Lohengrin - Wien Staatsoper, 22 and 25 May 2008
There are two sorts of bad Wagner productions - wrong and dumb - and given the choice, I prefer the first. At least they give you something to think about. Vienna's Lohengrin, like Covent Garden's recent Parsifal, falls into the second category. Barrie Kosky has chosen to ignore brain-straining questions like, oh, what it's about, what it says about its composer and the time it was written, and what it might have to say to us. Instead he provides a backdrop of ugly and banal imagery in tarmac black and safety-jacket yellow. In essence it's a decorated concert performance, brought alive only by the most basic stagecraft and the dramatic skills of the singers.
Unnecessary details are added (what's with the omnipresent toy truck ?). Vital elements are omitted (teh swan! where is my swan!?). Whether your swan is an actual swan or a dead cat on a stick doesn't matter too much, but the important thing is it forms a link between Lohengrin's entrance and his exit, which is also the return (and return to human life) of the true prince, Elsa's brother.
Kosky passes a gigantic yellow chain from chorus hand to hand for the entrance (a 'golden' chain, rite), but for the second appearance he has instead a suspended glass bubble (containing a singularly ugly ET/homunculus creature). Structural repetition is ignored in favour of tired theatrical effects. Sticking a toy swan in the second act's garden pool simply betrays ignorance about the purpose of the imagery.
And here's his most bizarre and pointless touch of all - Elsa is blind. This befuddled far more times than it illuminated. It's sort of fun when she can't see Ortrud and Telramund plotting right in front of her, but there are so many references to seeing things, and so many actions which are responses to what she sees, that it just doesn't make sense. Angela Denoke wisely made as little of it as she possibly could.
Having griped at length, it's an irritating production for sure, but not really an obstructive one. That's the advantage of a producer with no ideas - there's nothing to get in the way of the music.
And eyeball-searing stupidities aside, it really was a fabulous performance, both nights I saw it (yes,I needed moarrr). The one on the 22nd, the first night of this revival (and not uncoincidentally Wagner's birthday) perhaps marginally shaded it, and certainly got a more vociferous audience reaction (I lost count of the curtain calls - ten?)
Peter Schneider conducted with his customary authority and refinement. There were no cheap thrills or overplayed dramatics, just an exemplary balance and pacing. The preludes, played mostly to curtain, were in many respects the highlights of the performances, and not just because the hideous scenery was concealed. Their website claims that this is the best opera orchestra in the world, and it's impossible to disagree when they play like this.
And Klaus Florian Vogt is probably the best Lohengrin in the world. The voice has tremendous heft behind its beautiful tone, and in this very human, down to earth characterisation of Lohengrin, a great deal more variety of colour than might be apparent from the Nagano/Lehnoff version he recorded.
The role of Elsa is not a perfect glove-like fit for Angela Denoke's voice. Her first act intonation was frightening, and the high notes pushed her to the limit. But she has that vital white steel power and purity, and dramatically she didn't put a foot wrong.
Falk Struckmann gave a marvellously detailed performance as Telramund, understanding him as not just a two-dimensional bad guy, but a fundamentally honourable man transformed into the helpless tool of his own wife by his disastrous lust. Every note, every move was considered. Vienna are so lucky to have him - he has the ability to make even the most cretinous of productions appear rational and intelligent for the brief time he's on stage (casts mind back to Covent Garden's recent Parsifal, and his exemplary wooden-armed Amfortas.....)
Janina Baechle's Ortrud was mostly convincing when she shared the stage with Struckmann, but dissolved in a routine library of traffic cop signalling manoeuvres when she was left to her own devices. It's partly her size - while not quite as immobile as certain larger singers, there are some things that physically she just can't manage. She has an attractive velvety voice, but summoning the power to push it out over the orchestra tended to rob it of colour and inflection, so it was all a bit monotone.
Kwangchul Youn's King Heinrich was curiously inconsequential, despite the strength of his voice. It was largely the fault of the production, which placed everyone in modern suits. What was perhaps intended as regal detachment came across as merely businesslike.
The production did Markus Eiche's Herald no favours either. He has a warm and powerful baritone, but the part is dramatically superfluous, and Kosky made no attempt either to integrate it into the action or to make a virtue of its narrative aspect by setting it decisively apart. Like Youn, Eiche was obliged to wander in, sing his bit, and wander off again.
It was the sort of production where you take bets on when the giant spaceship is going to appear. And, yes, the final cliche hove into view above the stage shortly before the end. With anything less than the immaculate musical performance it received, this production would have the audience rolling in aisles, let alone booing. It is greatly to the credit of everyone involved in this current run that the silliness passes by almost unnoticed.
I understand Christian Thielemann has refused to conduct this production. He certainly doesn't need to explain why.