Lohengrin - Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 4 April 2009
Well, it turns out the uber-traditional rehearsal photos were a decoy. Or to be more accurate, they only tell part of the story. Stefan Herheim's new production is as subtly allusive and ultimately impenetrable as the music itself. There are so many ideas there - I'm not sure I even noticed, let alone understood everything - but then I don't know whether I really needed to.
Daniel Barenboim didn't carry out his threat to play the overture twice, though it sounded as if the extra rehearsal might have been useful - the overture was just the first instance of recurrently scrappy playing.
With the first notes, on came the first of the promised string puppets, a near-lifesize Richard Wagner, standing on a tree-stump 'conducting' the orchestra with a giant feather. Was that what really riled Barenboim?
The puppet disappeared, hauled slowly upwards through a giant shower curtain, lit blood-red. I mention all these details because just like the Wagner's musical themes, they reappeared later - the puppets throughout, the feather as Lohengrin's swan, the red curtain as the grail. Even puppet-Wagner's skyward exit was mirrored by Lohengrin's at the very end. The light changed to white, and a flying dove was projected. Parsifal ends, Lohengrin begins.
I'm generally with Barenboim on staged preludes. Usually they're dramatically redundant - servants scrubbing the steps and so on. Distracting and irrelevant. But this one was perfect and vital. Barenboim's complaint on principle alone seems to confirm Herheim's claim about his lack of interest in the staging and his reluctance to change any customary viewpoint. It would be impossible to make the parallel criticism of Herheim, who seemed to have absorbed, digested and reflected the musical themes and underlying structure to an extent I've never seen before in any opera production.
The spat at least underlined the foresight of Herheim's main setting - the Berlin Opera Wars circa 2009. The Saxons and Brabantines are replaced by opera workers, each wielding an alter-ego string puppet. Elsa is one of them, and she literally creates Lohengrin, who appears amongst the modern masses as a medieval knight - or at least a traditional opera producer's idea of one, in swan helmet and silver tights.
The modern characters turn into their traditionally-costumed puppet counterparts - all the chorus are Richard Wagners, Being John Malkovich style. They drop their trousers and everything else to reveal wood-grained body stockings, figleaf critically placed, like Cranach's Adam and Eve, and oddly asexual. There's even a Garden of Eden in the second act, where Elsa offers Ortrud one of the handily-fallen apples.
The marionettes pop up again and again, their cross-stick controls raised here and there like swords, or more often like vampire-repelling crosses. As a shadowy projection of a tree grows behind the scheming Ortrud, we are reminded even more forcibly that Lohengrin is a parable for the victory of Christianity over nature-worshipping heathens.
But the finale, where the new king Gottfried is presented as a puppet Lohengrin shows us that in Brabant, as in the paralysed, self-destructive world of Berlin opera, that nothing ever really changes.
The only part that didn't really work was the first scene of the second act, where Ortrud and Telramund quarrel. Herheim seemed to have run out of ideas here, so we got an interminable argument punctuated by - o noes not again - a chair flung across the stage. Then a drag queen appeared with a live spaniel and water rained down from the flies. No it didn't, but you know what I mean.
The chorus, like the orchestra, seemed under-rehearsed. Too many lapses of ensemble and simple errors. Barenboim clearly managed to communicate what he wanted, though, and tempo and dynamics were superbly judged throughout.
And the individual performances could hardly be bettered.
Klaus Florian Vogt's bearded Viking Lohengrin was a perfect blend of spirituality and belligerence. What always amazes about his voice live - it's something recordings just don't pick up - is its sheer size, almost alarmingly beautiful in so delicate an instrument.
This was Dorothea Roschmann's first Elsa, and in the first act at least, it showed. But she improved, losing vibrato and gaining confidence. Although she never asserted herself quite as strongly as the production concept seemed to demand, at least she sang beautifully, never screeching or grabbing for notes at the top.
Michaela Schuster's panto Ortrud was a little over-the-top for my tastes, but again, it was hard to fault the sound she made. Late sub Kwangchul Youn flagged a little towards the end, but his Heinrich was powerful and authoritative, and I really didn't miss Rene Pape. Gerd Grochowski and Arttu Kataja as Telramund and Herald made less of an impact, but were fine too.
There was not much of the usual Berlin booing. Each act was greeted with massive applause, and at the end there was a standing ovation for Daniel Barenboim and the orchestra. Stefan Herheim was less warmly greeted, but the cheers far outweighed the negatives.
The crowned heads of opera were out in force, and not just the Royal Opera House representatives. Sitting next to Stefan Herheim in the centre of the stalls was the best-dressed man in the house, Rufus Wainwright, wearing black pants with mariachi-style sequinned musical symbols down each leg and (in the 70' heat) sweater and scarf beneath his jacket. I felt positively dowdy in comparison. He bravely stood to applaud Stefan Herheim at the end, the only one who did.
More and hopefully better photos in a few days, but here are a few to be going on with (the one at the top btw is a statue behind the LIndenoper - the bear being the symbol of Berlin. Are the teddies shagging or scrapping? Or is it all - just play?):
New best mates: