Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Swan's Way

July 08, 2009

Anja Harteros, Wolfgang Koch, and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

It’s Wednesday, so it must be Wagner. Specifically, it’s Lohengrin in Munich with a whole crop of positives on paper - music director Kent Nagano conducting, directed by Richard Jones, and starring Anja Harteros as Elsa and Jonas Kaufmann in his first go at the title role. As with the premiere on Sunday, Wednesday’s second performance was met with numerous lusty boos clearly directed at the production. And while I’m aware that this is a de rigeur response to new opera productions in this part of the world, you’d think that at this point the disgust threshold would have been raised amongst the audience by now. But I must admit that by the end of the evening I had some sympathy for the booers given that Richard Jones has created a production that may be interesting and thought provoking, but is fairly difficult to actually like.

The primary tactic is to remove virtually all sense of spectacle and magic from the opera in favor of a domestic drama that revolves around faith. In fact, one might argue that Jones views the Lohengrin story as one about religious fanaticism at its core. When we meet Elsa, she is dressed in work clothes and rabidly going about her own business building a house. Despite the drama and accusations flying around her in Brabant, she barely gives anyone a look as she crosses back and forth through the crowd with bricks and other materials. It turns out, of course, this is all part of her dream about a knight-savior coming to defend and then marry her. She is building their house because that is her dream and the rest will take care of itself. She is upset about her vanished brother as we are reminded by the numerous vermisst posters plastered about the stage and handed out in the theater lobby.

Eventually her knight arrives in silver trainers, track pants, and a baby blue t-shirt. Carrying a stuffed swan from off stage. It’s a decidedly anti-climactic entrance, but soon he has shopping bags placed on the heads of the guards and he's won over enough of the crowd that everyone begins to jump in on building the life-size three-room house on stage. This is an activity that will reach its completion at the start of Act III and provides much of the background action throughout the opera. Meanwhile the pronouncements of the King's Herald, sung here by Evgeny Niktin, are made over a loud speaker with accompanying video on two small circular screens high above the stage enhancing the cultish feel of the staging. As Jones and Wagner enter the home stretch, everyone is won over and now sport similar baby blue tees despite Elsa's nagging questions now stoked by Ortrud and Friedrich von Telramund. Of course she finds out her husbands name and origin much to her chagrin. And as she catches on to what is about to transpire and that she, and to an extent the community, have failed this primary test of faith, she attempts to put her hand over Lohengrin’s mouth to prevent his speaking his name. She fails, and though she gets her brother back, the meeting hall curtain raises to reveal a stage full of cots with hand guns on them. All of the townspeople soon occupy these cots and prepare for a mass suicide as the lights go down, the leader of their cult having abandoned them for their lack of faith.

Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

Or at least that’s my version of things. I’m sure there are others. The good news is that regardless of how daunting the staging was, the musical values of the production were superb. Let’s talk about how great Anja Harteros is. Is there anything she can’t sing? I’ve not heard it yet and she was clean and bright and brilliant here. Jonas Kaufmann wasn’t bad either. His voice is probably a little bit lower than you might choose for your dream Lohengrin, but he handles the part often beautifully and with real feeling. Nagano and the orchestra were in top form. I always admired his Wagner conducting when he was in L.A. and he really delivers here. The rest of the cast was strong with perhaps the exception of Michaela Schuster as Ortrud, who often seemed distanced and lost in the thrall of the orchestra. Otherwise there was no bellowing and the opera had a light quality one doesn't always associate with Wagner's music, though it really should be there. There are five more performances in July before a return run in October so for those in Munich there are plenty of chances to catch this first-rate performance even if it comes with a heavy dose of bitter medicine.

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