Bayreuth’s First American Director Arrives With ‘Lohengrin’
By David Allen
BAYREUTH, Germany — In the 142 years since Richard Wagner made front-page news in New York with the first Bayreuth Festival, Americans have sung here, conducted here, made countless pilgrimages up a little green hill to sit, sweltering, in the temple that the composer built to his own art. But until now, no American had been entrusted with a production.
Yuval Sharon, 39, changed that brilliantly on Wednesday, opening this year’s festival with a “Lohengrin” that overcomes conceptual troubles with breathtaking visuals and enthralling musicality, under the guidance of the conductor Christian Thielemann.
Not, however, that this “Lohengrin” is entirely Mr. Sharon’s own. By the time he replaced Alvis Hermanis as the director, in 2016, the husband-and-wife artists Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy had been at work on the sets and costumes for several years. As an avowedly collaborative director, Mr. Sharon kept what he could. What the artists had imagined was a production with “no modern escapades,” as Mr. Rauch put it to the local press; this would be an attempt to re-enchant what so many have tried to deconstruct.
Swathed in deep blue — a fairy-tale hue that recalls Wieland Wagner’s postwar productions, and that Nietzsche heard in the Prelude — the action is backed by Mr. Rauch’s vast, mountainous landscape, and fronted, in Act II at least, by good old-fashioned scrims lit alluringly by Reinhard Traub. The view is seductive, dreamy and dark. The costumes riff abstractly on the Baroque portraits by the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck.
Except for Lohengrin’s. The grail knight is seen here as an electrician who provides the spark in a land that has lost its power. He lands in a neo-Romanesque transformer station; his swan is an abstract flash of white; his sword is a lightning bolt. Although dressed in blue, the color he is associated with is a charged orange, too bright to be true. And so these New Leipzig School artists, as they often do, pose the old, the new, the supernatural and the modern in productive, ambivalent, veiling tension.
This does not really sound like the work of Mr. Sharon.
He is the closest thing that American opera has to a genuine avant-gardist. His “Hopscotch” drove audiences around Los Angeles in limousines, to scenes on top of a building or in a parking lot. His “Invisible Cities” mingled commuters with performers and listeners at Union Station. His “War of the Worlds” set an alien landing in and around Walt Disney Concert Hall. He has produced John Adams, Peter Eotvos and even Wagner in Europe, but he has never directed at a major American opera house. Instead, he formed his own, collaborative company, the Industry, and has worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. All this, in a genuinely Wagnerian spirit, is an effort to find a 21st-century meaning for the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk — the total work of art.
True to form, Mr. Sharon’s ideas seem to be different from those of Mr. Rauch and Ms. Loy: more political, reading Wagner closely and against the grain. This is a story, in the director’s mind, not about Elsa’s tragic failure to keep her faith, but about Lohengrin’s unreasonable demands, about the hypocrisy of his — and, therefore, modernity’s — inability to live up to his own vision for society.
And who will make that hypocrisy clear, challenge it, overcome it? The women.
Mr. Sharon’s Elsa, then, liberates herself from bondage: first from imprisonment, with Lohengrin’s help, then from the impossible marriage he imprisons her in. She is tied up, arms outstretched and crossed, when we first see her, about to be burned at the stake for her faith in her electrical hero; she crosses her arms again in her bridal procession; in her bridal chamber, she wants to read the Bible, but Lohengrin, that charismatic, handsome, political figure, wants sex, and he’ll tie her up to get it by force.
Only by following the lead of Ortrud — here no wicked witch but a freethinking freedom fighter, as Mr. Sharon calls her — will Elsa free herself, by asking a question that the patriarchy bans. So Elsa does, and when the opera ends, she does not die but instead walks off into an unknown future, toting an orange backpack that Lohengrin has given her.
As that tiny touch suggests, Mr. Sharon seems to understand that feminist takes on Wagner often undercut their own message. Any attempt to make genuine feminists out of his heroines struggles, because they all, ultimately, serve Wagner’s own visions of femininity. As “Lohengrin” teaches us, no star should be followed without skepticism, Wagner himself above all. Elsa still needs Lohengrin to set her free.
Unfortunately, the political message is much too hidden to make its impact, so much so that the production’s Telramund, Tomasz Konieczny, publicly praised its outright conservatism in the press. Until Act III, the feminist critique remains subtle in the extreme; when it finally makes itself obvious, it creates not satisfaction but confusion, as two different artistic visions meet.
Our Elsa is Anja Harteros, who warmed up to make an impressive Bayreuth debut, but who remains an altogether too ethereal presence to make the message clear. Lohengrin, the outstanding Piotr Beczala, has little ethereal about him; his evocation of the Holy Grail, “In fernem Land,” fittingly comes off as a spiteful rant, especially as it is sung more choppily than one often hears it.
Ortrud, played with dominant presence by the incomparable Waltraud Meier, in her first appearance here in 18 years, is nearly burned at the stake, too, for her lack of faith in Lohengrin. But she also acquires freedom of a sort, inheriting the lands she has always coveted, albeit a Brabant in which everyone appears to have died. Gottfried, who usually inherits the kingdom, appears only as a man covered in green fur, to accompany Elsa on her journey.
There are mysteries left over, then, and perhaps that’s the way it should be: Mr. Sharon’s politics have not rubbed off his collaborators’ enchantment, nor has their enchantment wholly hidden his politics.
Still, it all hangs together. Like the rat-infested Hans Neuenfels staging it replaces, this “Lohengrin” offers tradition to traditionalists and a critique to progressives. Because it has something for everyone, one can imagine that, with a few tweaks, it might become just as admired.
No wonder there were barely any boos.