Wagner: Lohengrin

Bavarian State Opera

National Theatre, Munich, 17 July 2009 4.5 stars

LohengrinIf we believe the programme booklet, the inspiration for this new Richard Jones production of Lohengrin is the work of architect Albert Speer.  Anyone familiar with the British TV schedules, however, would immediately recognize a far more lowbrow influence.  Yes, this is Wagner meets Ch4's Grand Designs.

Jones's controversial brand of poststructuralist theatre is conceptually quite straight forward.  Here's how it works.  First, alert your audience to the fact that nothing they see on stage has any fixed meaning.  Much of the action has been relocated to a hotel where the king and his retinue are staying while in Brabant, and the king's insignia, painted along the corridor wall, is made up of a series of unrelated and therefore meaningless symbols, from gothic script to the CND logo.  Second, set up a narrative that is structurally the same as Lohengrin, but takes all its signifiers from a seemingly unrelated source – this is where Grand Designs comes in – and then superimpose it on the original.

The prelude – caressed into one exquisite, flowing gesture by Kent Nagano – represents, according to Wagner, the angels descending from heaven with the grail and then their return.  In Jones's parallel story, we watch as Elsa, the beautiful Anja Harteros, is divinely inspired to draw up the architectural plans for her ideal house.  Throughout the first and second acts, Wagner's idea that the holy Lohengrin gradually brings peace, love and harmony to the Brabantines is mirrored on stage by the construction of that house.

LohengrinThis allows Jones to solve one of the main problems with Lohengrin, which often seems like four hours of lots of people just standing around on stage not doing much.  The increase in dramatic and musical tension across the work is now given a dynamic visual representation.  That doesn't mean the set, designed by regular Jones collaborator Ultz, takes over the show.  Rather, it serves as an interactive frame that evolves alongside the psychological battles it presents.  The most intense of these was between Wolfgang Koch's glowering Telramund and Harteros's demure Elsa.  He hounded her throughout with intimidating acts of hands-on violence.  The worst of these was when the knight she has dreamt of doesn't show up when called and so he ties her to a stake and douses her in petrol.  Not the pantomime villain we have come to expect.

So terrifying was he, that he managed to wholly out-evil Michaela Schuster's Ortud.  Her rasping bottom register and scratchy high notes oddly worked, turning her into a superannuated classy prostitute who'd lent a little too heavily on the fags and booze over the years.  This made a good match with Koch's seedy, middle-aged businessman.  But in this Lohengrin, at least, it was Telramund wearing the trousers.

The only disappointment of the evening was the over-hyped Jonas Kaufmann, who undeservedly got the most applause at the end.  I'll give it to him that he's got a great pianissimo, which is very effective in those suspenseful moments.  And when he lets fly, he's got a good high-baritone sound.  But as a heroic tenor he just doesn't cut it.  The sound quality was too variable, even over the course of one phrase successive notes had completely different and incompatible timbres.  One of these was particularly unpleasant: a kind of pinched tone that made him sound as if he was singing in Swedish.

Harteros, on the other hand, was a bit shaky to start but improved throughout and was magnificent in the famous third act duet.  She reached all those climactic high notes with the same creamy tone she has in her middle register.  A joy.

Whilst alternately squirming back in my seat and then sitting forward in rapt awe as Jonas and Harteros duetted back and forth, I noticed that this is the scene that ties Jones's whole conception together.  Elsa's dream was not about architectural plans after all, but about plans for domestic bliss.  The identikit Ikea house contains two items of furniture: the wedding bed, which a not so holy Lohengrin is understandably eager to get Elsa into, and a crib.  The whole scheme turns out to be an ironic comment on the meaning of the Wedding March: as a cultural signifier it represents the sort of mythical family life that programmes like Grand Designs use to sell paint.  In reality, the myth is so hard to live up to that disappointment, as poor Elsa finds out, is inevitable.

LohengrinWith this neat conceptual underpinning, Ultz and Jones are then free to add all sorts of nice whimsical touches.  In one tiny corner of the theatre there are a few A4 photocopies taped to the wall.  'VERMISST', it reads, over a photo of Elsa's missing brother.  The first-act sword fight is usually unbearably naff, but here it is stylistically choreographed in homage to Kill Bill.  In a reference to Götterdämmerung, after Elsa has asked the question, Lohengrin puts the crib on the bed and symbolically immolates his and Elsa's unconceived child.  There are many more but, clever though they all are, they never threaten to overwhelm the action.

What makes this a truly great production, and not just an amusing night at the theatre, is the way the rigid conceptual backbone is used to support the flesh of an involving psychological and dramatic argument.  So often Lohengrin is presented as a simple two-way conflict – between good and evil, Christian and pagan, heaven and earth – but Jones shows that Wagner's score is capable of bearing much more moral complexity.  At the curtain, one solitary person managed to squeeze a quick 'wunderbar' in before the catcalling started.  I agree with him.

By Marc Brooks

Photos credits: Wilfried Hoesl

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