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.
I had not considered “Lohengrin” as an allegory for Christian faith, actually. To me it is more a Jungian coming of age story– for Elsa, of course. She is Psyche to Lohengrin’s Cupid, and as so often happens in this sort of story, the turning point is the asking of the Forbidden Question. This is a counterintuitive and painful thing to do, but it is the only path to adult consciousness. As Bettelheim writes re: Cupid and Psyche:
“Despite all warnings about the dire consequences if she tries to find out, woman is not satisfied with remaining ignorant about sex and life. Comfortable as an existence in relative naivete may be, it is an empty life which must not be accepted. Notwithstanding all the hardships woman has to suffer to be reborn to full consciousness and humanity, the stories leave no doubt that this is what she must do.”
This idea is perhaps subverted in “Lohengrin” because, according to Wagner’s stage directions, Elsa dies at the moment her brother is restored to her. Is this story perhaps the variant of “Cupid and Psyche” that we don’t hear about because it is not so encouraging, i.e., a tale of a failed attempt at the integration of an adult consciousness?
Thanks for sharing that. I like your (and Bettelheim’s) reading especially because it’s so much more likely to be consummated in the operatic world. As i implied, Regietheater often seems to be motivated by a kind of disgust with the text, where the Regie is graffiti scrawled upon a surface crying out to be defaced (and Lohengrin is a triple threat). I understand Lohengrin & Elsa as a parable of faith. If she could believe without doubting she’d be saved (remembering church as the bride of Christ in biblical typology), but because she voices the forbidden question (doubt) she’s damned. It’s mechanical (cf Alberich’s curse, which isn’t much subtler) & medieval. Yours is way better; and the infantile sexuality you spoke of is enacted beautiful in Act III of this production.
Hm…. there’s the danger of responding at bedtime. I guess i paraphrased badly; i no longer see “infantile sexuality” anywhere. Was it a hallucination? or just something i read elsewhere. Anyhow, sorry about that..!
As ever, a terrific analysis/review of this remarkable production, sir. Also appreciate James’ response regarding Bettleheim’s Cupid/Psyche reference. While he may not have mentioned “infantile sexuality” it is definitely on display (vividly so) in the third act, and so awkwardly produced by both partners I felt, at times as though intruding in some voyeuristic manner. I really would love to watch this several more times.
Thanks doubly (for the remarks and for leading me to the performance in the first place). I must ponder all this, as i think I am getting a new handle on Regietheater: its necessity, its function, its place. I believe that allegorical reference i made –that’s so much more mechanical and two dimensional than the one La makes–provides a kind of context for progressive reading. It’s as though our eyes didn’t work quite so well in 1855, but as our society has matured in various ways, we see depths we couldn’t see before. Could society just stand still, for instance presenting sexist/racist versions of texts? Regietheater is simply a response to who we are. While texts seem to be etched in stone, humanity (thank goodness) is not. We progress after a fashion, often learning our lessons through acts of phenomenal inhumanity, ie the Shoah.
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Thank you for your thoughtful comments about Lohengrin: the opera.. I also appreciate your commentary on the La Scala Lohengrin in particular. I was curious how Claus Guth would approach this, as I absolutely love his Ariadne auf Naxos, and truly dislike (though appreciate) his Nozze di Figaro. I have seen the Lohengrin trailer, and I hope the La Scala video will become available again; every place (including your blog) I think I’ve found it, the link is broken. I guess La Scala or arte.tv wasn’t happy with all the sharing!
Thanks to La Cieca for your thoughts, too. And thanks, operaramblings for directing me to your blog!
Thanks… and while we’re speaking of three-vs-four dimensional phenomena, youtube can’t be mistaken for permanent. The price is right, and it was nice while it lasted.