Times, May 21, 2010
Geoff Brown
Jonas Kaufmann: Lohengrin
A production by two men who love to scrub away tradition and squeeze operas into conceptual straitjackets that may or may not fit

The populace’s outfits, golden yellow and black, immediately suggest a fascist 20th-century Germany of regimentation and bloated nationalist pride. Then Lohengrin — the cherished Jonas Kaufmann — arrives in a pale blue T-shirt. Wagner’s heroine Elsa, meanwhile, has been busying herself laying white bricks, first steps to a dream house that gradually dominates the stage.

Confused? Don’t be. For we’re watching a production directed by Richard Jones, designed by his regular collaborator Ultz: two men who love to scrub away tradition and squeeze operas into conceptual straitjackets that may or may not fit. When this Munich Festival staging of Wagner’s drama emerged last July the singers and conductor Kent Nagano were cheered; Jones’ contribution received catcalls. Yet if your affronted eyebrows settle, most of the spectacle, excellently engineered, soon makes thematic and dramatic sense.

With their trowels and sweat, Elsa and her saviour Lohengrin are building a metaphor of peace and contentment, political and domestic. They’re also busying the stage in an opera that tends to dawdle. But nothing clutters Jones’s focus on the opera’s heart: the love of Elsa and her man with no name, and the pain when Lohengrin’s identity and mission are revealed.

Close-ups in opera DVDs aren’t always a boon, but Kaufmann and the superlative Elsa of Anja Harteros survive every scrutiny by the video director, Karina Fibich. When Kaufmann’s tenor dips to pianissimo for the Grail narrative, we’re putty in his hands. Physically noble and charismatic, subtly acting and interacting, he’s never a star on a pedestal. Top notes, true, can be slightly pinched: Harteros proves the more consistent, creamy and secure across her range.

Singing is strong across the board. Michaela Schuster’s Ortrud squawks a bit, but it suits her characterisation as an Ayran harpie. Wolfgang Koch is full of fine fury as her malcontent husband Telramund; while Christof Fischesser shimmers with regal anguish as Heinrich, the German king. Below, in the Bavarian State Opera pit, Nagano adopts a refreshingly temperate approach, avoiding juggernaut blasts but delighting in details and phrasing.

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