The Metropolitan Opera is in its 58th week of streaming productions during the pandemic. If you want to do your arithmetic, that is more than 400 broadcasts. This week’s theme, according to the Met, is “the celebration of virtue, freedom and power of the human spirit. You can look for all those qualities in, say, Lohengrin, La Clemenza di Tito, Fidelio, Simon Boccanegra and Dialogues des Carmélites.
I have decided to review the 1986 production of Lohengrin and dig into several other versions of the opera that happen to be on my shelves or my memory. It has many virtues not least of which is the traditional approach taken by Director August Everding with Set Designer Ming Cho Lee and Costume designer Peter J. Hall.
The cast is outstanding by any measurement. Tenor Peter Hofmann as Lohengrin is right out of our imagination of what a medieval knight should look like. He is blond, dressed in a seriously white costume carrying a jewel studded scabbard that houses an equally fabulous sword and he sets the standard for probity and virtue. I need hardly say that he is the knight of the Holy Grail who cannot reveal his identity. Hofmann has the voice to match his character’s elevated status with beauty and power. And Everding, mercifully does away with Lohengrin using a swan for transportation.
A knight of such virtue must have an equally worthy counterpart and that is provided by soprano Eva Marton as the beautiful Elsa. She is blonde, statuesque, vocally gorgeous and powerful, dressed in white, of course. For her wedding she wears a bridal gown to suit a princess in any era. Marton’s performance can stand with the best of a large array of sopranos that have tackled the part.
Virtue needs to be defended against evil and here we have Telramund sung by baritone Leif Roar providing one half of the wickedness. With a big voice, piercing and bulging eyes, carrying a huge and frightful scabbard and sword, he has Macbethian ambitions for the throne of Brabant. His wife Ortrud is a sorceress and even worse than him. Leonie Rysanek gives stellar performance, oozing with nastiness and vocal splendour. They do not wear white.
The set is grand without being monumental. The opening scene features a rampart on one side where the soldiers and people of Brabant stand and a platform for the main performers. The courtyard scene where Ortrud and Telramund plot their evil deeds is appropriately gloomy. In the bed chamber or honeymoon suite where Lohengrin and Elsa are ritually disrobed (sort of) after the magnificent bridal procession is impressive. In the final act we return to the opening scene for the tragic end of Elsa and the triumphal return of order in Brabant.
The the costumes look at least old and the helmets worn by the soldiers appear menacing. If these are from the 10th century when the opera is supposed to be set, it matters little because the singers, the orchestra and chorus under James Levine generated a wave of stupendous excitement.
Now if you wanted to see something dramatically different, check out the 2009 recording of the Bavarian State Opera’s production directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Kent Nagano. The redoubtable cast has Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin, Anja Harteros as Elsa, Wolfgang Koch as Telramund and Michaela Schuster as Ortrud.
During the overture we see a woman dressed in slacks, designing a house. People walk on stage dressed in a variety of colourful but very modern costumes and the plot begins to unfold. Lohengrin arrives carrying a large stuffed swan. He is wearing slacks, running shoes and a blue T-shirt.
The theme of constructing a house is carried throughout the production right to the bridal procession and the making of the bridal bed. A baby crib is delivered to the upper floor for good measure. All is ready for the honeymoon until Elsa asks the wrong question. That is a deal breaker, of course, and a heart-broken Lohengrin sets the house on fire.
In the end Lohengrin wearing the same clothes as in the beginning, unshaven for a couple of weeks (we never see him clean shaven) takes his swan in his arms which turns into the the rightful Duke. Elsa is left standing alone and order is restored in Brabant.
A few words about the 2016 production by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Director Kasper Holten starts with the stage littered with the corpses of soldiers. The succession problem in Brabant has become a civil war. Some women check out the corpses trying to identify loved ones in a horrifying scene.
Lohengrin, we all know, does not want to reveal his name but he does not mind being recognized. In this production he wears the wings of a swan on his shoulders. I found it difficult to see him as a heroic knight while wearing wings.
The honeymoon suite consists of just one ordinary bed. This Lohengrin may be a knight of the Holy Grail but he is also randy. He gets rid of his wings, drops his sword, takes off his robe and prepares for what couples do on their honeymoon. The audience laughed.
I readily admit that I enjoyed the performance but as happens at times the director’s peccadillos don’t always work.
Finally, a few words about the 2018 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, directed by David Alden with sets by Paul Steinberg and costumes by Gideon Davey. The opera is set in a devastated city after a war. The action takes place in a bombed building where only the outer walls have survived.
Alden saves us from having to watch a swan drag Lohengrin’s boat unto the scene. Judicious use of lighting suggests his arrival as the knight who will fight for Elsa and that is all we need.
But the swan or swans are not entirely left out. Near the end, as Lohengrin is about to depart because he was betrayed into having to reveal his identity, large red and black banners with white swans emblazoned on them are dropped across the stage. They are frightfully similar to the large banners with swastikas that were used by the Nazis.
It is an unexpected and startling scene. As Lohengrin walks quickly off the stage and disappears. Elsa falls to her death, the banners come crashing down and the old order disappears. Gottfried, the rightful duke appears, and order is restored. I found the scene breathtaking and the production awesome.
There are many recordings of Lohengrin on CD and DVD. At about three and a half hours each you can have a lot of fun and survive Covid-19 lockdowns more easily. Maybe.
Lohengrin by Richard Wagner was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera of New York on April 19, 2021. For more information go to metopera.org/