Life is full of surprises. For instance, when the Salzburg Easter Festival announced its program for 2017, I read “Lohengrin” and thought it improbable that a second Wagner opera could be added to the traditional scheme. But then this was not Wagner’s Lohengrin, but Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, which is called by the composer an “azione invisibile”. The name itself makes it difficult to call this an opera, a genre supposed to show something to be seen. Then one will discover that the work barely involves any singing at all.
Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, as performed in its final version, has a prologue including two preexistant pieces by Sciarrino himself and Claudio Monteverdi’s most famous madrigal Lamento della ninfa, for soprano, tenor and two basses. The same group of singers would appear in the opera itself, which is rather a melodram, in the sense that the soprano does sing at all, but rather speaks Jules Laforgue’s text over an ostinato-like orchestral accompaniment only occasionally commented by the remaining singers (who sing very short groups of notes). The fact that the main role (Elsa) is referred to as a soprano part has to do with the fact that the text is spoken in a musical way, in the sense that there is a rhythmic structure and, if one cannot really speak of something as detailed as “Sprechgesang”, there are different registers prescribed by the composer, not to mention noises produced by the singer.
There is also some contradiction in the word “azione”, for very little happens. Elsa is in a nuptial room trying to make Lohengrin (whose lines are said by herself) consummate their marriage without success. Then the pillow transform itself in a swan and flies away carrying Lohengrin with him. She tries to understand what has happened but the swan flies back mounted by a majestic boy. Finally, the scene changes to show that Elsa is actually a patient in a mental institution.
Michael Sturminger has the prologue performed as a concert. In the end of it, the soloist climbs on stage and becomes Elsa in the room of an apartment. The “magical effects” described in the libretto are indeed invisible to the eyes of the audience. Here Elsa is clearly deranged: the pillow scene is just her tearing her pillow apart and covering the stage with white feathers. There is indeed a boy who appears at her room, whom she smothers with another pillow, a suggestion of the rason why Elsa was locked up there in the first place. Those who saw the old Kupfer production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Lindenoper will remember that, in that staging, Ortrud did not lie when she said… she had not lied. In any case, Sturminger has done a very efficient job with a nut hard to crack as this. The lighting effects and video projections were beautiful and produced indeed an uncanny atmosphere, not to mention that he really took the pains of blocking the stage action based on the score. He was also lucky to find an excellent actress in soprano Sarah Maria Sun, who has excellent Italian and did not spare herself here. Her singing of the Monteverdi, though, was not particularly expressive.