Monday 7 February 2022

R.I.P. Hans Neuenfels, 1941-2022


Hans Neuenfels, who died today, played a very important role in my personal development towards greater understanding—I hope!—of opera as theatre that is, or should be, both alive and critical. The first production of his I saw was his 2000 Così fan tutte: my first ever Così, and one which in its determination to delve beneath the surface and to reveal the sadomasochism that lies at the heart of this richest of works, has informed my understanding and adoration ever since. (What a pity this walk through the treacherous pleasure gardens seems never to have been recorded, or at least released. Who knows? Maybe there is yet hope.)

Since then, I have seen a good few of his opera productions, including La finta giardiniera, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Queen of Spades, and most recently Salome, all of which were a privilege to have encountered—and which encounters continue to have me think and re-evaluate my standpoint. But of those I have seen it is his classic Bayreuth Lohengrin that will perhaps have the longest, at least most transformative impact upon opera.

Here I reproduce, from my book After Wagner, the relevant section from its seventh chapter, on staging Lohengrin:

Nor were there easy answers in another production, also mentioned earlier, by Hans Neuenfels for Bayreuth.[1] It has become celebrated and/or notorious for its rats, but the important thing remains what they might mean or at least imply. Neuenfels is a celebrated figure from an earlier generation of so-called Regietheater, whether in spoken or musical drama. Though many visual motifs from his productions have proved highly contentious when first seen – his 1980 Aida for Frankfurt, resolutely contemporary in setting, with the slave girl a modern cleaner, or a highly eroticised, narcoticised Così fan tutte for the 2000 Salzburg Festival – a few years subsequently they will often have passed into common currency. Der Spiegel reported heavy booing for Neuenfels in 2010, yet by the time of my second visit in 2012, the staging seemed almost to have attained the status of a modern classic.[2] And, although it would be difficult to claim that Neuenfels engaged so closely with the music as, say, Herheim did in Parsifal, he did not work against it – unless one were of the opinion that rats on stage did so ipso facto. Shifts in the action at times certainly appeared broadly to reflect the contours of the score. I saw this Lohengrin twice, in 2011 and 2012. [I would see it again, in 2014, too.] Vogt again offered his uncanny – and doubtless very different – reading on both of my visits to the Festspielhaus. Again the purity of this individual, some might say idiosyncratic, tenor delighted: coldly seductive in its (apparent) honesty, and yet chilling – an excellent fit with both work and production.

Neuenfels presented a laboratory experiment; those experimented upon were rats – or at least, they often were, for there were times when they shed much of their rat-like appearance and resembled humans. Their feet nevertheless always gave them away. Lohengrin was shown during the Prelude – opening without stage action – trying to break into the realm of experimentation. The experiment seemed at least in part political in nature – though this was never hammered home; the work made one reflect upon the staging and vice versa. Again, the darker side of Lohengrin, the nature of its ultra-mysterious charismatic hero and the way a crowd would follow him, was the stuff of the conflict. (That could not help but leave one asking: were Ortrud and Telramund right to resist? Were they the true rebels, revolutionaries even?) It was a pity, therefore, that we did not hear the word Führer when Lohengrin introduced his successor, Gottfried (‘Seht da den Herzog von Brabant! Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt!’) Schützer, the ‘Protector’ employed earlier for Lohengrin, was used instead.

Perhaps the abiding question with which we were left related to who was actually running the experiment? Who was on the outside? It is, in a sense, a variation upon a perennial problem of political philosophy, never more so than in Rousseau: who is the Legislator? ‘A superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed.’[3] The audience, perhaps? It was certainly not the sickly, flawed, proto-Amfortas figure of King Henry the Fowler, as much a pawn as anyone else – an aspect granted added resonance when one considers the historical King Henry, founder of the Ottonian dynasty, and the Romantic as well as National Socialist view of him as father of the German nation. Wagner’s twilight world between history and myth is an especially interesting feature of Lohengrin, fully relished here. Indeed, this shrivelled Henry found himself dragged off-stage by attendants, redolent perhaps of those enigmatic ‘authorities’, somehow both ominous and strangely irrelevant, to whom Don Ottavio refers in Don Giovanni. (We shall revisit them in the next chapter.) The two characters who briefly managed to throw off the shackles of supervision were Ortrud and Lohengrin, at a time when arguably both of them are at the height of their powers, during the second act. So perhaps no authority was absolute though whatever this was behind the experiment – Fate? the near-omnipotent surveillance of late capitalism? The illusion of the Gesamtkunstwerk? Nothing at all? – would in both cases manage to reassert itself, before bringing forth the fragile infant figure of Gottfried from an egg. Leaders, such as they be, were clearly to be moulded, nurtured, not born: a typical, eminently understandable, German preoccupation. The Protector/Führer needed protecting too.

[1] This production is also available on DVD, from BBC/Opus Arte: B007ZB7U00.

[2] Review by Werner Theurich, ‘Neuer Lohengrin in Bayreuth: Wie man der Schwan rupft’ (accessed 23 October 2012).

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, tr. G.D.H. Cole, revised J.H. Brumfett, John C. Hall, and P.D. Jimack (Dent: London, 1993), p.213.