Wagner - Lohengrin

ONP Bastille, Monday January 30 2017

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Claus Guth. Heinrich der Vogler: René Pape. Lohengrin: Jonas Kaufmann. Elsa von Brabant: Martina Serafin. Friedrich von Telramund: Tomasz Konieczny. Ortrud: Evelyn Herlitzius. Der Heerrufer des Königs: Egils Silins. Vier Brabantische Edle: Hyun-Jong Roh, Cyrille Lovighi, Laurent Laberdesque, Julien Joguet/ Vier Edelknaben: Irina Kopylova, Corinne Talibart, Laetitia Jeanson, Lilla Farkas. Sets and Costumes: Christian Schmidt. Lighting: Olaf Winter. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

There's an expression I think sportspeople use that I can't remember at the moment: on a something... not on a roll or on a blast but something like that... that means that the athletes or whatever have gone beyond their normal physical limitations and entered a kind of trance, on a higher plane, or at any rate at a higher level of performance. This happens in music too, and I suspect Monday night's Lohengrin was one of those performances when everything goes right and everybody knows it. Musically and vocally it was pretty outstanding and the production is, from a design point of view, handsome enough, albeit rather dour: clearly not much fun to be had in Guth's Brabant. The trouble is I still, 72 hours later, haven't made head or tail of it, and reading around I find I'm not alone: some critics remain baffled.

The basically single set is a courtyard. Its three sides are uniform, all-purpose (could be a palace, a barracks, a government building, flats...), tenement-like façades: a ground floor and two storeys of galleries on slender cast-iron pillars, with rows of dark wooden doors and windows. Funnily enough I first thought of New Orleans, but it's the kind of architecture you find in Central European towns and I suppose quite possibly in Belgium.

In act one, there's a tall tree to the right, with a metal step-ladder used by Elsa (cautiously, in her long white dress) when peering out over our heads for her knight, and to the left, a carpet with a table and chairs and an elaborate metal chandelier above, serving as an al-fresco “indoors”. Even further to the right is an upright piano: Elsa's.

In act two the rear façade has moved well forward, with the table and chairs, for the Annina-Valzacchi business at the start, but the courtyard opens up again for the wedding, and confetti swirl down. The piano is still there.

Not Kaufmann
When the curtain rises for act three, the galleries are dimly lit in blue (the lighting throughout is moody and changing). Seven tall tree trunks are now silhouetted against the blue. I admit I thought incongruously of Raffles in Singapore – it had a tropical look to it. When the lights go up, there are lots of reeds, a stream and a pontoon (yes) on which Lohengrin later sits, with his trousers rolled up and socks pulled off, cooling his feet while chatting to Elsa – until the fight, when he bludgeons Telramund bloodily in the water. The piano is now overturned: some symbolism there, I bet. 

Costumes throughout are dark – fifty or so shades of grey and plenty of black – except for Elsa's very splendid wedding dress, white over a wide crinoline. Ortrud's bridesmaid's dress is the same only black: more symbolism no doubt (and at the start of act two she wears trousers - with riding boots - so there's probably a symbol there as well). The knights or soldiers have no armour, just plain, dark uniforms and neat little caps. 

Quite handsome, as I said, if grim. But I couldn't work out what the production concept was hoping to tell us. Lohengrin didn't arrive pulled by a swan - thank goodness. He appeared when the chorus parted, hunched up barefoot on the floor, clutching feathers, in convulsions (and ended the opera in exactly the same position, whether dead or just beaten up by the soldiers who pressed round him wasn't obvious). He was the least heroic, most reluctant of heroes, starting at the slightest sound - though admittedly the sound of the men's chorus, all got up in top hats and tails for the wedding, wasn't so slight - and teetering round the stage, spaced out, in his baggy trousers and shirt-sleeves. “An anti hero” said a friend, not especially helpfully, “acting in an oppressive Prussian environment at the time when the opera was written.” But he admitted he too found it hard to fathom, “particularly in the parts when the anti-hero is supposed to be a true hero, an inspirational leader for the people.” Elsa comes across as a bit of a wuss or a Madeline Bassett, too, (I can do without Julie-Andrews-in-The-Sound-of-Music whirling to express joyful abandon) but I suppose that's what she is really.

There were significant details, such as flash-backs acted out by children (Elsa and her brother) and an extra with one arm got up as a white wing. Of course it's unfair to want directors constantly to innovate, but these were definitely déjà vus – IIRC I got that single wing in the first Lohengrin I ever saw. As I mentioned above, I wondered if the piano was a symbol of Elsa's childhood – with a hint of corporal punishment from Ortrud supervising her scales with a stick in her hand (that she broke into pieces in rage once foiled). But I read it was a reference to Wagner himself, with Ortrud as the “inflexible” Cosima. That was in a review that claimed the concept was Freudian. Perhaps I'd better read Freud.

I give up.

But in the meantime I've remembered that expression I wanted: not on anything, but in a zone. Musically they were in one. The orchestra was in Rolls-Royce mode, proving how far they've come in the last few years, especially under Jordan, who, with them, got a sprinkling of a standing ovation, a rarity in Paris, though some people have complained that he is over-preoccupied with beautiful sound (“self-regarding,” a friend put it) and stripped Lohengrin of its mysticism. I'm not a mystic myself. I noted that even in the famous tub-thumping prelude to act three there wasn't a single cracked note from the brass, nor any from the plethora of trumpets of all lengths that sometimes appeared on the balconies. This is especially remarkable in France, where sound brass sections haven't been something you can count on (the first time I ever went to the Paris Opera, in the 80s, the start of Rosenkavalier was a dreadful shambles). The chorus was at its best.

Tomasz Konieczny has a very bright voice, almost more timbre than body. Nitpicking people might complain he sings too loud too often. Evelyn Herlitzius threw herself generously, even violently into the part, making up in character and commitment for what people who insist on musicality might complain was disregard for that, for the sake of drama. René Pape still phrases elegantly and has super diction, even if the top of the range is now tough going: his voice is showing some wear.

Martina Serafin was announced sick (when the man with the mike came on we all held our breath, of course, fearing Kaufmann might have pulled out) but didn't sound it. She was far better employed here, vocally and dramatically, than in Tosca. And Kaufmann... back from his illness he's now singing with less obvious power than before. But perhaps this was his approach to the part, not a change in his voice, as the effect much of the time was of him singing to himself in a husky mezza voce. His “In fernem Land” was positively daring in its enraptured intimacy and reduced a coughing audience to absolute silence. I haven't been to see what people are saying on the blogs and fora, but I wouldn't be surprised to find some complaining (again) that this is “unfair” on people in cheap seats up in the gods, where he's “inaudible”. A friend up on the fourth row of one of the balconies told me he heard everything perfectly from his medium-priced seat. I was in a hugely expensive one on row 8, lapping it up.

Here, Maestro Wenarto sings "Nun hört, wie ich verbotner Frage lohne!"


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