IlSole 24Ore, 08.12.12
Carla Moreni
Wagner: Lohengrin, Teatro alla Scala, 7. Dezember 2012
Germany Has a Gloomy and Questioning Trait in the Lohengrin Opera
The first performance at La Scala Theatre, which took place yesterday evening, was anticipated with bated breath. The Italian national hymn “Inno a Mameli” was postponed till the end of the performance, where it was sung from the VIP stands by Prime Minister Mario Monti and the mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia. The night before, the lead actress of Lohengrin did not arrive from Frankfurt. In the end, soprano Annette Dasch agreed to fly to Milan to substitute for Anja Harteros, who was supposed to play Elsa von Brabant but had not yet recovered from the flu, which had prevented her, as well as her understudy, Ann Petersen, from going on stage for the preview performance done for younger audiences. Annette, with a delightful, childlike voice, bravely arrived at La Scala with her daughter Fanny, only a few months old, who was carefully attended by the grandmother.

Between the lead performers portraying children and the actual children of the actors, the dressing room looked more like a nursery than a theater.

Dasch is blonde, unlike Harteros, but fortunately they are the same height. Hence, she had no problem fitting in her snow-white dress, an immaculate night gown that gave a great sense of purity. The gown was designed by Christian Schmidt, who also took care of the austere scenery: a façade of a building resembling a barracks, surrounded by three balconies and a ledge, where the large choir was positioned. The main figures the new production of Lohengrin were lead tenor Jonas Kaufmann and conductor Daniel Barenboim, in their majestic outfits, along with a choir trained by Bruno Casoni, delivering a sumptuous performance, with particular care in following the details of the Wagner score.

Kaufmann has a warm voice and delivers each phrase as if he were saying it to each member of the audience. The director, Claus Guth, has chosen to have Kaufmann’s character begin his performance as an epileptic, full of twitches. No one would expect him to win the terrible duel. Charming, with his black curly hair, he managed to perform for four hours barefoot. In the third act, he even merrily placed his feet in a puddle of water on the stage. An anti-hero, and an anti-Teutonic, is how the culture of romantic Germany would define him. Gloomy, questioning and losing. Certainly not the Nazi strain of Germany, which tried to find a connection in this musical score. Guth builds a visual story that seems to have come out of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrook. The costumes of the mid-1800s are elegant and severe, reaffirming the orderly and austere nature of the new bourgeoise: on the stage there is the ever-present vertical black piano that dominates the scenery, a symbol of education and discipline. That is where all the emotional drama is unveiled. That is where we see young Elsa move her delicate hands in a powerful flashback (the child singer was very good), where we find her grown up, full of neurosis, just like the character Lohengrin. The teacher is always the same: the evil Ortrud. To define the nature of her character, Guth chooses to dress her always in black, quoting the black and white swan of Tchaikovsky.

To enhance the subjection of Elsa to Ostrud—good versus evil—the teacher violently closes the piano on the pupil’s hand. This is truly what used to be done in horrid ancient music schools. Seeing it in the scene is very disquieting. The diabolical soul of Ortrud—interpreted majestically by Evelyn Herlitzius—plunges into the abyss of cruelty. That is how Wagner’s libretto portrays it, though he was unable to attend his premier in Weimar in 1850 because he had been sentenced to death, accused of being a subversive. King Friedrich, interpreted by René Pape, has a flexible chant that moves audiences. Despite his vast military experience he succumbs to his fate. Telramund, Ostrud’s suspicious husband, interpreted by baritone Tomas Tomasson, is a hysterical charcter, completely under the thumb of his wife. But the weak and anti-heroic side of the opera is embodied by the ill and defeated Jonas Kaufmann more than anyone else. He always seems driven by a higher will that makes him act as if he were in a trance. He isn’t lead on stage in a boat dragged by a swan, as Wagner wrote it, since no director chooses this stage direction anymore. But he appears on stage in a fetal position, almost quoting the Nativity, with his back to the audience while the crowd moves around him in wonder. What the swan leaves, almost in legacy, are some feathers that Guth will play with for the entire course of the story, mocking the symbols that once defined Wagner’s music as Aryan. The metaphor of the double, between Elsa’s brother and Lohengrin, leads the opera toward Freud’s dream, rather than to the Germanic myth. This choice could be criticized simply because it gives away the end too soon, spoiling the surprise. But it’s very effective in portraying a profound and multishaded Lohengrin throughout an outstanding performance.

 back top