Jonas Kaufmann Returns from Illness in a Perplexing Production of Lohengrin
Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: José Luis Basso) and Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 21.1.2017. (MB)
King Henry the Fowler – René Pape
Lohengrin – Jonas Kaufmann
Elsa – Martina Serafin
Friedrich von Telramund – Wolfgang Koch
Ortrud – Evelyn Herlitzius
King’s Herald – Egils Silins
Four Brabantian Nobles – Hyun-Jong Roh, Cyrille Lovighi, Laurent Laberdesque, Julien Joguet
Four Pages – Irina Kopylova, Corinne Talibart, Laetitia Jeanson, Lilla Farkas
Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Volker Michl (choreography)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)
Claus Guth seems to me a frustratingly uneven director: much better than being a bad or mediocre director, of course, but even so. This Lohengrin, first seen at La Scala (although not by me) under Daniel Barenboim four years ago, now replaces Robert Carsen’s Paris production. I am afraid I was left bemused, even baffled, by much of what I saw. There is nothing especially objectionable to it – unlike, say, Guth’s Salzburg Fidelio, also starring Jonas Kaufmann – yet nor does it, for me at least, reach anything approaching the heights of Guth’s Salzburg Figaro (preserved on DVD) or his recent Berlin Salome. Sad to say, I found it rather dull, reliant entirely upon the music for any dramatic effect, although I did wonder whether there was a point I was missing.
As is fashionable, the staging is updated to the time of composition: the mid-nineteenth century, albeit with no obvious indication of the revolutionary upheavals in which Wagner so celebratedly immersed himself. Whoever this Lohengrin may be, he does not seem to be Bakunin, or Feuerbach. There is something insistently restorationist – whether post-1815 or post-1848/9 – to the impeccable dress uniform of King Henry. The costumes more generally, especially the women’s chorus black (why are they apparently in mourning at a wedding?), perhaps speak of the 1850s and social reaction, but I am not sure that it especially matters. Christian Schmidt, designer of both sets and costumes, certainly provides a handsome frame for the action (although something decidedly peculiar happens in the first half of the final act). Is there something of the contemporary ‘absolute artist’ to whom Wagner referred with reference to this hero in particular? Perhaps. Lohengrin when he arrives, is in a somewhat ‘arty’ state of (relative) dishevelment, frilly shirt hanging out, waistcoat, yet no coat. There is a very nineteenth-century-looking upright piano on stage (upturned, presumably significantly, in the third act), but that seems to be more Elsa’s province than his. His arrival, suddenly revealed by the parting of the crowd, is very odd, foetal position adopted; indeed, his damaged progress throughout, at times unable to walk in even the most tentative of straight lines, seems to continue from that, although again, I cannot even really hazard a serious guess as to why. Great play is made of his archaic (earlier-century?) silver horn too.
The girl Elsa and her brother, Gottfried, appear on stage from time to time. Is she dreaming this? It seems unlikely: Lohengrin and Lohengrin are hardly the stuff of girls’ dreams. Is the woman recollecting something from her childhood, perhaps even feelings of incestuous love for her brother? Perhaps, but if so, it seemed very unclear to me, and had little obvious relationship to anything else we were seeing. The setting for the opening of the third act is an enlarged version of some fauna we have previously seen near the piano, in what had then seemed to be a palace courtyard. Now it has become a kitsch (I presume deliberately so) creation of Nature, replete with a pool in which Lohengrin, having taken his shoes and socks off (they were also off when he arrived), can walk around and delicately splash his bride. The colours resemble those of a woodland scene in which the photographic colour filters have been increased to eighty per cent or so. I presume it is some sort of dream sequence, at least in part, and that there is some sort of Freudian concept at work more broadly, but I am afraid to say that I remain largely at a loss.
The actual music, then, rather than the scattered musical hints onstage, was the thing. There was some occasional string scrappiness in the first act, but otherwise some wonderful orchestral playing, a rather unusual oboe sound (putting me in mind of Lothar Koch) notwithstanding. Gold rather than white was the colour that came to mind from the violins, but that was fine with me. Ebullient brass nevertheless managed to blend. Philippe Jordan mostly had the measure of the work’s structure. If he did not manage to build and convey neo-Furtwänglerian arcs in the way Daniel Barenboim does in this music, there is to a certain extent, and Jordan rarely overstepped this, a case for bringing to the fore the derivations (which Wagner admitted to Schumann, albeit concerning the libretto) from earlier operatic forms too.
Ears were of course focused on Kaufmann, not least given his recent illness. His opening phrase was unfortunate, almost grey in hue, but that, I think, was a consequence of the director’s placing him in that foetal position, on the ground, turned away from the audience. Maybe it was even part of the directorial Konzept, although it would have made more sense (to me, anyway) as Florestan. If he sounded a little careful at times, that was understandable, and there were no real grounds for complaint, even at the sternest level of criticism. The Grail Narration was where it all came together: rapt, indeed spellbinding, of delivery, as if searching for an answer not to be found (which, one might say, is very much part of what Lohengrin is doing here).
Martina Serafin’s Elsa was something of a trial when on trial. Squally and uncertain of intonation, she improved considerably in the second and third acts, convincing in her kindness to Ortrud. Evelyn Herlitzius’s account of that role was in the class of Waltraud Meier, perhaps vocally still wilder, although never unacceptably so. Her anger at the close was the stuff of nightmares – in the best sense. (What Guth had in mind of her visually here seemed more odd than anything else, slow-motion agony coming across more as ‘stagey’ than tragic.) René Pape’s Henry the Fowler was typically beautiful of tone, which is to say very beautiful indeed, lest that sound complacent or a faint compliment. Wolfgang Koch, Bayreuth’s recent Rheingold Wotan, gave a demonic performance of Telramund; he may ultimately have been led by Ortrud, but he was anything but a cipher, and clearly had his own inner battles to fight. Egils Silins impressed with clean, intelligent delivery as the King’s Herald, his tone of no little beauty too. Choral singing, of great importance to this opera, was mostly excellent, indeed pretty much entirely so following some occasional, quite forgivable slips in the first act. José Luis Basso is clearly doing a good job in training his Paris chorus.
Well worth hearing then, perhaps even seeing. You might even be able to explain what you see to me.