Wagner - Lohengrin

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 29 2018.

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production: Olivier Py. Sets and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Heinrich der Vogler: Gabor Bretz. Lohengrin: Eric Cutler. Elsa von Brabant: Ingela Brimberg. Friedrich von Telramund: Andrew Foster-Williams. Ortrud: Elena Pankratova. Heerrufer: Werner Van Mechelen. Vier Brabantische Edle: Zeno Popescu, Willem Van Der Heyden, Kurt Gysen, Bertrand Duby. Edelknaben: Raphaële Green, Isabelle Jacques, Virginie Léonard, Lisa Willems. La Monnaie Orchestra and Chorus. 

As a persistent opera-goer, however loudly you applaud Bieito or Warlikowski and however assiduously you seek out new works, you get used to being dismissed as a hidebound fuddy-duddy. And some directors also give the impression they think you're thick and need things spelling out. In the case of Olivier Py, this is often literally the case: his chalk bills must be huge, so often do his characters scrawl things on the walls then throw the chalk away. In this Lohengrin, as act three gets going he has some poor chap in black (what else?) chalk up, word after word, whole lines of a poem.

But more than that, not content with there being (as usual at La Monnaie) a pre-performance talk and full program notes outlining his intentions, this time Py actually came out with a microphone before the kick-off to précis his reasons for setting Lohengrin in the ruins of Berlin at the end of WWII - Wagner’s anti-semitism, his place in German culture, the relations between his descendants and Hitler... This is the first time I’ve ever seen a director state what the British call the “bleedin’ obvious” in this way and I hope it will be the last. My hidebound, fuddy-duddy view is that a production should stand on its own, without written or spoken explanations. I should add, though, that my Belgian neighbours supposed he hammered it home at la Monnaie to massage local political sensibilities, which tend to be hermetic to outsiders.

Not that Py, for all his directorial tics, is bad. Like everyone else, he has his good days (or productions) and not-so-good ones. As it happens, before I set off for Brussels on Sunday I had an e-mail exchange with a knowledgeable friend who complained that he “still can't marshal a chorus properly.” My reply, looking back over various directors’ work, not just Olivier Py’s, was: “It's true that the chorus is often brought on just to stand in a block or, as in Gloriana, lined up in a gallery above the stage.” I was quite amused to see that in Lohengrin, we had both: sometimes the chorus stood in a block, or two blocks, one on the left, the other on the right; and sometimes lined up in tiered galleries, facing the audience.

This was not, in my opinion, Mr. Py’s greatest hit. The main, massive set was a revolving rotunda, with tiers of broken windows framed by similarly shattered piers. As it turned, it revealed the inside of a near-derelict theatre: the tiers of boxes and balconies all grey, with dusty-looking, grey chairs; and a wooden stage, in the round, raised to show the supports beneath. As it turned again, sometimes the rotunda was replaced by a broken wall, or a portico with six columns, one of them askew. With much to-ing and fro-ing of stagehands, the rotunda could split and move to form other shapes and spaces, and sometimes in the distance we could see, in monochrome, the ruins of Berlin. The principal characters emerged from under the stage to act out the most public scenes on it. Grimy backdrops hoisted up and down by hand displayed emblematic German views… towering mountains, vast forests, rivers… The rapid changes in full view signalled quite effectively their illusoriness.

Lohengrin (white pieces) and Telramund (black) played chess (the combat) while their followers, in white and black shirts respectively, first scuffled, then brawled on the stage behind. In act one, Elsa chalked up a cross. In act two Ortrud chalked up runes and rubbed Elsa’s cross out. In act three, as I said, a man in black (like all the chorus, Telramund and Ortrud: strict 40s black) chalked up lines from a poem, Paul Celan’s Todesfuge:

ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.

That last phrase had by then already been painted (not chalked) up by Elsa in large white capitals, so here we were getting some context.

Wagner
Act three involved a kind of Celebrity Squares or noughts-and-crosses set-up: three floors of three square spaces, making nine boxes in all, with steel stairs between, in which the “celebrities” were dusty, plaster symbols either of German culture or of influences on Wagner: a broken horse, a bust of Beethoven, another of Goethe, the swan, a clock (Hegel), Weber… each labelled, to be sure we got which was what or who, in large, black Gothic letters.

These plaster objects were big, so Elsa and Lohengrin squeezed awkwardly behind them, and Elsa had to scoop up her long white skirts every time she climbed the stairs. Lohengrin and Telramund duelled with the hands pulled off the clock. As he sang “In fernem Land,” Lohengrin, kneeling by a suitcase, pulled cardboard crowns out of it, one by one, trying them on and discarding them. At the end, while throughout the opera we’d seen a skinny youth in a white suit wandering through the sets, swapping his newspaper hat for Henry’s crown, playing soldiers with a bare-chested, fair-haired athlete who rolled on the floor and bounced up to strike Riefenstahl poses, shooting him playfully with a coat hanger: a living Gottfried… at the end, as I was saying, the Gottfried pulled through a trap-door in the stage and unwrapped was mummified, stiff as a board. I didn’t get that. And though I know Wagner wrote anti-semitic essays and Bayreuth welcomed Hitler, I still wasn’t particularly convinced by the post-surrender Berlin setting.

My overall impression, and my neighbour’s too, was that Py had spent plenty of effort thinking things through and a a lot of money on big, obstructive sets, but not much time directing the singers, who looked left to themselves to use conventional gestures. Not that anyone minded much as this was an unusually strong cast.

Pick of the bunch was Eric Cutler, a commanding, charismatic figure, in a pale grey greatcoat, and an artful singer whose only fault, if any, was to come too soon after I saw Jonas Kaufmann in the same role (and in a subtler production). Elena Pankratova was a sterling, forthright Ortrud with a determiend presence, proud and upright in tightly tailored black and tightly rolled hair. Ingel Brimberg was equally forthright as Elsa. The hard, bright metal of her voice suited the more dramatic moments better than the tender ones. Andrew Foster-Williams, perhaps because the role is at his limit, tended to hammer away at it brutally, but it's a brutal part and nobody could fault his commitment. The chorus was at its most splendid and, after a slightly scratchy, less-than-ethereal start, coming on cold right after Sunday lunch, so, under the vigorous Alain Altinoglu, was the orchestra. So much so that even the usually placid Brussels audience* cheered.

*I'm almost certain that in Paris Py's pre-performance speech would have been booed. In Brussels he was politely applauded for it.

Here, the inestimable Wenarto tells us his name, origin and rank.

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