually contains within its core, and how readily it can bear the interpretative weight of a master like Neuenfels. The Neuenfels Lohengrin is a uniquely valuable and valid addition to the impressive growing roster of Regietheater productions at Bayreuth, and it deserves a long and honoured run on the Green Hill.

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