Peter Schneider
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
8 August 1988
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerManfred Schenk
LohengrinPaul Frey
Elsa von BrabantCheryl Studer
Friedrich von TelramundEkkehard Wlaschiha
OrtrudGabriele Schnaut
Der Heerrufer des KönigsEike Wilm Schulte
Vier brabantische EdleClemens Bieber
Helmut Pampuch
Robert Riener
Heinz Klaus Ecker
Los Angeles Times

A Cool ‘Lohengrin’ in Bayreuth The big news at the semi-sacred, potentially provocative Richard Wagner festival this summer has been Harry Kupfer’s new production of the massive “Ring” cycle.

The controversial stage director from East Berlin has turned the four-day, 15-hour tetralogy into a high-tech kitsch spectacular replete with sociopolitical criticism, psycho-babbling visualization, irreverent parody, pretty laser shows, endless puffs of smoke, a lot of run-‘n’-rolling, and a hero who suggests a cross between Tarzan and Rambo.

The perpetual conservatives in a dressy, would-be reverent audience, an audience that pays up to $125 for an always scarce ticket, weren’t enchanted with Kupfer’s innovations. They serenaded him with a lusty chorus of boos when he dared take a solo bow after “Gotterdammerung” Monday night.

On Tuesday, however, everyone seemed a lot happier in the house that Wagner built. The vehicle this time was “Lohengrin,” a far less complex challenge, and the production, far less thorny, was the work of Werner Herzog.

Herzog’s renown as a tough-minded cinematic auteur had led one to expect a “Lohengrin” enriched with brave new images and, perhaps, encumbered with odd new interpretations. The man who added such memorable insights to “Nosferatu” and “Woyzeck” on the silver screen couldn’t be expected to follow ancient conventions when dealing with the romantic mythology of the mellifluous swan knight in Brabant.

Or could he?

At the outset, Herzog’s “Lohengrin” looked pretty much like many another postwar incarnation of this static, naive, super-romantic saga. True, Henning von Gierke’s rather stark first-act design happened to set the inaction in the unaccustomed cool of winter. But the kinetic groupings, the picturesque stage compositions and the muted color-choreography all recalled the now-safe neo-Bayreuth abstractions of the composer’s late grandson, Wieland Wagner.

It was nice, solid and intelligent. The arrival of Lohengrin was heralded with swirling, deep-blue blurs that recalled the devices of movie magic. The effect was mildly mystical, even gently poetic. Still, in context, it did little to startle either brain or heart.

When the curtain rose on the second act, one began to appreciate how Herzog and his collaborators were intent on bending theatrical rules and shading traditional perceptions. The nasty–well, we thought she was nasty–Ortrud met the eternally virginal Elsa on the banks of a lake whose surface shimmered and rippled with watery realism. Eventually, the stage pool–no doubt a toy left over from Sir Peter Hall’s costly but ill-fated “Ring” production–was drained and transformed into a battle zone for the forces of good and evil, the former appearing storybook natural in demeanor and the latter looking fiercely stylized.

The world according to Herzog obviously was a world slightly askew. The bridal chamber turned out to be an eerie alfresco camping ground, guarded by stuffed white wolves and equipped with a patently uninviting, unused golden bed. Behind the grass loomed postcard vistas of snow-bedecked mountains. Wagner’s never-never land was never like this.

Despite the selectively surrealistic milieu, Herzog defined his characters with unabashed recourse to stereotype and, perhaps, with subtle derision of the archaic operatic manner. In the process, he saved one humanistic shock for the grand finale: Lohengrin departed in a haze of swirling clouds, just as a little boy with a dead swan on his shoulders (Elsa’s long-lost brother) was conjured out of thick mist; then Elsa and Ortrud–the arch-antagonists–joined hands in sudden, ambiguous, possibly uneasy friendship.

For once, nobody died. The glow of perestroika has affected some intriguing contradictions and unlikely realignments, even in the embattled old wood-and-brick opera house atop the green hill in Franconia.

Does Werner Herzog’s “Lohengrin” make sense on its own terms? Yes.

Does it makes sense on Wagner’s terms? Not invariably.

Does this matter? Not necessarily.

Herzog’s innovations are often interesting, and, perhaps more important, they are always beautiful to see. For many, that may be enough.

The production also happens to be beautiful to hear–some of the time. Peter Schneider conducted the virtuosic Bayreuth orchestra on this occasion with prosaic passion. The vaunted Bayreuth chorus, trained by Norbert Balatsch, lent new meaning to the concept of fervor. And the cast was strong, at least by current Wagnerian standards.

Paul Frey, a youthful Lohengrin from Heidelberg, Canada, looked like a fairy-tale hero and, when unencumbered with pitch problems, sounded like a bel-canto paragon. As Elsa, Cheryl Studer sang with girlish radiance that contradicted a matronly image.

Gabriele Schnaut, the Ortrud, seemed to have tarnished her once-luxuriant mezzo-soprano resources and become just another wobbly screamer. Ekkehard Wlaschiha provided gutsy compensation as her worse half, the villainous Telramund.

Manfred Schenk blustered amiably as the inevitable basso King. Eike Wilm Schulte introduced a properly stentorian Herald.

Herzog, who created the production in 1987 and returned to repolish it this summer, was pelted with bouquets from the fans at his curtain call. Surprisingly, no plans have been announced regarding a return engagement.

Kupfer, however, will be back for at least four more summers of his “Ring,” presumably a work in progress. Patrice Chereau, the Gallic genius who jolted traditionalists with his centennial “Ring” in 1976, is scheduled to produce a new “Tristan.” Dieter Dorn of the Munich Kammerspiele reportedly is to join Giuseppe Sinopoli for a new “Fliegende Hollander,” and Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s surviving grandson, is about to try his hand at a new “Parsifal.”

Bayreuth may not always take Wagner’s text very seriously. But the festival still takes Wagner’s drama very seriously. There may be hope.

MARTIN BERNHEIMER | August 04, 1988

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz (MP3)
In-house recording from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Werner Herzog (1987)
The broadcast recording from a performance six days earlier has the same cast but a better sound quality.