Sunday Times, 19 July 2009
Hugh Canning
Bavarian State Opera [part of an article]
Richard Jones's production of Wagner's Lohengrin in Munich [while British festival heralded best value summer opera event]
Booing by German audiences is an occupational hazard for opera régisseurs at their opening-night curtain calls. It is rarer, however, for the protests to continue at later performances in the run. I attended the second night of Richard Jones’s new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera and the booers were still in full cry. Some of the hostility was undoubtedly directed at Kent Nagano, the BSO’s music director, whose conducting often seemed tentative, with an instrumental blend that failed to capture the mystical intensity of Wagner’s “grail” music.

Jones’s Lohengrin is character­istic of his penchant for cutting Wagner down to size, bringing an every­day, even banal, dimension to the work of Germany’s great operatic monstre sacré. The curtain rises on a bare stage, at the centre of which, Elsa von Brabant, wearing dungarees, with her back to the audience, is designing a house on an architect’s easel. For the rest of the opera, Lohengrin and a group of workers help to build the house, which is completed in time for the Act III wedding scene.

Jones superimposes the autobio­graphical hinterland of Lohengrin onto Wagner’s “romantic opera”, which was written at a time of personal distress. Wagner was unhappily married to Minna Planer and a homeless exile from Germany after his revolutionary activities in the Dresden uprising of 1849. Whether one needs to see such footnotes on stage is certainly debatable, but Jones follows through his concept unerringly. Elsa, like Minna, turns out not to be a self-sacrificing woman unquestioningly subservient to her lord and master, and so Lohengrin torches her house, their bed, along with a cot for future progeny. The concept takes on a life of its own, generating its own — rather than Wagner’s — scenario.

German audiences are well acquainted with directors’ alternative plots, so I can only assume that it was the regimented, fascist or GDR-communist treatment of the chorus that provoked their wrath. Lohengrin’s German Reich tub-thumping, and the craving for a leader to help Germany out of a national crisis, provides rich pickings for those who wish to see premonitions of Hitler’s Nazism in Wagner’s works.

The British director is an enigma, no doubt unwilling to reveal all the secrets of his productions, but even if this Lohengrin was sometimes baffling, sometimes irritating, it was never dull or uninteresting. He gets outstanding histrionic performances from a cast of youngish, German-speaking principals with substantial voices. Jonas Kaufmann brings a burnished-golden, Italianate ring to Lohengrin’s Grail Narration and, at the end of a long evening, he sang Mein lieber Schwan with breathtaking inwardness. Anja Harteros’s radiant Elsa, a sultry brunette rather than the usual vapid blonde, marked another important debut in this rising soprano’s burgeoning career, while Wolfgang Koch’s vehement Telramund, Michaela Schuster’s dramatic mezzo Ortrud and Christof Fischesser’s noble King Henry are all welcome additions to the roster of international Wagnerians.

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