Let’s appreciate Wagner for Wagner
Politics and historical commentary aside, Lohengrin is currently on at Covent Garden
Opera designers have been having fun with sets of bombed-out buildings and ravaged townscapes for decades. Now they are suddenly flushed with self-admiration as their stages assume a gimcrack relevance of the sort that the performing arts so get off on. The question is, when opera starts opining on geopolitics, is it really of much use to either (or to us)?
In the case of Covent Garden’s revived staging of Wagner’s “romantic opera” (composed while he was the young Court Conductor in Dresden, before taking it on the lam following the 1848 ructions), it is hard to hear about savage hordes from the East or see the ruins on stage (designs by Paul Steinberg) without thinking about the news. It’s important to remember that this was the same mistake Adolf made when watching his favourite show — with fairly important consequences, since he based his foreign policy on it. In any case, when Wagner talks about the enemies of Germany, he quite obviously means France, not Russia.
We’re way too sophisticated for all that Christian stuff
It is entirely permissible to see Lohengrin as a man who brings ruin and disaster, however remote this might be from Wagner’s plan. The composer naturally thought of the hero as himself, bringing down blessings from heaven on the benighted populace. Hitler thought it was him, resurrecting the country and creating its new glorious destiny — and no doubt plenty in Germany would have agreed with him until around 1941. Director David Alden’s vision is the obvious continuation of that Nazi theme: Lohengrin arrives amid civil strife and makes things ostensibly better but actually way worse, with Act III a kind of Nuremberg parade, his swan motif taking the place of swastikas… before an unwritten but strongly implied Act IV of horror and apocalypse.
Which is fine, like I say, but you should maybe deal with the issues Wagner thought he was actually writing about as well, rather than simply hope they’ll go away. This is quite a tricky area since they can be tough to pin down. In the story, a riven society is trying to pull itself together to fight the barbarian hordes from the East — this is tenth century Lotharingia, the hordes in question Magyar. A tussle over local leadership leads to an accusation by the peeved Count Telramund that the rightful boss has been murdered by his sister Elsa. (Obviously he’s proposing himself instead.) When Elsa calls for a champion to fight for her, who should pop up but a nameless stranger in a boat pulled by a swan. He sorts out Telramund, marries Elsa and fills the power vacuum himself, whipping the local lags into a decent army. When Elsa insists on knowing his name though he leaves, revealing he is a Grail knight, Parsifal’s son. Alas, he would have done tons more amazing things if she hadn’t been so bloody inquisitive.
This mix of historical epic and supernatural myth is a bit ripe (and no doubt freighted) for delicate current sensibilities, hence our problems taking Lohengrin seriously. Plus we’re way too sophisticated for all that Christian stuff, of course. We try furiously to hear the opera’s first nine minutes, the refulgent vision of the Grail, as pure music, unattached to any uncomfortable symbols. Even as we are asked to look the other way, music finds a way through. Wagner’s insistent musical metaphors — about that troublesome Grail, and the equally fraught mythical matter of the forbidden question, lurking in the background of every human matter from Adam and Eve onwards — are what remain in the mind when the jolly old fascist rallies have faded.
We seem to be in the realm of a clash of eternal absolutes with contingent human passions and failings. The stuff of the Grail kingdom is finally unavailable to us — because we are people with free will and agency. Undivided love and trust are probably great, but the conditions we must fulfil in order to enjoy them are basically unacceptable to self-respecting humans. The promise of divine redemption is empty: we are going to have to build the new world ourselves without help from gods and their emissaries.
The villainous couple is the most live thing in the opera
These are weighty matters (which Wagner would go on to tackle in the Ring) and it’s fair to say that Lohengrin doesn’t get much further than laying out the terms of the argument. It gets side-tracked into (highly entertaining) squabbles between the old, represented by Telramund and his witchy wife Ortrud, and the new, intuited by Elsa and incarnated in unsatisfactory form by Lohengrin. This is perhaps why the villainous couple is the most live thing in the opera. Certainly it is in this staging, where Ortrud’s Lady-Macbeth-on-mescaline is memorably incarnated by Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova. Sexy, insinuating, boiling with rage, she basically sets the place on fire with her high-octane singing and dynamite red dress.
One notable aspect of this opera is its heavy masculine timbre — three bass singers, a bellowing male chorus and aura of deep brass in the orchestra — contested by the ethereal Grail music and the two vastly different women Ortrud and Elsa. Jennifer Davis’s Elsa is in her own way as forceful as Ortrud, full of the power of wronged innocence, along with the faith she instantly puts in her saviour Lohengrin. They’re not always easy to listen to (Wagner asks a lot of his singers) but it’s pretty magnificent.
Elsa has a Lohengrin who looks and sounds the part: Brandon Jovanovich’s unflagging tenor creating a rounded, attractive, upstanding hero somewhat at odds with the staging’s baleful warnings. The bridal scene — introduced by that chorus, full of sweet foreboding — has the pair rather delightfully preparing for a never-reached consummation in an intimate and playful tete-a-tete. The bounds of love and trust are tested and found incompatible and everything goes bad with the horrid inexorable impetus of a bad dream.
The orchestra is on fire, too: conductor Jakub Hrůša knows exactly what he wants. He shapes the massive score beautifully from the luminous opening though the raging storms of Ortrud’s outpourings and the blasting martial assaults to the intimacy of love duets. It never relaxes its grip, and is certainly the single best thing about this performance. The orchestra is always where Wagner makes his strongest points. It’s thrilling to hear him trying to wrestle the symphonic world of Beethoven into the peculiar straightjacket of opera — changing opera fundamentally to make it possible. That’s another of the things Lohengrin doesn’t manage to actually accomplish, but, as Wagner implies, anything worth striving for is basically impossible anyway.
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