Book Review, 16 May 2022
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
Richard Wagner’s music of hypnosis
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime we drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
you with leaden bullets his aim is true …
(from ‘Todesfuge’ by Paul
Celan, translated by Pierre Joris)
Not long before the 1845 première
of Tannhäuser, Richard Wagner was holidaying at the spa of Marienbad. He had
with him a copy of the anonymous German epic Lohengrin, and he was
possessed. Ever the sensualist, he described the impact in luxurious terms:
No sooner had I got into my bath at noon than I felt an overpowering
desire to write Lohengrin and this longing so overcame me that I could not
wait the prescribed hour of the bath, but when a few minutes elapsed I
jumped out and, barely giving myself time to dress, ran home to write down
what I had in my mind. I repeated this for several days until the complete
sketch for Lohengrin was on paper.
Writing to a friend, Wagner said:
‘I wrote the final words of the libretto yesterday; I have now only the
music to compose.’ What other composer would put it so nonchalantly? Neville
Cardus has observed: ‘Every sentence in a Wagner libretto was a vein of
music waiting to flow as soon as opened.’
The first performance took
place in Weimar on 28 August 1850, with Liszt at the podium. Wagner was by
then a political refugee from Saxony after the 1849 May revolution in
Dresden. He would not see a performance of Lohengrin until 1861, in Vienna.
Lohengrin stands at the crossroad; Wagner was impatient for change. His
art, Michael Tanner has suggested, ‘springs from a radical dissatisfaction
with life, but the sources of that dissatisfaction lay so deep that he had
the greatest difficulty in finding an adequate situation to embody it.’
Soon after the Weimar première, Wagner wrote to the literary scholar
There is a whole world between Lohengrin and my present
plans. What is so terribly embarrassing for me is to see a snakeskin I shed
long ago dangled in front of me willy-nilly as if I were still in it. If I
could have everything my way, Lohengrin … would be long forgotten in favour
of new works that prove, even to me, that I have made progress.
the snakeskin begins with a Prelude of ethereal beauty, based on one of the
leitmotifs that begin to infiltrate his music: that of the Holy Grail.
Tanner again: ‘As the most intelligent and self-conscious, as well as the
most intellectual of artists, he could see that in the prelude he had
written a new kind of music, one for which he had a dangerous gift: the
music of hypnosis.’
The new production in Melbourne is a
co-production of Opera Australia and La Monnaie in Brussels, where it had
its première in 2018. It is the work of French director Olivier Py and his
regular designer, Pierre-André Weitz. Gone is the River Schedt, the fortress
of Antwerp, the bridal chamber – gone is the swan! Instead, on a very
effective revolve, we have a ruined theatre in Berlin, bombed during World
War II and now gingerly inhabited, despite the debris, by the players of
Brabant. The choristers – brilliantly illuminated (Bertrand Killy’s lighting
is inspired) – occupy the devastated tiers in the theatre; occasionally they
join the principals on stage.
Py, like other European directors, is
haunted by the putative (and debatable) link between Richard Wagner (who
died in 1883) and the origins of Nazism. In a useful interview, Py states:
‘I believe that the link between German romanticism and National Socialism
is most apparent in Lohengrin.’ He contends that Wagner ‘anticipated the
possible outcome of an alliance between German metaphysics and German
nationalism’. In a woollier passage he argues that, ‘When directing an
opera, you always have to try and capture the Zeitgeist. Otherwise you
ignore the subversiveness of the work.’
Lohengrin, to some of us,
feels too innocent, too elemental – too daft in a way – to qualify as
subversive. Ultimately, almost embarrassingly, good does indeed triumph over
evil (whatever that means).
The massive set – with its sombre
palette, complemented by Weitz’s black costumes, with occasional bursts of
grey and a stylish off-white overcoat for Lohengrin – mostly works,
especially at the end, during ‘In fernem Land’, when the sorrowful Lohengrin
casts a terrifying shadow on the theatre’s rear wall.
Now and then,
Py indulges in clichéd effects seemingly designed to satirise the drama.
Telramund’s anguish at the start of Act II, when he rues his disgrace and
banishment, is too genuine to be mocked by a noose lowered from the ceiling.
One soon tires of the buckets of postwar debris passed along the row of
Trümmerfrauen. During the famous march that precedes the bridal chorus in
Act III, Py introduces a sprightly acrobat – a camp throwback à la Leni
Riefenstahl. (The audience duly applauded the acrobat’s one-arm planche:
everything is circus after all.)
Apparently, the chalking up of
poetry and symbols is a signature trick of Py’s. ‘Der Tod ist ein Meister
aus Deutschland’ – the graffito on the back of the theatre – comes from Paul
Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, or ‘Death Fugue’. Then there are the mysterious
symbols patiently daubed by Ortrud. Not random road signs as some may have
thought, these are drawn from esoteric Nazi iconography – the Celtic Cross
and the Black Sun (Schwarze Sonne), a kind of sun wheel. (Some hint, some
note in the welcome program, might have helped Australian audiences.)
Of the six principals, three were Australian: Warwick Fyfe, Daniel
Sumegi, and Simon Meadows. Sumegi – Opera Australia’s Wotan in next
year’s Ring in Brisbane – brought his usual presence and volume to the
king’s role, with its testing high passages. Fyfe, our Herald – fresh from
his magnificent Wotan in Melbourne Opera’s recent Die Walküre – was every
bit as good as when he sang the same role in Melbourne twenty years ago.
Simon Meadows, an outstanding Alberich in last year’s Das Rheingold from
Melbourne Opera, sang with equal power and flair as the nefarious Friedrich
Telramund and his wife, Ortrud, are wonderfully
unscrupulous. Theirs is a Macbethian marriage steeped in intrigue and
manipulation. Ortrud is certainly the most powerful figure in the opera.
Interestingly, Wagner saw her as a politician, a member of a class he
abhorred. In 1852 he wrote to Liszt: ‘Ortrud is a woman who does not know
love. Her nature is politics. A male politician disgusts us, a female
politician appals us.’
Ortrud is such a meaty role. One thinks of
fine performances from Nance Grant (VSO, 1985) and Elizabeth Connell (OA,
2002). Our Ortrud on this occasion was the French-Russian mezzo-soprano
Elena Gabouri. We first heard her in Sydney four years ago when she sang
Amneris in David Livermore’s LED-happy production of Aida. At the time I
wrote, ‘This was brilliant singing, fearlessly enacted.’ Nothing has
changed. In her role début as Ortrud, Gabouri – busy, saucy, baleful,
mordant – threatened to walk away with the show. Very funny to watch, she
played Telramund – that reliable dupe – like a fiddle. This was a creepily
filial kind of coupling, brilliantly conveyed by these two young
The sheer scale of Gabouri’s voice is phenomenal: even
at the end, when Ortrud pushed her way through the crowd and exulted in her
perfidy, the high notes were ringing, as if Gabouri could have sung the role
all over again. Gabouri’s Azucena in Opera Australia’s new Il Trovatore in
Sydney this coming July will be quite an event.
Emily Magee was Elsa
of Brabant – poor vulnerable, vestal Elsa, gullible and masochistic –
another of Wagner’s truly silly female characters. Magee – American-born and
now in her mid-forties – sings roles such as Eva, Ellen Orford, and Salome.
She and Kaufmann have been performing together for years (Tosca and Ariadne
auf Naxos). Magee, with her sure technique, fine diction, and high floated
notes, was at her best in Elsa’s Dream in Act I and during the long, complex
scene in Act II when Ortrud, facing exile and disgrace, oilily beguiles Elsa
and persuades her to do the one thing that Lohengrin has enjoined her never
to do: to ask about his name, his origins, his ancestry. This is one of the
finest scenes in the opera, and both women were at their best.
the festal opening in Act III, the set for the conjugal scene – hardly the
bridal chamber that Wagner had intended – did Magee and Kaufmann no favours.
This was a kind of three-tiered set-room, with props of all kinds and busts
of Goethe and Beethoven and all. The long love duet that follows – rightly
described by Gustave Kobbé as ‘one of the sweetest and tenderest passages of
which the lyric stage can boast’ – is another highlight of this opera, but
here it was compromised by the pinched, vertiginous set. Placed high above
the stage, Magee had difficulty projecting into the vast State Theatre. Our
attention was diverted by the newlyweds’ complicated movements and ascents,
a distraction from the drama of Elsa’s stubborn insistence on learning
Lohengrin’s name, which shatters their accord.
The chorus, under Paul
Fitzsimon, was in mighty form throughout, and how good it was to hear a
young Australian at the podium. Tahu Matheson’s subtle and sympathetic
conducting should take him far. Orchestra Victoria has rarely sounded
Jonas Kaufmann has been a frequent visitor to Australia since
2014 when he gave concerts in Sydney and Melbourne – exclusively French and
Italian fare (no Wagner). We next heard him as Parsifal in 2017 – a concert
version – and this was followed in 2019 by Andrea Chénier, also in concert.
In a post-lockdown coup, Opera Australia has lured the German tenor back
to Australia in one of his most celebrated roles, his first fully staged
production in the country.
Kaufmann, who recently added Peter Grimes
to his repertoire in Vienna, is now fifty-two, prime time for tenors.
Inevitably, the voice has changed since 2002 when I first heard him. This
was four years before Kaufmann became internationally famous after singing
Alfredo at the Met. La Monnaie had brought its celebrated production of La
Damnation de Faust to Dresden, with Susan Graham and José van Dam. But who
was the impossibly good-looking Faust with the long dark curls and thrilling
high notes of rare amplitude? Well, we found out!
The voice now is
darker, richer, with unusual baritonal qualities. The high notes are still
clarion and utterly secure. Kaufmann knows this role inside out; he moved
and sang with complete assurance, easily negotiating the tedious chair that
the principals had to use whenever they mounted the stage (few opera singers
look graceful climbing onto a kitchen chair).
After the third summons
by the Herald, the knight normally arrives on a boat drawn by that kitschy
swan to some of the greatest music in all opera. Instead, Py has Lohengrin
romping around backstage with an otiose boy dressed in white (the ghost of
the murdered brother Gottfried, perhaps). Then Lohengrin moves onstage and
presents himself as Elsa’s champion. All that is left of the Swan is a
handful of feathers. Lohengrin then farewells the Swan to exquisite music,
sung beautifully by Kaufmann, mostly unaccompanied. Then he introduces the
requisite steel in his voice as Lohengrin offers Elsa – defamed by Telramund
and accused of murdering her missing brother – his hand in marriage, on one
condition. For Lohengrin, like the Ring that will follow, is an opera about
the making and breaking of contracts.
At the end of the opera, after
Elsa’s suicidal betrayal (‘O Elsa! What have you done to me?’), Kaufmann
moved front-stage and sang ‘In fernem Land’, the great aria of declaration
and extrication, music we know already from the Prelude. Here, Kaufmann was
at his most magnetic; rarely has a Melbourne audience held its breath for so
long. Kaufmann’s dynamics are always daring; he is capable of such
stillness, such hush. Lohengrin is one of those idealised, lonely heroes who
suit Kaufmann temperamentally. He seems most focused, most energised, when
alone on stage. In ‘In fernem Land’, Kaufmann risked much with the inward
fervour of his singing of the early passages, especially the description of
the Grail and its wondrous power. It was a heart-stopping moment in the
theatre. The aria ended radiantly. The Farewell was similarly poignant. In
all, it was a memorable and suspenseful performance from the German tenor.
Py, in the interview mentioned earlier, spoke of the synaesthetic
dimension of Wagner’s art. ‘Its effect is such that sometimes I don’t know
if it’s my ear that’s watching or my eye that’s listening.’ Despite the
absurdities of the story, the sheer silliness of some of the
characters, Lohengrin contains music of great beauty and addictiveness. We
need to hear this early work every few years to remind us of the
revolutionary advances of the music-dramas that would follow over the next
three decades, and of what made them possible.
Once again, just weeks
after that splendid Die Walküre from Melbourne Opera, Wagner reveals himself
– notwithstanding his longueurs, his ambiguity, his seemingly endless
thorniness for European directors with their fretful consciences – as
indispensable for the health of any serious opera company and its audience.
At his best, Wagner stirs us, slays us, seduces us as no other composer can
– a unique entrancement.
Just three years separated the first two
operas in this short season from Opera Australia: first Lohengrin and
then La Traviata in 1853. The current pairing is not without interest.
Musically, dramatically, these two operas are worlds apart – the one mythic
and nebulous, the other domestic and incisive – and yet passages from
Wagner’s Prelude and the equally melodious one that opens Act III of Verdi’s
opera seem ironically related despite the opposing personalities of these
two nineteenth-century titans and adversaries.