Have swan, will travel

Warning, I have been struck by the blogging spirit again. I have a lot of notes and half-written reviews in my notebook, so I may be struck again later this week. Sorry for the relative lack of freshness, but think, on a scholarly writing scale this is still lightning fast!!! So I went to see Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House and just another warning, it’s going to take me a few minutes to get to the point here. As a very infrequent blogger I am allowing myself the luxury of taking my time.

Wagner, Lohengrin. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2018, conducted by Andris Nelsons, production directed by David Alden with sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Gideon Davey, lights by Adam Silverman. Cast includes Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Jennifer Davis (Elsa), Christine Goerke (Ortrud), Georg Zeppenfeld (Heinrich), Thomas J. Meyer (Telramund)

So Lohengrin is one of the relatively few operas which I think you see in an updated or concept-ized form more often than not. Even at the Met you are unlikely to see medieval knights and the titular knight’s libretto-prescribed swan boat. The closest you’ll probably get is Medieval Lite like this recent Chicago production:

Even at the Met you’ll get Robert Wilson, though you usually won’t because that production is allegedly extremely expensive to mount (though surprisingly popular!) and this is allegedly why Lohengrin is done at the Met basically never.

I don’t think this is necessarily solely because the plot stretches credibility. While that might be true, lord knows it is not the first time that some implausible shit has gone down in an opera. But I do think that Lohengrin is an opera that we assume operates at an allegorical or symbolic level: it seems to have big thoughts about trust, politics, religion, etc. (This is a privilege which modern critics are much more likely to extend to German works than Italian, but that’s a different kettle of fish.) Lohengrin’s structure (lots of choruses and tableaux) and mysterious, fairy tale-like plot have lent themselves well to a number of elaborate Regie extravaganzas. A few: Peter Konwitschny’s schoolhouse setting, Hans Neuenfels’s rodents, Claus Guth’s Kaspar Hauser thing (which is rumored to be coming to the Met at some point, and based on a not at all shady bootleg video I watched I think it’s pretty good!), and Stefan Herheim being more excessive than he apparently wants to be currently (a production that seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, or at least off the face of the Staatsoper Berlin).

I also have a terrible feeling that I used a version of this same intro spiel when I last wrote about Lohengrin, or at least about some similar opera, but I’m just going to go with it and hope you don’t remember.

Sorry to take so long but I hope this is helpful. I went to see David Alden’s production at the Royal Opera and it is… vaguely suggestive but not a full-blown conceptual extravaganza? And thus seems somewhat perfunctory in comparison? Like approximately half of major Lohengrin productions it did have Klaus Florian Vogt, though.

(Note that this is not the Lohengrin which Roberto Alagna recently dropped out of because he had apparently neglected to learn the role. That is going to be in Bayreuth later this month. This was a new production which just finished up in London.)

This production is not that bad, it has a few striking moments and an appropriately ominous atmosphere. It’s just distinctly lacking in originality and big picture ideas in an opera where there have been lots of those, and from my admittedly rather distant seat there was not a lot of character interest either. It’s Alden’s usual (dude has an ethos), with set designer Paul Steinberg’s usual look. This means a nocturnal urban setting with off-kilter skyscrapers and long coats. It looks like a vaguely post-apocalyptic or proto-Fascist society in crisis, meaning the setting is maybe, like, September? There’s some medieval stuff and some 1940s stuff. But there’s not much more too it. Alden whiffs on the major plot events, flickering some projections to stand in for the swan and staging one of the sadder duels I’ve seen onstage (lots of circling).

The plot is cogent but the action and characterization tends toward cliché. Chairs are thrown, etc. (Everyone wears dark colors except Lohengrin, so I guess that’s something.) There are a lot of vaguely Fascist symbols, including some suggestive swan flags, salutes, and so on. It is unclear who is good and who is bad—Lohengrin seems both savior and dictator—and this ambiguity is the production’s most interesting element, though it’s still undeveloped. This is potentially very potent stuff but is just kind of there. Some moments look good: there are dramatic shadows (lights by Adam Silverman), Elsa emerges from a trapdoor under the stage, there’s a nice Lohengrin painting in the bedroom.

But… Act 2 is a veritable parade of virgin/whore imagery, juxtaposing seductive, undressing Ortrud with saintly, white-dressed Elsa. This is a predictable and disappointing way to go and reminds you that just because they aren’t no one has a shield doesn’t mean that new thinking is going on! Despite being given poor material, Christine Goerke as Ortrud gave the most engaging acting performance of the cast, suggesting an evil bureaucratic functionary gone wild, or something like that, with an energy and spark that projected right up to my cheap seat. Her big voice is strongest in its lower reaches, the high parts were strained and gear shifts noticeable.

Actually not everything in this production is dated, that bedspread is super on trend

Newcomer Jennifer Davis as Elsa, who replaced Kristine Opolais a month or two ago, had somewhat the opposite problem. Vocally she was very promising with a generous lyric soprano which sounded clear and free and projected very well. She didn’t have a lot to say about the character, though, doing little with the text and limited in her range of colors. Granted, the production gave her little to work with here, but she still seems to be finding her way with this role. Definitely one to look out for in the future but I don’t think she’s quite there yet.

As the knight himself we had stalwart Klaus Florian Vogt, who could sing this role beautifully in his sleep and occasionally appeared to be doing exactly that. His Lohengrin, otherworldly and disembodied of voice, is unmistakable and sounds remarkable. Theatrically, though, he’s not a natural actor and hits rather predictable beats. He was excellent in the Neuenfels rodent production a few years ago but like Davis didn’t find much distinctive here. His performance remains remarkable primarily for his sheer sound and meticulous performance of the big set pieces. Vocally Georg Zeppenfeld was an excellent Heinrich and Thomas J. Meyer a textually interesting if vocally overextended Telramund.

One other drag on the performance, literally, was Andris Nelsons’s conducting, which was unexpectedly slow. I associate him with speed, but here he wanted to stretch everything out, which was a good thing in the ethereal prelude but less so elsewhere. There were some interesting colors here, but Lohengrin isn’t Parsifal and can’t be an entirely vertical opera. I wanted a swifter pace and more tension than he was giving us here. Like Alden, it was work with a few memorable moments but not a whole picture.

So an acceptable Lohengrin but for me, in an opera with a fair amount of competition in both music and production, not a particularly memorable one. If I have time and mental energy to blog some more there will be some more interesting stuff coming up from Aix-en-Provence and I will be able to write much more enthusiastically!

Photos copyright Clive Barda.

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1 Comment

  1. Vogt, incidentally, sang the tenor role in Das Lied von der Erde for the Hamburg Ballet at 7:30pm CET the night before the staging of Lohengrin in London you went to. He sounded fantastic, but that is some hardcore scheduling. He’s also taking time out between performances of Walther in Bayreuth to do a recital with Annette Dasch in Wiesbaden in August.

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