Bay Area Reporter, 08/05/2010
by Tim Pfaff
Lohengrin variations

At the if-you're-somebody-you-have-to-be-there level, the big-ticket item in opera this summer was the Bayreuth Festival's new production of Wagner's Lohengrin, with the more-handsome-by-the-day Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. To gander at the stills, the comely Kaufmann looks a trifle bored among the lab rats with which the animal-fetishistic director Hans Neuenfels littered the Festspeilhaus stage. I suppose that's one way to take attention away from that pesky swan Wagner left directors to deal with, but maybe, as everyone said, you had to be there.

Those of us who could not bip off to Bavaria in our private jets got a juicy consolation prize by way of Decca's nearly simultaneous release of a DVD of Kaufmann's debut in the role in the Bavarian State Opera's new Lohengrin last summer. Its director, Richard Jones, knew better than to try to get between Kaufmann's virility and the people who love it, but, that said, he did put the tenor and the entire cast in a thought-provoking production that at least didn't trivialize the work. Perhaps oddest of all, it just let the swan be there, plunk, as a no-doubt-about-it swan right where Wagner specified.

Jones places the story in a society in what feels like between-the-world-wars Germany, a state in a proto-totalitarian stage of seeking a new leader. His production – realized on the stage by the cryptically named designer Ultz – works well at the level of telling a story his Munich audience might relate to. It has all the consistency Wagner's highly problematic libretto allows.

Ultz's signature stage pictures feature mostly flat planes in strong, saturated though not quite primary colors. There's a nod toward the traditional Lohengrin soft blue, but here the centerpiece is the white brick house Elsa is building, brick by brick, in her coveralls, as she awaits with supernaturally focused patience the arrival of the man of her dreams – who, when he does arrive, helps with the bricklaying.

Jones' concept made the role of the Herald – here the propagandist public voice of an Orwellian authority, keeping a cowed public "informed" from behind a big, cobalt microphone – make sense to me for the first time. Where the sharp-lined pictures go blurry for me is in the way the production depicts the contenders for leader of this anxious herd all too eager to be governed.

Ortrud and Telramund, usually presented with almost cartoonish, Boris and Natasha unalloyed, oozing malevolence, are a comparatively bland couple here, and any sense of Ortrud's being from the dark side is sacrificed to her almost glow-in-the-dark blond wig, which all but screams Aryan. Who are these people? It's hard to take them seriously, and it doesn't help that the singers, Wolfgang Koch and Michaela Schuster, lack zoots and are little more than obedient to the notes and the stage direction.

Wagner's quandaries are greater than Jones and Ultz could either solve or complicate, but at least Jones keeps us on the line while the ravishing performances by Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, as Elsa, play out. They are the dark, smoldering beauties of this production, though you wouldn't for an instant miss that they're German. But the purity they exude is not the Aryan variety, and singing as sensitive yet intense as these two offer comes along once in a decade, if that. Kaufmann's "In fernem Land" is pure transport, sung as if on a single breath, hushed and heroic in one long, smoldering arc.


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