At 4pm exactly on “Bayreuth nights” the lights go out, leaving nearly 2000 people in the Festspielhaus in their un-upholstered seats, in sauna-like heat, accompanied by the disconcerting sound of the ushers locking all doors from the inside… Yet, a mesmerising transformation takes place every night as the capacity audience await with eager expectation the first notes of the performance. Last night it was Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The delicacy of the finely shaped, barely audible high violin melody of the prelude hinted immediately at the extraordinary musical skills of Christian Thielemann, the Festival’s music director. His ability to pay attention to detail, to lead his orchestra, and later, follow his singers, is one of its kind.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Then the curtain goes up and the fundamental atmosphere for this production becomes immediately obvious. Possibly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who opined that this opera is "blue, of opiate, narcotic effect”, everything and everybody is coloured and dressed is various shades of Delft blue. A large transformer station stands centre stage and the visual signs of electricity or its absence are important particularly in Acts 1 and 3, without, however, achieving their intended electrifying effect. Everybody who is somebody amongst the good people of Brabant wears large beetle wings, which seem to refer to strength (Telramund loses one of his wings in the fight of Act 1 and the other upon dying in Act 3).

In Act 1, an odd combination of electric lights and wood sticks is prepared for Elsa’s execution, but the auto-da-fé is prevented by Lohengrin’s appearance in a workman’s overall (also blue), accompanied by a white batman-like shiny plastic object as his swan (which, inexplicably, does not make another appearance at the end of the opera). The stage design and costumes were prepared by Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, and they radiate a powerful atmosphere in places, such as at the foreboding opening of Act 2, with a huge canvas creating a wall in front of the stage, showing gloomy night sky. The change from the overall blue colour to orange at the beginning of Act 3 seems, however, didactic, as is Elsa’s orange dress and young Gottfried’s startlingly green appearance.

Camilla Nylund (Elsa)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

To this rather simplistic colour scheme, Yuval Sharon, who made his directorial debut on the Green Hill with this production last year, added his own view, which includes some significant twists to the well-known story. In his reading, two strong women – Elsa and Ortrud – object to the nameless hero keeping his secret and there is no love between Lohengrin and Elsa (despite Lohengrin stating so). This notion is reinforced by Lohengrin almost shouting the Namensverbot at Elsa in Act 1, forcing her on her knees at the end of Act 2 (disobeying Wagner’s specific instructions), and tying her with an electric chord in Act 3 (oddly replicating Ortrud’s similar action to Telramund in the previous act). Sharon’s ultimate argument comes at the final seconds of the opera, when Lohengrin is gone, everybody falls on the ground, and only Elsa and Ortrud (and green Gottfried, who unfortunately has to be there) remain standing on stage.

Following the popular concept about strong women certainly offers possibilities for a new interpretation. However, Sharon’s production consistently fails to follow the meaning of the composer’s text, staging instructions and music. His modernist take often misses the mark, most obviously in the parodistic quidditch-like fight (see Harry Potter!) between Lohengrin and Telramund. Ultimately though, this production is conservative in the extreme. If we take out the paraphernalia of Ortrud’s handbag, Elsa’s blue hair or Lohengrin bolt of lightning replacing a sword (none of them adding depth to the story), what is left is an annoyingly symmetrical set up of most scenes, odd physical actions, such as the twitching hand gestures of the otherwise excellent chorus, and the static movements of the protagonists in a performance style that New-Bayreuth largely eliminated decades ago.

Elena Pankratova (Ortrud)
© Bayreuther Festspiele | Enrico Nawrath

Krassimira Stoyanova, originally scheduled as Elsa, cancelled at short notice. Her replacement, Camilla Nylund sang on opening night, but not in this performance, thus a third soprano, Annette Dasch accepted to perform. Under such pressure, she did brilliantly, even if her scene in Act 2 with Ortrud was marred by occasional problems of intonation. As Lohengrin, Klaus Florian Vogt’s lyrical tenor is effortless and silk-smooth in the tender moments. When, however, his role requires high and loud singing, his voice tends to sound tired and loses colour. Ortrud (Elena Pankratova) and her husband, Telramund (Tomasz Konieczny) were in fine form, without looking altogether frightening, not even in their Act 2 scene. Georg Zeppenfeld sang the role of Heinrich superbly.

The music making of this production was compelling. Yuval Sharon’s adventurous direction deserves respect but needs rethinking.