BAYREUTH, Germany (AP) — Wagner fans take note: if you like your opera pure, two productions at this year's Bayreuth festival are not for you.
But come, if you have a love of the experimental. While Tannhaeuser fails in attempts to move from the traditional to the trendy, Lohengrin makes that leap of faith. And both productions reflect directing and staging audacity, even if only Lohengrin succeeds in being both bold and believable.
Tannhaeuser is the bigger buzz this year — less because it's a new production, more because of its audacious directing and stage effects that relegate the opera to a supporting role.
Already torn between the quest for carnal pleasure and platonic love that will prove his undoing, the bard Tannhaeuser must deal this year with the additional challenge of his backdrop, compliments of director Sebastian Baumgarten and stage designer Joep van Lieshout.
Instead of the serene pasture or noble hall, the production seen Monday plays out on a factory floor of tanks and connecting pipes depicting a closed cycle of sustenance at its most banal; food, alcohol — and the excrement produced which then is used to fuel the system.
It's enough to drive a person to drink — and extras dressed as factory workers do, occasionally tapping the big red alcohol tank. Some of them earn their keep in the performance seen Monday as members of the choir.
The others just clutter an already messy stage.
In a further challenge to the audience, the love nest where Tannhaeuser trysts with Venus between excursions to the "other woman" — the virginal Elisabeth — is bedlam in a cage that occasionally rises from the factory floor.
Tannhaeuser and Venus rub shoulders with mating ape-like creatures, and giant tadpoles spawned in their cesspool slither and wiggle across the stage. The point seems clear — yuck!
But at the end, Venus bears Tannhaeuser's child, muddying Wagner's original message that virtue triumphs over vice.
All in all, "too much, too much!" — Tannhaeuser's words reflecting his disgust at this orgiastic lifestyle also apply to the oversize liberties taken by Baumgarten and van Lieshout that scuttle this production.
But not all that is modern is maudlin this year at Bayreuth.
Lohengrin, another Wagnerian tale of medieval tragic love, gets yanked into the 21st century by director Hans Neuenfels and stage designer Reinhard von der Thannen — and is more interesting for it.
Instead of knights in armor, man-size rats with glowing red eyes populate the stage, an experimental laboratory where minders in scrubs and face masks prod and push characters on and off stage.
Irritating at first, the conceit works by meshing with Wagner's opera instead of conflicting with it. The rodents are a rat-eat-rat horde — like the medieval men at arms in the original version whose loyalties shift with every development.
And instead of muddying the plot, like Baumgarten, Neuenfels advances it. Over the more than three-hour staging, the rats slowly turn into humans, transformed perhaps by the aura of Lohengrin, the knight blessed by god, who defeats evil, but is ultimately defeated by the inconstancy of Elsa, his beloved.
A visual and intellectual pleasure — accompanied Tuesday by singing that ranged from sub-par to superb.
Astrid Weber, a last-minute stand in for Annette Dasch, failed to convince as Elsa, Lohengrin's paramour. While powerful, her voice had no center and lacked in range, forcing Weber to glide into the top notes. Her vibrato was irritating and her enunciation fuzzy.
Klaus Florian Vogt was in brilliant contrast as Lohengrin, effortless in delivery and diction, his voice so fluid and natural that it almost seemed untrained — no overreaching, no straining.
Petra Lang as Ortrud was another highlight, using her powerful mezzo and considerable dramatic skills to convincingly portray Elsa's evil counterpart, whose scheming ways lead to Elsa's doom. Also good: Georg Zeppenfeld as King Heinrich; Tomas Tomasson as Telramund and Samuel Youn as the Herald.
Conductor Andris Nelsons and choir leader Eberhard Friedrich provided powerful orchestral and choral backing to the soloists, masterfully balancing Wagner's imperatives of musical totality.
For Tannhaeuser, best were Camilia Nylund, a vocally and visually striking Elisabeth and Guenther Groissboeck as her father, Hermann, whose demeanor and supple bass were ideal for the gravitas called for in this role.
Michael Nagy was convincing as Wolfram von Eschenbach, as were Lothar Odinius as Walther von der Vogelweide and Thomas Jesatko as Biterolf. Lars Cleveman as Tannhaeuser shone dramatically but occasionally struggled to make himself heard.
For the most part seamlessly blending or carrying the voices as called for by the score, the orchestra, under Thomas Hengelbrock, sometimes lagged in tempo, unnecessarily slowing the pace of already languid musical sequences.
But even the generally satisfying musical renderings cannot redeem the visual transgressions of this Tannhaeuser.
The opera was booed at its first Paris performance, prompting composer Charles Gounod to proclaim: "God grant me a failure like that!"
He did not see this year's production.
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn
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