Cher Public

Salvation for the savior

When Claus Guth’s production of Lohengrin opened at La Scala in 2012 it was almost universally panned, and not just for lack of fidelity to the story, but more in general for its almost cryptic intentions. Critics were almost unanimous in admitting that it was not clear to them what Guth was after in his concept. 

Yes, there is a back story of childhood abuse and neglect, of a special bond between Elsa and her brother, that sends the girl into almost a mental state, to the point of conjuring out of her own imagination (Elsa literally gives birth to Lohengrin in the first act) a anti-hero, not a knight in shining armor, but a frightened and reluctant savior who comes to rescue her and her country but is eventually rejected by both. That production was filmed and is available on YouTube in its entirety; its most remarkable aspect is the demented intensity of Annette Dasch as Elsa, who flew into Milan with less than 24 hours notice to step in for a sick Anja Harteros.

The production is currently being revived at the Paris Opera, and was the occasion for Jonas Kaufmann’s return to the stage after recent vocal troubles due to a burst blood vessel in his vocal cords. I caught the performance of January 24, and I walked into the theater determined to make my own opinion of the production, to try to make sense of it on my own, going past what critics and Guth himself suggested was his concept. In doing so I approached the piece as a work of art, where the artist might have a “message” or a “concept”, but what really matters is how the final product speaks to the audience.

And the production did speak to me in ways that might not be what the director intended, but that nevertheless imbued my evening with a profound and meaningful experience. There is no question that both Lohengrin and Parsifal can be seen as Christian allegories: the arrival of a almost God-like figure who heals suffering, destroys evil, and reasserts all that is good. We can then look at the Brabantians as a symbol for all humanity, lost in sin, strife, violence and war. From the last strands of purity and innocence, through a virgin birth, a savior appears.

But this savior is fully aware of the price of suffering and pain that must be exacted in order to offer salvation. At every step and turn of this production, what comes across is Lohengrin’s desire to be somewhere else, to flee and yet his awareness that he has to go through his own sacrifice no matter how strong is his desire to avoid it. At the beginning of Act II when we see him trying unsuccessfully to leave, and then sit disconsolate with his head in his hands, I thought of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Father if you can please take this away from me …” Later as Ortrud poisons Elsa’s mind, and she betrays her own savior, I was reminded of the Gospel of John: “The light shone on the people, but the people chose darkness.” So when at the end Lohengrin is surrounded and killed by the Brabantian army, I was not surprised in the least. The sacrifice was done, the price paid.

Kaufmann embodied this reluctant and tragic figure perfectly. He moves around the stage trembling, and hesitantly. He looks around to the people, with an awareness of their future betrayal. He conveys his immense loneliness in a profoundly moving way. I am happy to report that vocally he sounds completely recovered.

Martina Serafin was supposed to be Elsa but was announced as sick from the stage right before the start of the performance—too bad since I was looking forward to see her live for the first time. Her replacement Edith Haller (who takes over the role for the February shows) did fine until Act III when her voice completely abandoned her, and all her high notes turned into horrible squawks. Also sick was Wolfgang Koch as Telramud, but his replacement Tomasz Konieczny was outstanding, with a bright and forceful baritone. Another outstanding turn was Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud (also in the La Scala video from 2012), who sang with plenty of power and high notes and inhabited the role with great flair and theatrical presence without falling into histrionics. I look forward to her Kundry next here in NYC. Rene Pape was luxury casting as the King.

I was quite disappointed with the orchestra, the chorus and the conductor. The chorus always came across as muddled and mashed up voices—I might have become spoiled by the wonderful turns of the Met chorus as of late, or it might have been because of the horrible acoustics of the Bastille Hall (the same “muddled” effect appeared in the Act II ensemble where none of the individual voices came through). The orchestra played quite scrappily, especially the string sections (the brass acquitted themselves more honorably). Maybe it had to do with the fast and sloppy conducting of Philippe Jordan who never really hit the “mystical” qualities of the score, preferring instead a more matter-of-fact and at times almost pedestrian approach.