I spent a few hours this morning watching Richard Jones’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Bayerische Staatsoper, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Anja Harteros as Elsa. I am not sure that even this production, which was a worthwhile concept performed well, has brought me around to this opera. In part, this was because I was watching it with le spouse, who started laughing and snorting coffee when Mr. Kaufmann came in cradling that animatronic-ish swan and who proceeded to sit there and nitpick the logic of the entire thing and then went and sat on the other side of the room reading a treatise about thermodynamics and enjoying the music.
That said, there is something to this version. Here, the look is not medieval northern Europe, but rather a creepy quasi-institutional space in which all the people of Brabant are wearing blazers or sports shirts with a B on them, like school uniforms. The herald, Telramund and the king wear suits with a vaguely 1920s feel to them; the herald perches in a chair with a microphone, and when he speaks his face is reproduced on two blurry black and white screens far up toward the top. They look like glasses – I was reminded of T. J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby. (But there is nothing jazz age about this.) It’s through those eyes that we see some of the details on stage, like Elsa and Lohengrin signing the marriage register, she with her name, and he with a mark.
Elsa is wearing overalls, at least at first. This is because she is building a house. This concept illuminates something important about the opera, and it’s actually kind of restful on the eyes. We first see her at the drawing board, and then later marching back and forth in a kind of trance state taking bricks to the foundation. She does this at several points during the story – walks back and forth in a trancelike but very purposeful way from one point to another until physically stopped.
One might ask why Elsa is building a house. She is hard at work on the foundation when accused of her brother’s murder, after which Telramund dramatically kicks over some of the brickwork. After Elsa is vindicated by Lohengrin, everyone starts busily helping. When Ortrude tricks Elsa in Act II and the latter invites the former in, Ortrude begins helping Elsa lay bricks. Lohengrin helps everyone finish it up, complete with furniture and cradle, for the wedding; Elsa first appears in her wedding dress smiling rather blandly out of a window; after Lohengrin has agreed to explain who he is, he sets the house on fire. The house is Elsa’s innocence and safety, which she busily constructs with Lohengrin’s help – and when that help has evaporated, the house is no more. His abandonment of her means he has to burn the house: it was his arrival and presence that vindicated her to everyone else, after all.
The effect of the house concept is to interiorize the story a little more – it makes it more about Elsa’s sense of her own guilt or innocence. She comes of as blank and puzzled much of the time; she marches past, carrying bricks, during all the political talk in Act I and when accused has to be physically grabbed before she’ll stop – she cradles a brick while protesting her innocence too, if I recall. It’s a sort of odd parallel to Lohengrin’s entry carrying the white swan. When the chorus comments on how innocent and pure she looks, she does this odd sort of simpering surprised reaction – I was not sure what to make of that. I may have to watch this one again to figure it out. But I do think Harteros has a good voice for this role. She has this sound that’s both big but also can be shimmery and fragile – it really works.
I also enjoyed Michaela Shuster’s Ortrude, though she didn’t quite have the sort of blazing power in Ortrude’s last appearance as whasterface Leonie Rysanek in the 1980s Met version I watched a while back. Big hair and rhinestones or not, there is something to be said for some of those 70s and 80s performances.
Ditto for Kaufmann, who managed to transcend a toy swan and glittery trousers. Or at least, when he came in carrying the swan, it was the swan who looked silly, which is no mean feat. I particularly liked the section towards the end where he sadly explains his identity.
That said, I still have difficulty working up enthusiasm for this opera. There are types of opera drama that are unrealistic, but in a stylized way that I can appreciate. Much of baroque opera falls into this category. This opera is unrealistic, but in a ludicrous way that I have trouble not rolling my eyes at. I think part of it is that the story spends most of its energy kicking Elsa over and over again, but the ending does not seem to be intended to convey the feeling that sometimes fate or human folly puts individuals though rather horrible things – rather, it’s more like we’re intended to feel like this isn’t really a big deal, what with things like grails and all. Elsa, it is implied, is both weak and expendable. (In this version, at least, she doesn’t drop dead at the end – she just stands there, in what appears to be a state of numb shock.) The other part is that I have trouble working up much sympathy for a gaggle of Belgians who, in the face of a murder accusation, cannot even be bothered to go and look for a body.