When I left the theatre this evening, I was inclined to start this by saying “be careful what you wish for – I have often written that it was high time the Deutsche Oper replaced Götz Friedrich’s old production – and now I see that they would have done better by keeping the old one”. Well, on my way back home, I’ve changed my mind: first, I eventually remembered that the old production had become something really painful to watch; second, Kasper Holten has many interesting new ideas in his new production. I just wonder why he wasn’t really in the mood for properly staging them. My first impression is that the Deutsche Oper had bought this stating on eBay – one could see where every detail came from and, in an interview in the program, it is suggested that, after a relatively recent staging in Moscow, the director might have used up his imagination for this opera (he, of course, denies it). As it is, Holten finds some very reasonable starting-points for his concept:
a) Although Elsa is very much relieved to be rescued by Lohengrin etc, she has not exactly CHOSEN him. Let’s us say that, if she did not really like him, she would have been sentenced to death. This makes him something of a convenience, glamorous as it is. The same applies for the three forbidden questions.
b) Although Lohengrin says he does not need to justify himself, for “everyone has seen his good deeds”, the fact is that Lohengrin has done nothing but beat in a duel (which he could not loose) someone who was well-intentioned and far from being a bad guy (my contribution to this point: Telramund could have forced Elsa to marry him, for instance – after all, he was the regent and had the whole structure to work up against her). Actually, he makes lots of promises – but that’s it.
c) The only confession Ortrud makes is that she has always known that Gottfried was the swan (nota bene: putting a chain around the boy’s neck is not technically a crime). When she is accused of inventing the whole story about Elsa, she answers “Who lied?!”
From these starting points, Holten proposes something very unusual – who said that Lohengrin is the good guy? Good question. We tend to believe it because of the heavenly music Wagner composed for him – and, well, he says he is the son of Parsifal and Parsifal is a good guy. But there is no one to confirm that information there. Based on that – and on the fact that in times of war, people tend not to make lots of question when someone promises them victory – the production shows Lohengrin as a populist who tricks the people of Brabant in electing them as their leader. More than that: he uses Elsa for his purposes. Aha – more than that – who said it wasn’t him the one who kidnapped Gottfried in the first place?! It sounds quite Richard-III-esque, but interesting it is. I wonder again why it was deemed right to stage such an original approach with: a) Roger Corman-like costumes; b) anodyne sets; c) stock gestures; d) long moments of boredom. For example, why is Ortrud portrayed as a witch with Cruella DeVil-facial expressions who spends a great part of act II worshiping a green neon light? If Lohengrin is really using everybody as it seems to be the premiss here, one could say that, manipulative as Ortrud also is, she has given Elsa some valuable piece of advice. Actually, the most all-round Personregie here goes to Elsa – here she is not a silly-goose, but a woman pushed into a reckless wedding until she realizes that it was not reasonable to be expected from her to accept this situation under those circumstances.
It was most fortunate that this evening’s soprano has enacted this concept so convincingly. Ricarda Merbeth was the last singer to sing Elsa in Götz Friedrich’s production. Then, I had found her soprano big and metallic. This evening the description would rather be acidulous and fluttery – although she did not spoil the fun at all as a singer, she did not add to it in any aspect. When it comes to Petra Lang, I would say that this Ortrud is a great improvement from her performance in Bayreuth last year. If the voice still lacks roundness, it was nonetheless very firm and clear, her low notes were particularly focused, her high notes remain admirably percussive and effortless. Maybe under the influence of Runnicles, she showed herself more inclined to produce smoother phrasing and to extend her acuti only for a couple of seconds (and not for ever, as in Bayreuth). She is a charismatic singer and it is doubly regretful that the director did not seem to know what to make of her.
As originally announced, the tenor in the title role was supposed to be Marco Jentzsch, who mysteriously disappeared two weeks before the opening night to be replaced by… Klaus Florian Vogt. As much as I admire his Lohengrin, I guess I have already got it – and was dying to move on, see new people, you know. That is why I was probably the only person in the theatre not depressed because of his cancellation (due to a sudden illness). Well, considering that his replacement Martin Homrich is moving into the jugendlich Fach… probably this evening, did not have time to rehearse and sang from the corner of the stage to an actor playing his part, I see now that I could have seen and heard Vogt one more time. That said, it was very brave of him to show his Lohengrin so prematurely for the audience in order to save the day. If Gordon Hawkins did not elicit enthusiastic applause, it must be said that he sang the role of Telramund more smoothly than most. The fact remains that his is not the voix du rôle – it lacks impact (although it is certainly voluminous), the sound is on the noble sound and he seems to be regretting deep inside that he is not in a good-guy role. I don’t know how experienced he is as Telramund (at some point, he got lost, for instance), but – again all that said – in terms of pure singing, he did a very decent job in a part in which lots of people get burnt very easily. Albert Dohmen sounded very rusty and sometimes ill-at-ease as the King, but Bastiaan Everink almost stole the show as a very powerful Herald.
Truth be said, this performance wouldn’t have been special but for the excellent contributions from the chorus and the orchestra, under a very efficient conducting from Donald Runnicles. If this performance had been recorded, listening to the CD would tell just half the story. The way the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director mastered the sound perspectives in the hall is something only a seasoned Wagnerian could do: ideal balance pit/stage, absolute clarity (impressive prelude to act III), an exciting sense of forward movement (particularly telling in act II, scene 1) and truly theatrical accents. The reputation of the Deutsche Oper as a Wagnerian house is – at least from the musical point of view – in safe hands.