New York Times, 14 July 2009
Talent Makes 'Lohengrin' a Hot Ticket
MUNICH — Operagoers know only too well the frustration of witnessing a musically rewarding performance undermined by a wayward production. But rarely is the gulf as wide as in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” which opened last week in the National Theater. This is Munich’s hottest opera ticket, made so by fevered expectations for the tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s first-ever appearance in the title role. Not only does he deliver, but the Staatsoper has surrounded him with singers at or near his level.

This is the good news. The production by Richard Jones, however, puts forward a sociopolitical interpretation in the form of metaphor: the ongoing construction of what looks like a modest Bavarian country house. The décor by the designer known as Ultz follows a practice common in large-scale operas with massed scenes: a divider — here a wall with modern doors — intermittently isolates characters for greater intimacy. Yet the wall’s real function is to emphasize progress on the house each time the full stage is revealed.

Mr. Jones portrays Elsa as no maiden in distress, but as an overalls-clad construction worker scarcely bothered by the life-and-death charges of fratricide leveled against her. After her champion Lohengrin mysteriously appears, pledges his love and vindicates her cause, he picks up a trowel and joins her in laying bricks while — in one of several mismatches between what is seen and what is heard — soloists and chorus sing rapturously of his victory.

By Act III the house is finished, in time to serve as home for the newlyweds. The sparse, pine-paneled interior includes a cradle — perhaps Mr. Jones will answer a favorite question of opera fans: what would it be like if heroine X and hero Y survive to lead a normal domestic existence? But Elsa poses a question of her own, breaking her promise not to ask about Lohengrin’s name and origin; soon the knight douses the house and sets it ablaze. The opera ends with mass suicide.

In a clip on the Staatsoper’s Web site, its general director, Nikolaus Bachler, says that this “Lohengrin” is about constructing a new society. (The program book offers a collection of articles about both Wagner — including one mentioning Bayreuth’s jingoistic 1936 production — and architecture, without linking the two.) Seizing on the chauvinistic tone of the opera’s theme of uniting Germans against a common threat, Mr. Jones chooses to delineate how to construct a new society the wrong way. The nonspecific uniforms of Ultz’s costumes suggest both the former East Germany (and thus the need for a new German society) and fascism (how not to achieve it). But Mr. Jones’s strained interpretation results in a “Lohengrin” that is perhaps the mirror image of the 1936 Bayreuth production. At bottom, his is simply another attempt to exalt the unseemly in Wagner’s work. Don’t ask about the opera’s mythic, chivalric or storybook dimensions.

The singing is so good as to soar above the surroundings, constantly returning us to what Wagner had in mind. Though dressed in T-shirt and athletic pants and endowed with superfluous magical powers, Mr. Kaufmann conveyed Lohengrin’s essential nobility through his singing. He is an accomplished exponent of Italian and French roles, but the voice has a weight and darkish timbre ideal for lyrical Wagner roles like Lohengrin. He makes a startlingly beautiful sound at full cry but also offers arresting soft singing, as in the Grail Narrative, that never lapsed into crooning.

Anja Harteros sings Elsa in beautifully produced tones strung together in legato phrases that capture the maiden’s dreamy nature. An especially cherishable moment came when she hailed Lohengrin as her redeemer (“Mein Erlöser”) with an exquisitely floated high A. But Ms. Harteros also unleashed vocal reserves for Elsa’s more commanding utterances, as when confronting the sorceress Ortrud.

Another outstanding performance comes from the baritone Wolfgang Koch as Ortrud’s husband Telramund, who is duped into falsely charging Elsa, which he does with thorough self-satisfaction. But Mr. Koch goes on to chart the ill-fated knight’s growing desperation with fierce energy. Michaela Schuster is a fine Ortrud, and a plausibly seductive one, but a few vocal blemishes remind us that we have not in fact reentered a golden age of Wagner singing. Christof Fischesser contributes an animated, well accented King Henry, and Evgeny Nikitin, looking like a college professor in tweed jacket but oddly stationed on a tall chair as if refereeing a tennis match, is a terrific Herald.

The score sounded newly scrubbed in Kent Nagano’s scrupulously textured reading. He is not one to indulge in Romantic excess, yet the clarity of the playing he encouraged did not come at the expense of the music’s grander gestures. Mr. Nagano observed the traditional cut in the final scene, omitting the departing Lohengrin’s cringe-producing assurance that Germany will never succumb to “Eastern hordes.” Never a regrettable loss, the passage would be especially out of place here, since Mr. Jones has ensured that the country is already in shambles.

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