Wagner’s Lohengrin opened the season at La Scala, Milan in a new production directed by Claus Guth. That it was Wagner rather than Verdi in this season of centennials—both Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born in 1813—is the least of it. The performances and the production are both newsworthy in different ways.
It’s a cast already boasting major talent. Jonas Kaufmann is currently peerless in this repertoire, Rene Pape solid as ever as the King, and Tómas Tómasson now making a name for himself with quirky portrayals such as his recent Dr Schön in the La Monnaie Lulu. And Daniel Barenboim’s conducting, always energetic and never lacking in drama was as good as any version I can recall.
But the big headline was Anja Harteros’s cancellation. Her replacement Annette Dasch seemed to ride the adrenaline of her late arrival in a portrayal to match the other high-powered talents. If I should return to this video for a second viewing it would be for another look at her fascinating reading, which I shall unpack in my discussion of Guth’s production.
Guth invokes a series of Regietheater tropes we’ve been seeing recently.
- Child doubles of protagonists feature in Herheim’s Parsifal and Warlikowski’s Lulu. And so Guth presents a child-version of both Elsa & Gottfried on several occasions
- Reframing stories set long ago into more recent times, often contemporary with the composer and even as an exploration of the composer himself (thinking of several different Parsifal productions beginning with Syberberg’s film). .
- Self-reflexive devices add depths. In Warlikowski’s Lulu we watch multiple images of the heroine filmed earlier on screen while she acts something different, including a moment when another singer reflectively studies Berg’s score. In Lepage’s Tempest for example, we’re watching Prospero’s magic working upon a set evoking the inside of a theatre. In Guth’s Lohengrin the set again suggests a theatre space enclosing an inner playing area that includes an upright piano.
I’ve read some of Guth’s pre-production comments on operachic’s site (who quotes from an interview given with Giuseppina Manin) after the fact of seeing the production. I almost wish I hadn’t seen this, even if it reminds me that in the presence of good performances & good singing, I can find meaning in almost anything. Guth speaks of Grimm’s Fairy tales as inspiration for the neurotic Elsa, and Kaspar Hauser for Lohengrin.
But watching the opera, I didn’t experience the production in terms of divergence from the original. The central relationships are solid, the main drama that I demand from this opera –Elsa’s dilemma—is front & centre: as it should be.
I should probably add that I am a bit tired of the ongoing conversation I regularly encounter concerning Regietheater, concerning the over-writing of the text with new imagery from the director & designer. I get that “Grimm” isn’t precisely “Wagner”. Even so Guth takes an odd story –and Lohengrin is one of the oddest—and in my opinion redeems it with his delving. The story is ridiculous as a fairy-tale, only making sense to me as an allegory of Christian faith. Or you can do as Guth does, and find another rationale, and then see if the story works. By and large, i would say Guth succeeds.
I can easily see Elsa as a damaged child, abused by the interference of Ortrud: as Guth would have it. And so, as she mourns her missing brother, her redemption is conflated with her affliction. Lohengrin comes from nowhere, offering himself to her; when he leaves at the end of the opera, and Gottfried appears instead (this part very much as written) Elsa seems to confuse her brother and her husband, even as she dies.
Elsa’s choice to let the insane fears (planted in her head by Ortrud & Telramund) master and kill her dream of happiness seems as much out of fear of intimacy as anything else. I have never seen a wedding night between Elsa & Lohengrin look so much like a wedding night, which is to say, very physical.
Why were they wandering in a marshland? they’re in a fertile mysterious landscape, remininiscent of female anatomy. I am remembering an undergrad prof who made the same claim about Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. This poem with its “pleasure domes” includes this passage:
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
It’s a common feature of romantic art to let the landscape and the sensibility reflect one another. Lohengrin and Elsa leave civilization behind, as on this wedding night Elsa almost loses her virginity, nearly transcending her childhood traumas. No wonder Telramund comes lurching out from between the trees, yet another violator.
I admit I am disappointed when directors ignore the opera’s allegory, even as I embrace the alternatives they posit. I would argue that one of the chief reasons for Regietheater is the urge to deface our western cultural monoliths. In Lohengrin a director gets a good shot at three different targets:
- German history
It was likely a hidden blessing that Dasch came to the production with little preparation time and great pressure. All this played into an Elsa on the edge of madness throughout, wonderfully sung and very effecting. She had me in tears within ten seconds.
Here’s the link. No I wasn’t in attendance, but the camera work in this video is remarkably intimate.