Mostly armorless

lohengrin_amazonI’d never actually seen a production of Lohengrin before I agreed to review a new Decca DVD of Richard Jones‘s staging for the Bayerische Staastoper, starring Jonas Kaufmann, so I hope I’ve got this right:

It’s about this architect named Elsa, who lives in an Orwellian steampunk Germany that has videocamera technology but still dresses like it’s the Third Reich. Her brother has disappeared — “MISSING” posters are everywhere — and Friedrich of Telramund accuses her of killing him.  He is rescued at the last minute from being burnt at the stake when a nameless time-traveler arrives, carrying an animatronic swan. After a comical swordfight, he bests her accuser (by using magic powers making the hilt of his sword catch on fire), and introduces the local population to v-necks, trakkies and trainers.

The whole town pitches in to help Elsa build her dream house, and the two lovers get married, on the condition that she won’t ask him his name (SPOILER ALERT: He’s the title character). I mean, she can ask his name, she’s the only person who can, but he makes her promise not to, for reasons he won’t discuss. I have no problem with this, she says, and after a simple Masonic ceremony, for which the hero is dressed in traditional gaucho garb, they move into their new house.

Their happiness is shattered when Elsa  — corrupted by Telramund’s wife, the platinum blonde pagan Ortrud—panics and asks Lohengrin’s name. (WOMEN, am I right guys??) At that moment, Telramund breaks in and tries to murder him! Elsa doesn’t manage to fetch Lohengrin’s sword in time, so he has to take Telramund down using a Dim Mak strike. Crushed by his wife’s betrayal, he sends her away, then brings the empty cradle down from the empty nursery they’ve built together and uses it and a can of gasoline to set the house on fire.

The townsfolk gather to hear Lohengrin reveal his name (i.e., Lohengrin) and backstory — something about a Grail I guess? Apparently there’s more about this in the prequel? — and he then explains that, now that he has told his secret, he is condemned to leave them all behind. Lohengrin reveals that the swan he rode in on, now on its way back, was Elsa’s missing brother all along, and when Ortrud reveals how she changed him into a swan, Lohengrin handily switches him into a kid again. Ortrud despairs, Elsa rejoices, Elsa mourns, Lohengrin disappears, and the chorus retreats into a grim, institutional-looking outdoor scene upstage — I would have guessed “school cafeteria” or “concentration camp.”  However, contemporary reviews of the production identify the scene as a Jonestown-style cult compound, and upon closer inspection, I now realize that on the opera’s final chords, the chorus all sit down on cots and point automatic pistols into their mouths.

Wait WHAT??

Oh, Germany! Okay. So, well, other than that last touch, I have to say (dropping character now) that the production is not so radical, and really makes a good deal of sense. Elsa an architect? Well, it fits in with the 1930s setting of the production — this strong, chaste, braided beauty, carrying bricks to the construction site, could be a poster girl for the Heimat (or the USSR, or for that matter the WPA or an Ayn Rand novel)—and more interestingly, it literalizes Elsa’s duties as a “home-maker” in a way that might earn her more sympathy from a 21st-century viewer. She’s actually building a home for her family, not just sitting around waiting to be rescued by her knight in shining armor. Plus, of course, it gives the piece a visual arc, from act to act, as the marriage and the house comes together before falling apart—plus it makes for some handsome stage pictures and coherent business. (The camera work on this disc is good, not great — mostly the usual telephoto stuff, with some extremely wobbly handheld footage from the wings, an angle I dubbed the SWAN-CAM.)

The business with the swan, always tricky, is also well-handled, although I’m not sure why they decided it needed to be scratching itself when Lohengrin brings it out the first time (Imaginary Director’s Commentary: “In this scene, I wanted to make it clear that the swan is itchy…”). Lohengrin treats it with the same tenderness he shows the missing young Duke when he restores him to her sister, foreshadowing the transformation back.

Even the apparent disjuncture of the time periods — between the mustard-brown uniforms of the locals and swan-totin’ Lohengrin’s contemporary athletic gear — serves the story, to a certain extent. Maybe Lohengrin is a little more modern and civilized than the townsfolk of Brabant: he’s reluctant to kill his enemy until it becomes unavoidable, while their system of laws seems barbaric by comparison. You can work out your own justification for the general time and place Jones has chosen, something about war and crowds and Germany and corruption; me, I’m just relieved they’re dressed neither like the cast of Camelot nor in, say, cowboy hats. (Actually…) Most importantly, it emphasizes Lohengrin’s otherworldliness, as does the most important aspect of this recording: the sensational vocal performance of the leading man.

Now. The cast around him is uniformly strong, all singing actors, closely engaged with the language and the drama, and each one of them steals at least a scene. Michaela Schüster is compulsively watchable as the sorceress—her sneer in Elsa’s wedding procession is classic. Anja Harteros is a moving Elsa with moments of transcendent singing. At one point, I really found myself thinking, “Boy, who is that Herald? I like him!” (it’s Evgeny Nikitin), which I think is a pretty good sign, casting-wise. (And now that I’ve mentioned everybody else, Wolfgang Koch and Christof Fischesser will feel bad if I don’t mention their greasy Telramund and complex Heinrich, respectively, and so, there, I have. You guys were great!)

But all of their vocal performances are essentially earthbound, marked by the characteristic power, weight, and brilliance of Wagnerian singing. Kaufmann’s performance is something else entirely, deep and dark and effortless. His sound is too guarded—too introverted—for so many roles that it’s an immense thrill to hear him in a part he seems born to play. In the context of the cast and of the production, he seems, as Lohengrin ought to, heaven-sent.

Does his stage presence here at times seem blank, compared to his colleagues, and self-regarding? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. Lohengrin is supposed to be, after all, something of a cipher, and he certainly emotes persuasively enough when it really counts. Here’s his In fernem Land:

I could really rewatch this like twenty times in a row. I love things that are too slow! (For which I guess I should thank Kent Nagano, the conductor here. This aria lasts FOREVER. So great. I only tend to notice the conductor when things go horribly awry, and on this recording I counted maybe one raggedy choral moment.) But: look how Lohengrin’s reverence genuinely seems more intense than his passion. What’s devastating is not the forte but the subito piano that follows that it. I can’t watch this and not be swept up in it. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hate to disappoint all of you, but JONAS KAUFMANN IS MY BOYFRIEND, HE LOVES ME, AND WE ARE GETTING MARRIED. That is all.