Let’s be frank – everbody should guess that Lohengrin could represent the process of civilization and Ortrud nature’s underlying instinctive forces. Actually, you don’t have to guess that, the libretto clearly tells you that Ortrud is pagan and Lohengrin is a force of Christianity. Director Richard Jones is probably the only person in the world who did not know that, for he was so enthusiastic about it that he chose to underline it as heavily as he could. So architecture was chosen as a symbol of civilization. Again you don’t have to be a genius to make that one out. When Tamino gets to the supposedly evil Sarastro’s temple, he recognizes from the buildings that some decent people should live there. The point is – making all the plot of Lohengrin turn around the building of a house for Elsa does not make the understanding of the story of Lohengrin deeper, but actually shallower. It makes it twice more complicate the fact that Lohengrin, first shows in jeans and a blue t-shirt develops into some sort of a Quaker leader of a blue t-shirt sect. I cannot deny that following the building of the house is interesting – I often felt distracted from everything else seeing if the roof would fit or the windows being set – but building it is something too difficult for chorus members to perform while singing. So choristers basically did nothing while supernumerary Handy Andies kept doing the hardwork. I wonder if there is someone left in Munich to repair your window during these performances of Lohengrin.
One might ask me how I could be distracted by bricks and cement while listening to Lohengrin. That is explained by Kent Nagano’s entirely uneventful conducting. To start with, his reputation as a “colorist” here meant that the orchestra was kept at low volume throughout. The problem is that the gain of clarity was minimal and the considerate tempi left people wishing for more SOUND. If I have to make one harsh criticism is that both Richard Jones and Kent Nagano left no space for Ortrud and Telramund in their view of this opera – and God knows every Wagnerian sings Entweihte Götter in the shower! So back to the staging – since the action was transposed to the 50’s or something, Ortrud cannot be “pagan”. Actually, one cannot understand what she opposes to. In Nagano’s 100% gentle approach, their music lacks any trace of violence. The fierce repetition of their themes could barely heard in the famous declamatory passages of act II, scene 1. When the conductor was finally forced to plug in his performance (prelude to act III), the result was so messy that I felt sorry for him.
To make things worse, casting (alas, again…) was plagued by problems. To start with, the star of the show, Jonas Kaufmann, felt ill. Although he had high fever, he agreed to sing until the arrival of his replacement, who was flown in from London. All that said, I found he was an admirable Lohengrin. Although it is unwise to give a final opinion without act III (when he was replaced by an understandably unprepared Ivar Gilhuus), I am sure he should be fine there. From what I could hear, he unites the best from two different approaches to Lohengrin. He has all the mezza-voce refinements of the young René Kollo and also the dark-hued tone and intensity of a James King. His tenor is not voluminous as some would wish, but he can pierce all right through the orchestra. In any case, if you find Klaus Florian Vogt too ethereal, Kaufmann should be your Lohengrin. And I wonder how better he should be when in good health!
Regardless of how good Kaufmann is, I am afraid that the best performance of the evening was Anja Harteros as Elsa. Even compared to the great sopranos who recorded the role, she goes to my shortlist of the really great Elsas. Her big lyric soprano is always warm, even, solid in its acuti and liquid in its velvety floating mezza voce. Her understanding of the text is exemplary, her imagination is neverending, her good taste is beyond reproach and she looks regal, in spite of the ugly costumes given to her. I know that her Traviatas both here and in New York have deserved warm reviews, but it is clear that her locus are Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch roles.
When it comes to Micaela Schuster’s Ortrud, I am afraid I found it less satisfying than at the Lindenoper. In the Bayerische Staatsoper’s largest auditorium, her voice sounds less rich and the dramatic high notes rather screechy. Worse than that, probably because she was worried about making big sounds, she was often out of steam in the end of phrases, exactly where verbs can be in German. Because of that, many a parola scenica would be lost in inaudibility. Her Telramund, Wolfgang Koch, did fare better in the declamation department, but his is the kind of Heldenbariton whose sound is often tense and raw – and a nobleman like Telramund deserves a bit more tone. King Henry is also a difficult role for Cristof Fischesser’s low-lying bass. Although he sang well, he was too often away from his comfort zone. Finally, Evgeny Nikitin’s herald was softer (and yet spacious) in grain than I am used to hear.