The last time I went to the opera was Philip Glass's *Akhnaten* at the Met and as much as I loved it, I left before the final act because I could not stay awake. It's typical for me to nap a bit during the first act (especially on a work night), but then I'm usually OK for the rest of the performance. Well, I slept a bit here and there in the first actdt of *Akhnaten* but then slept through about half of the second act. I went home, I figured I'd be more comfortable sleeping in my own bed.
Well that was NOT going to happen this time. I went to such trouble to see *Lohengrin,* I was determined to stay awake. In a sense I went all the way to Munich to see it. I had a cappuccino at around 3 PM, a Diet Coke with dinner, and bought another Diet Coke to smuggle into the opera house, to drink during the two intermissions. That all did the trick, I was awake the whole time.
The performance got off to a peculiar start. In my experience, an opera house opens its doors at a particular time and the audience is able to go to their seats, or maybe wait a little while before they can sit down. My performance started at 6:00 - - I entered the opera house at 5:15, went up to my level, and the house didn't open unti 5:47. That's a very long time when you're as eager as I was! OK, let's go ahead and use the word "anxious." No one else seemed to be annoyed, but that waiting to be let in had a strong flavor of Buñuel.
The one and only disappointment of the performance is that I was sitting in a seat with an obstructed view, a pillar blocking about a quarter of the stage, on the right. I don't remember being alerted to this when I bought the ticket, but then I bought it at 4:45 in the morning, so I wasn't exactly at my sharpest. The production was so bizarre, I decided that not being able to see what was happening over there was part of the director's concept. It actually made me think of conceptual artist John Baldessari, who did a series of paintings where he reproduced a photo but painted a large colored circle over it to obscure something. My favorite is a photo of a group of people on a rooftop pointing at something, and Baldessari painted a large red circle over the thing they were pointing at.
A quick overview of the people involved:
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director: Richard Jones
Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa: Anja Harteros
Ortrud: Karita Mattila
Friedrich von Telramund: Wolfgang Koch
The King: Christof Fischesser
The Herald: Martin Gantner
The curtain was up as we took our seats. This was what we saw:
The lights went down. I was expecting the conductor to enter the pit and the audience to applaud him, but that didn't happen. He walked into the pit unnoticed and no one applauded. The lights went down and the prelude started. It was such a thrill to hear that luminous, heavenly music live. Koenigs wasn't afraid to be overt, there was nothing chilly or Boulez-ish about his conducting. The apex of the prelude, with the cymbal crash, was bordering on vulgar! And I loved that. Time for a quote by Mrs. Vreeland, the great Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue in the 60s: "A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste - - it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I'm against." Preach!
You can see a young man standing at an upright drafting board in the center of the stage. He made a drawing over the course of the prelude, using a T-square and whatever it is you use with a T-square. Seven lines, which at the end became a drawing of a house with a long, sloping roof on one side. Magic!
A painted flat was lowered and the men's chorus shuffled onstage. They were wearing peculiar semi-contemporary Bavarian outfits: hunting jackets, letter jackets, military uniforms. The walls were the pale grey and pale green of a Catholic school in the 1970s. The costumes were black, charcoal, a washed out burgundy, and a putrid mustard color that might also be described as "curried poop." Available now at Sherwin Williams.
In the photo, do you see the two circles at the top of the stage? They were used as a sort of video screen for announcements by the Herald. This role is one of my favorite elements of *Lohengrin* - - he's a sort of messenger/announcer/town crier. It's a good part for a young man wanting to plant his flag as a Wagner baritone worth watching. Judging from his bio, Martin Gantner is more than that, he's sung all over the world, has sung many of the major Wagner baritone roles. Gorgeous voice. Anyway, a video of the Herald was projected onto those two circles, Big Brother-style.
I hadn't heard Anja Harteros before and what a treasure she is, such a touching portrayal of Elsa. She and Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin played it totally straight, they were the emotional center of this delightfully oddball production. Her singing was ripe, warm, and womanly but her appearance was girlish, due to her braids and overalls.
The painted flat went up and the rectangular outline of a house had been constructed on the stage, in white blocks, with a pile of white blocks on the left (where I could see them, ahem). Elsa was placed on this pile of blocks during her trial, some wooden beams were added, and she was nearly burned at the stake before Lohengrin showed up to rescue her.
Vogt was a revelation as Lohengrin. A Wagner tenor is often called a Heldentenor, a heroic tenor. Vogt was cerrtainly playing a hero, but there was nothing muscular or purposefully LOUD in his singing. His entrance aria was ravishingly beautiful - - delicate, supple, tender, almost feminine in its sweetness. Slightly off topic, the public areas of the opera house were lined with portraits of artists who have appeared there, including this portrait of him:
That's his own hair! Maybe not his current true color (eine falsche Farbe!), but a gorgeous head o' hair.
Karita Mattila had very little singing to do in the first act but acted up a storm as the evil witch Ortrud. With her upswept blonde 'do, her charcoal grey pantsuit, and her large, high-end silver necklace, she looked all the world like Ivana Trump!
Wolfgang Koch sounded a little woofy in the first act, he was better in the second act. His swordfight with Lohengrin was laugh-out-loud funny, a parody of actors going through the motions of having a swordfight. The act ended with Lohengrin and Elsa building the house together. She slathered on the mortar, he placed the blocks. Aw, so touching!
The house was nearly finished when we came back for Act Two, those stage hands must have been working their little tails off. I imagine that mortar business was just for show, I think this was simply white blocks piled on top of each other. And ah, we saw that the house followed the outline of the drawing that was made at the start of the opera.
Act Two belongs to Ortrud, she really burns down the joint in this act. Here's my favorite two and a half minutes in the opera, Ortrud's appeal to the dark gods who aid her, as sung by the blazing Astrid Varnay:
Mattila's sound wasn't exactly creamy, and she was a little too white hot at the top of her range, but that has been the case with her high voice for 20 years, so obviously it's not doing her any harm. But her superb word painting and her no-holds-barred acting style, she was thrilling. Her upswept blonde 'do had me thinking of Patsy from *Absolutely Fabulous.*
Wolfgang Koch sounded fantastic in his desperate aria at the start of the act, and he and Mattila had powerful chemistry, red hot and chilling. Vogt showed that he can do more than sweet and tender, he showed a nice slice in one dramatic moment.
Act Two ends with Elsa and Lohengrin (and everyone else) getting ready for their wedding. There's a longish orchestral and choral interlude called "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral," and the roof was lowered onto the house with a crane during the climax. You don't see that at the opera every day!
The audience finally applauded for the conductor and the orchestra before the final act. The house had been turned around 180 degrees, we saw the interior - - living room/dining room at the entrance, bedroom beside that, a stairway, and a nursery on the second floor. Lohengrin carried a wooden cradle up there at one point. And a few chorus members came in with the drawing of the house that started the show, they hung that up in the bedroom.
I haven't said anything about Christoff Fischesser ("Christopher Fish-Eater," what a funny name), who played the King. It's a smallish part, has never made much of an impact on me. HE made an impact, for sure. Strong, virile voice - - he had a prominent, low-lying line in an ensemble in Act Three and wow, he sounded so gorgeous.
A brief plot point: Lohengrin is sent from heaven to defend Elsa in Act One, Friedrich and Ortrud have wrongly accused her of murdering her brother. Lohengrin tells her at the end of Act One that he'll do everything in his power to defend her, she just needs to promise never to ask his name or where he came from. Ortrud poisons Elsa's mind with doubt in Act Two, but Elsa and Lohengrin get married anyway, to the strains of "Here Comes the Bride," no less, which really and truly originated in this opera. The chorus sounded marvelous and I love hearing all that harp.
Elsa and Lohengrin have a long duet in Act Three, starting off all lovey dovey but eventually Elsa's doubt and anxiety build up beyond what she can stand and she asks him his name and where he came from. Lohengrin calls back the chorus and the other characters and explains that Elsa has asked these questions, which he will answer, and then leave. Which he does. At some point in there he's attacked by Friedrich and he kills him. Ortrud, of course, will not go gently into that good night, she's basically carried off into the booby hatch. Or that's what I imagine happened, it was over on the right side of the stage and I couldn't see what was going on.
The opera ends with Lohengrin doing one last thing before he sails off in his swan boat: he brings back Elsa's brother, who (one assumes) was never really dead, just MIA. Wagner wrote in the libretto that Elsa dies but I'm glad she didn't die in this production, there's no need for her to die. It's one of those opera/*Love Story* kinds of deaths, where she just kinda drops dead without any particular reason or purpose. The final image of the opera was unbelievably stupid. Friedrich von Tellramund put a gun in his mouth at the start of Act Two. Ortrud walked over to hiim and removed it from his hand. The end of the opera had the eight or so members of the chorus sitting at tables, each of them holding a gun and putting it in their mouths. It was dopey, it made no sense, it was a terrible way to end a great show.
You might wonder why Richard Jones chose to do all of these goofy things in his staging. The Met production from the 70s (not so long ago) was totally traditional, nothing goofy at all, sort of a medieval pageant, an old fashioned park-and-bark show. From my perspective, a thoughtfully produced avant garde production like this brings out things that are buried in the work. Wagner wrote the irony into the opera, Jones just amplified it. To 11.
The thing that bothers me most about the opera is that Elsa is publicly shamed by Lohengrin at the end, he berates her for asking the forbidden questions. But really, isn't it human nature to need to know what you're forbidden to know? Doesn't Lohengrin realize that by telling her not to ask those questions, he's setting up a situation when she'll HAVE to ask? I think there's some misogyny going on here, not so hard to imagine with Wagner.
If I had been Elsa, I would have said to my husband, "OK, here's the way it's gonna be. I can't know your name or where you came from, and that's someting I'm gonna wonder about. Obvi. So from now on, your name is Brian and you're from Sacramento. Does that work for you?"
One more thing, one of the cutest things I've seen in all my years of going to the opera. Many large opera houses have what's called a prompter's box, a box center stage in the front that has someone sitting slightly below the stage, facing the stage, visible to the singers but not to the audience because of the box that's built around him/her. The prompter gives textual cues to singers and gestural musical cues, when needed. Here's an interesting interview with a prompter at the Met:
I didn't realize that the white box at the front of the stage was a prompter's box, it was built into the scenery and the action in such an organic way. I only knew it was a prompter's box because Klaus Florian Vogt, when he came out to take his bows, leaned down and shook hands with the prompter! Hilarious and adorable!