CAST: Jonas Kaufmann: Lohengrin; Anja Harteros: Elsa von Brabant; Wolfgang Koch: Friedrich von Telramund; Michaela Schuster: Ortrud; Christof Fischesser: Heinrich der Vogler; Evgeny Nikitin: Heerufen
Kent Nagano, conductor
Stage director: Richard Jones; Sets & Costume Design: Ultz; Light Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Video Director: Karina Fibich
As it happened to many other operas recorded in recent years, this production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin too suffers from the dichotomy between the vocal perfection of the singers and the disputable directing choices.
The setting of stage director Richard Jones is far less provocative and innovative than others, but it is nonetheless minimalist and, in a certain sense, ridiculous. The story of not mutual trust between Lohengrin and Elsa is not made banal, but it is nonetheless belittled, despite the effort to show the work in progress in the building of the house that Elsa designed during the prelude and burned down by Lohengrin after he realized that she cannot believe in him without his revelation. The main theme is therefore saved, but the opera is now set in a yard, with bricklayers and planking that hardly preserve the noble side of Lohengrin, a feature that is as important as the “trust theme”, as Wagner’s music constantly stresses. It seems that the stage director underestimated this aspect, perhaps thinking that the modern conception of a lay society can be applied to Lohengrin and to the 10th century and despite Lohengrin’s final admission to be the son of Parsifal, the guardian of the Graal. It is not obligatory that Lohengrin wears a cuirass, but it is absurd to make him enter with the swan in his arms and dressed in a T-shirt and tracksuit trousers and to pretend that we recognize a rescuer and a hero in this common man with such a strange luggage.
Moreover, the video direction too is not one of the most captivating ones. The close-ups are too narrow and some lateral shots, to show the stage from a different angle-shot, remind of those films secretly recorded from the boxes above the stage.
The video is the worst part of Lohengrin, but I do not think that there is something to complain about the performance, especially considering that the singers have been able to embody the roles without being misled by the setting. This miracle has been possible thanks to the conduction of Kent Nagano, who is far more acquainted with Wagner’s opera than Jones. Nagano does not despise the evocative spirit of Lohengrin and in it he has the strong point of his conduction. His tempos are well chosen to give prominence to the different nuances of the opera, from the charming tunes associated with Elsa to the “darkness” of Friedrich and – even more – Ortrud, so that every moment, every passage is a small and precious picture of feelings. In this way, it is easier for the singers to focus on the peculiarities of their roles and their performances are indisputably great.
Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin cannot be disappointing as he is one of the best Wagnerian tenors of his generation, as many recordings prove. Despite his inappropriate costumes, Kaufmann never forgets that Lohengrin is a knight and sings him accordingly, with intrepidness and bravery, but also with intensity and tenderness when he addresses Elsa, so that the medieval knightly virtues find here a happy synthesis. To the psychological side, Kaufmann adds many admirable vocal prodigies, as a series of breath-taking mezzevoci.
Anja Harteros is a wonderful Elsa and she performs this difficult role without an imperfection. What is particularly remarkable is that she never separates singing from acting and if you look at her or if you close your eyes and just hear her singing, you will notice the same thoughtfulness and the same serene contemplativeness of someone who is living in a dream.
The evil characters of Friedrich and Ortrud are performed Wolfgang Koch and Michaela Schuster respectively. Koch’s Friedrich is a villain indeed and willingly reaffirms his character’s meanness with the inflexions of his voice. He already reveals himself with the first few bars of «Dank, König, dir, dass du zu richten kamst» and he further explores Friedrich’s wickedness in the course of the opera.
Schuster’s Ortrud is even wicker and her malice, her obsession to ruin Elsa borders on madness. However incredible, the setting that so fatally affects the image of the positive characters did nothing to the evil ones and Schuster takes particular pleasure in accentuating Ortrud’s ruthlessness with the disturbed expressions of her face, particularly effective when she opens her popped eyes wide.
At last, it must be remembered the regal performance of Christof Fischesser as King Heinrich and of Evgeny Nikitin, a ringing Heerufen.
After you win the skepticism towards the staging, this Lohengrin will be still able to give you three and a half hours of excellent singing and you will not be disappointed by it at all.