Lohengrin is early, just after Tannhäuser in the cavalcade of Wagner’s masterpieces, with a swan-drawn Arthurian hero in thrall to the Grail and with its somewhat repetitious plot as two nasty customers attempt to destroy the hero and his ladylove Elsa. Opera Australia’s production of Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann exhibits the spectacular vocal skills and consummate artistry of the man who is billed as the greatest mid-career tenor in the world and that is enough to justify the price of the tickets which reach into hundreds of dollars. But Olivier Py’s production, a co-production with the Belgian Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, is a pretentious and self-regarding bit of postmodern juggling which drips with money and is full of visual grandeurs of one kind or another but does very little to release the breathlessly intense drama of this great if ungainly opera. Kaufmann is a wonder to see and hear. He inhabits the role of the unnameable hero with great power and restraint and Opera Australia certainly rises to meet him. This is a world-class performance of Wagner’s music with Tahu Matheson conducting at first somewhat jauntily but then rising to a point of incandescence but very little of what we see does anything but diminish the drama which is implicit in every note of the music. Daniel Sumegi in an authoritative performance plays King Heinrich in a dove-grey silk version of what a five -tar American general might have worn in the aftermath of World War II. So he’s some kind of Eisenhower figure – nothing wrong with that in itself – though we intuit it from the fact that the baddies Ortrud (Elena Gabouri) and Telramund (Simon Meadows) fiddle about with Nazi insignia. And yes, they’re pretty good too even if their singing doesn’t have that fabled word pointing that allowed Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to create a Macbeth-like marriage of iniquity in the famous Kempe recording.
What boggles the mind about this production of Lohengrin is its wilful defiance of Wagner’s impassioned creation of drama. Instead we get the director’s free associative doodles of more or less errant, more or less private, conceptual notions.
The action (if that’s what you want to call it) takes place in a vast latticed structure out of which the chorus intermittently stare from boxes like a jury or – tra-la – the spectators at a play. Everything is contained within this huge edifice which turns and revolves at the director’s will to no apparent purpose except to indicate that this is not an attempt to represent the realism of what’s happening but to comment on it, gnomically and self-reflexively.
So exit the swan except as a pile of feathers, exit the most famous bridal march in the history of music except to present us with the alienation effect of the female chorus sliding horizontally across the stage in neutral secretarial black. All of these hijinks – the mutilated white horse that hangs about pointlessly if evocatively – culminate in a kind of Wunderkammer show in which the various segments of the towering structure in which Lohengrin and Elsa pour out their hearts are labelled with one of the great names in the history of German culture – Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel, Hegel, Heine, you name it – all of this in the vicinity of a handsome and angry looking bust of Beethoven and with various symbolic bits of bric-a-brac in the different segmented rooms: a bit of swan, a bit of horse, so many allegorical trappings to the director’s self-contained and self-delighting privacies. This is not a matter of objecting to the immediate post-war setting. If Olivier Py wants to hang a sign saying, ‘Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland’ good on him but he should bring his apprehension of death’s dominion alive rather than just gesticulate about it.
Barrie Kosky, whatever the wilfulness of his revisionist re-imaginings, would never make this mistake and it is ironic that Melbourne should have to see a great singer trapped in this mausoleum of bright ideas. After all nothing mattered to Wagner in his quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk than the progression of the drama and the exploration of feeling.
Fortunately this Lohengrin leaves us with the music and Kaufmann is every inch as fine as you could hope. As a singer-actor he conveys the tense energy of a brave man encaged by his destiny and he is a singer who can convey introspection and doubt in the midst of tumbling worlds of melody and the maelstrom of recapitulated vengeance that can make Lohengrin seem like the tragedy of the realm of eternal returns in the darkest sense. Kaufmann was taught by the greatest Wotan in living memory, Hans Hotter, the supreme master of finding the meaning of the words in the music so that the apprehension of dramatic truth is close to absolute. And when Kaufmann does In fernem Land (‘In a distant land’) and Mein lieber Schwan (‘Beloved swan’) you know you’re in the grip of a man who knows the magic and mystery of dramatic singing. The voice seems to hush to a whisper, the singer projects a world of quiet pain even as he underlines the extremity of the revelation which will destroy him.
Domingo recorded Lohengrin with Solti and Jess Thomas with Kempe but neither of these are better than Jonas Kaufmann if they are as good. It’s just a bit of a pity that the pulsating greatness of the performance is not matched by a dramatically realised production. After all we have seen a revival of the Elijah Moshinsky La Traviata, very much in the Visconti/Zeffirelli tradition and Suzanne Chaundy’s Rheingold and Walküre for Melbourne Opera, let alone Bruce Beresford’s Macbetto, show what can be achieved when the work calls the shots.
This Lohengrin is lavish at every level. The American soprano Emily Magee is a fine Elsa and Warwick Fyfe is a superb Herald. A lot of people will simply thrill to the glory of the music and the grand effect of the decoratively dense and striking postmodern bric-a-brac of this production but it does seem too close to a concert with pictorial add-ons. But Jonas Kaufmann is a revelation, a monument not only to great talent but the artistry which transcends it.
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