Classics Today, June 5, 2010
Robert Levine
Director Richard Jones has brought a one-dimensional concept to Munich's new Lohengrin, recorded in July, 2009. Just as his dark, joyless Hänsel und Gretel at the Met was "about" hunger and so he replaced the forest in Act 2 with a dark dining room and gave us a scene-changing scrim depicting what seemed like a gaping, bloody mouth after a visit to a sadistic dentist, here his focus is on hearth and home--domestic bliss. In fact, that is one of the opera's points--that Lohengrin and Elsa will live happily ever after if only she does not ask you-know-what.

Well, there is no domestic happiness without a nice house, and so from the moment the curtain rises, Elsa, in work overalls with hair simply braided, is drawing a picture of a house, and for the remainder of the next two acts everyone helps with the building. (The set is by Ultz--just "Ultz".) The home is a microcosm for the country, and in this case the country is in disarray since the Hungarians have invaded Germany. Start from the ground up and everything else will follow. I am giving Jones the benefit of the doubt, by the way--maybe it's just about building a happy life and a house, and the bad guys are incidental. Sort of like the theme of fear or the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel.

Posters with the picture of a young boy (Gottfried, the heir) with the word "Vermisst" (missing) are on the walls. Lohengrin's entrance is straightforward and lacks pomp and/or circumstance, and except for the fact that he is carrying a swan (shouldn't it be the other way around?) he's just a regular Joe. He needs a shave and looks as if he just came from a pick-up basketball game, wearing a blue tee shirt (untucked) and track pants. He duels "magically" without touching Telramund.

Dress is military for some (very brownshirt-ish), and school sweaters with insignia or sports jackets for others. The Herald, in a brown tweed suit, sits on a lifeguard's chair and makes his pronouncements into a microphone (not amplified, just a prop). For his wedding, Lohengrin changes into typical Bavarian gear, including, yes, a funny hat and lederhosen; Elsa has let her hair down and given up her overalls in favor of a simple white bridal dress. Eventually the whole chorus is wearing blue, untucked tee shirts. Ortrud, save for her platinum blond, Aryan, page-boy wig, is otherwise quite ordinary and Telramund is a nasty, sloppy bully. The house is finally built--kitchen table, bed, baby cradle and all, with a lovely planted garden, but at the close of the Bridal Chamber Scene, Lohengrin, left alone after the great betrayal, sets it on fire, cradle first.

The closing curtain presents a tableau of the entire cast on barracks-like cots, pointing guns to their heads. Mass suicide? Was Lohengrin just a cult leader, who, upon departing, leaves everyone to die? And, by the way, he signs his name at the wedding ceremony, so what's the big revelation in the Bridal Chamber Scene? In other words, Jones' concept can and does make some sense at moments, but then it just loses steam; it's half-baked. He has taken one of the echt-Romantic operas and turned it into something entirely different. No scary forest in Hänsel und Gretel for him.

Musically, we have an entirely different story. Not only does Jonas Kaufmann look great--albeit like your neighbor rather than a Knight of the Grail--he acts well and he shades his phrases so handsomely that everything matters; he is a caring, attentive, guy whose grief at being betrayed overwhelms him. The voice is not a true Heldentenor; rather it is a grand lyric. For "In fernem land" he looks straight ahead; singing slowly and quietly, as in a trance, he tells his story. The first lines are whispered, and the sudden rise to forte at the word "Grail" is big, blossoming, and as radiant as the object itself. Throughout, his use of dynamics, his ability to take long phrases in one breath, his concentration--particularly under these circumstances, where his music is extraordinary and his behavior is meant to be like everyone else's--are masterful.

Almost matching him in sheer loveliness is soprano Anja Harteros. Made to look as ordinary as an Amish farm girl, she sings radiantly. She is not treated like a princess and therefore resentment for her by Ortrud and Telramund just seems like spite. But never mind: her "Euch luften" is magnificent; her growing mania after the wedding is palpable; the sadness that pervades her being as Lohengrin sings his final narrative (a close-up reveals a tear in her eye) is truly touching.

Both Ortrud and Telramund are under-characterized in this production. She, in the person of Michaela Schuster, sings with absolute ease but too placidly, and he, with a fine snarl to his big voice, is merely a bully who is abusive to Elsa in Act 1. Evgeny Nitikin, up on his tall chair, announces with authority as the Herald, and Christof Fischesser as King Heinrich, who might just be the local mayor, sings impressively.

Of course none of the musical success would be possible without Kent Nagano's leadership. Just as his Opus Arte DVD performance from Baden Baden (in Nichloas Lehnhoff's production) is perfectly judged, so is this one: "In fernem land" is slower and even more focused here, but otherwise we have a very similar approach, despite the differences in productions. And the Munich forces play stunningly for him. But picture this: The Prelude in Baden Baden is accompanied by a white light from the rear of the stage from which Elsa emerges like a vision; in Munich it accompanies a nice girl in pig-tails drawing a picture of a house.

In short, Kaufmann and Harteros are remarkable, but so are Klaus Florian Vogt and Solveig Kringelborn in Baden Baden, and that production, though daring in concept (Wagner himself is the star), is more of a piece. This one is humdrum to look at and works too hard to prove its single point. Both picture and sound are brilliant.

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