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.

  • Rowna Sutin

    I was able to catch the Lohengrin from La Scala either by live stream or Youtube -- I can’t remember -- but I do remember being baffled by its meaning during the viewing. It was only after I let the production settle into my mind that I was able to make sense of it all and give it my own interpretation. By the time I put my thoughts together I thought it was a most brilliant interpretation of this musical masterpiece. To me, Mr. Guth was presenting the mental state of Elsa front and center. She starts out very unconscious and then as Ortrud tries to bend Elsa to her side, Elsa begins to act as a functioning adult, something that eluded her previously. I have no idea if this was what was the intention of the director, but it worked for me. In fact, I thought the backdrop looked like a mental hospital. I would love to see it live.

    • Rob NYNY

      That would be really great if it were the opera that Wagner wrote. Who wrote that opera, I wonder?

      • La Cieca

        You think Lohengrin is not in large part about Elsa’s development into an adult?

        • Rob NYNY

          Well, yes. That is the opera that Wagner wrote. But the production described in the review seems to be a different opera. Giving birth to Lohengrin in the first act? That part must have been omitted from my score.

          • La Cieca

            Well, you might try watching the production before making up your mind, fuckwad.

            • Rob NYNY

              I’m still rereading the score to find the part where Elsa gives birth to Lohengrin in the first act.

            • La Cieca

              Yeah, just the way Wagner intended his operas to be performed, by reading the score and playing gotcha.

              Enjoy moderation, putz.

            • operadunce

              Fuckwad? Putz? Moderation? For expressing an opinion? Or am I the one who is overreacting?

            • Porgy Amor

              That one was overdue, in my opinion. Not that I’ve seen anything from Rob NYNY for months; I Disqus-blocked him in November for his trolling of me, but I can tell who the culprit is from La Cieca’s responses.

            • operadunce

              Okay, I did not know the history. Thanks for replying

      • Rowna Sutin

        Rob, the genius of Wagner is that in almost all his librettos, characters develop. To me, Elsa is the most fascinating of them all. She is completely in a trance when asked to defend herself against the accusation of killing her brother. Then she conjures up a savior/knight. In this production Elsa does not go into labor to give birth, but the idea that she has brought him to life is a terrific one, IMHO. You either buy it or don’t. I did.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    I’ll just put this there because I can’t find your original email-me post: Last night, I could not conjure up Parterre Box via Firefox or Chrome. I got only a blank page rather than a time-out message.

    • Porgy Amor

      I had the same issue, and sent a private notification. It did not work for me with Chrome, Opera, or the dreaded Internet Explorer.

  • simonelvladtepes

    I don’t know if anyone can answer my question openly here, but I have to ask -- this clip looks like it was taped stealthily from the audience. How is that possible from that close? Is there new stealth-able video technology? Or are the side boxes in the Paris Opera that close?

  • Edesso

    How joy-making it is to see and hear the incomparable JK. His acting and singing seem more beautiful than ever, as does he. So I guess that it really was a blood vessel and not a Villazon-like flameout. And he’s not returning diminished in any way as Tebaldi once did. I had despaired, but now rejoice. Bravissimo!

  • I have it this coming Monday night.