One of the most unusual elements in Wagner's opera about the mysterious Grail knight Lohengrin is his sudden appearance--just in the nick of time--sailing down the River Scheldt in a swan boat. Wagner himself was very specific about the swan boat, but in recent years, it has become an embarrassment for directors and designers.
The swan isn't the only problem designers and technicians have to consider when creating a new staging of Lohengrin, as was done recently in Bayreuth. Set designer Stefanos Lazaridis and director Keith Warner decided against a romantic-historic vision of medieval Brabant. Festival regulars saw something quite different. As Lazaridis explained: "It's a Wasteland, a total wasteland, like T. S. Eliot's Wasteland."
Lazaridis' wasteland is barren and desolate. It consists of two small hills or mounds, each with dead tree trunks, and a linking slope between. This landscape rises from the sides and the front toward midstage. It's constructed on a linked series of 6m x 2m wagons--with join lines concealed. Behind this in the first act is an unseen 5m x 5m x 5m cube, which is raised an initial 5m and another 3m for the magical appearance of Lohengrin. Downstage, a small cube containing a symbolic swan appears.
When King Henry arrives with his Saxon army, they don't just march on. Instead, an immense, stage-wide "Saxon bridge" descends from the flies, bearing two long rows of soldiers clad in full armor and in full voice. The ground plan for this--drawn by Stephanie Braun--shows the 27m-long suspended bridge for the King and his knights. At either end there are hinged extensions to facilitate striking and storing.
The bridge has a form of balcony in front so it can carry 40 soldiers on two levels, with the King enthroned in the center. It's used in both the first and second acts, but when it reappears, above it are suspended three rows of fully armored knights, 36 in all. The bridge's total loaded weight is eight tons, suspended by four double-cables of 16mm thickness. To raise and lower this construction, a pulley system had to be used, with a hydraulic cylinder able to hoist 40 tons.
This bridge is a very long rectangle, but the production is dominated by the geometry of squares and cubes. Using a novel machine specially devised for this production, Lazaridis has created a square stage space that appears between the two mounds. It can revolve, incline, move up and down, and disappear, all of which it does with great effect.
At one point, it slants down toward stage right, one corner aimed at the audience. From its four sides, small platforms, or shelves, slide out, forming a kind of cross. With Elsa in the center, the King, Ortrud, Telramund, and Lohengrin confront her on all sides. Warner and Lazaridis call this construction the Hochzeitsplatform, or wedding platform. For Elsa's wedding preparations, a long drawbridge descends from downstage right, joining the platform extension.
As shown in Braun's elevation, another "drawbridge," hinged to the upstage platform-extension, unfolds, disappearing into the wings. This central platform is a square of 7.2m x 7.2m; it's mounted on a squared pedestal 2.5m x 2.5m, which in turn is on a wagon. This moves from the rear stage into the center on tracks. The platform can be elevated from 2.06m to 3.75m. It can be inclined 25%, and it can revolve through 360". It's raised by two telescope cylinders with synchronous controls, and it's inclined by a third and smaller cylinder.
Both the Saxon bridge and the wedding platform were developed in cooperation with Firma TECO and built in the Bayreuth workshops. The movement technology was provided by Firma HydroAir and Mannesmann-Rexroth. The Festspielhaus' new SYB 2000 control system was used for both the bridge and the platform.