Opera Now, December/November 2009
Lohengrin, Wagner, Bayerische Staatsoper Munich
Of course the job of an opera production is to tell the story. Richard Jones’s Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich certainly did this – though not in the usual way.

You cannot just tell the story of Lohengrin these days — it’s too charged with the ravages of recent history. This is the ur-opera of German nationalism, a work of which Heinrich Mann wrote in Der Untertan (1919): ‘A thousand performances of such an opera, and there would be no one left who was not nationally disposed.’ It isn’t just a musical setting of a legal squabble, with the chorus as jury in tiers at the back — which is what happened at Stuttgart Opera last season to accompany Manfred Honeck’s beautifully lingering affectionate exploration of the score.

Meanwhile, at the Berlin Staatsoper last April, Stefan Herheim’s typically intricate and complex game with puppets and medievalism was exactly on the mark -- after setting out through a pantomime showing a carnival figure of Wagner himself, in that famous velvet cap, obsessing egomaniacally with a poised quill as he floated up into the ether of the flies during an exquisitely played Prelude, lovingly shaped by Daniel Barenboim.

This opera is unquestionably one of Wagner s most lusciously aesthetic scores — exhibit A in the ease against his self-regarding aestheticism. Covent Garden’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1977 staging, with its highly original medieval religious imagery, reminded us of this thanks to Semyon Bychkov’s minutely controlled but bizarrely undramatic reading of every musical note Wagner wrote (all usual cuts re-opened).

Another strange thing about this mystifying opera is that Lohengrin is a tale of failures all round. There is lots of bad behaviour in it — even if it’s very Germanic and conformist bad behaviour, as Mann so amusingly reminds us. Jones’s understanding of this, and his determination that the consequences of Elsa’s failure should be virtually suicidal for the whole tribe, is one of the most striking aspects of his production. Wagner’s adaptation of the myth contains genius because of its ambiguity. Is it not perfectly reasonable, you might well ask, for Elsa to need to know? After all, our ‘Right to Know’ is one of the most proclaimed modern rights in western civilisation.

Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Anja Harteros as Elsa were utterly involving in this production. I have never seen that extraordinary marital love scene so convincingly directed and staged as this, or so naturally and touchingly acted. But what Elsa does, despite all Lohengrin’s best efforts, by popping the forbidden question is to betray old German values: oaths taken and upheld for generations, which Telramund and Ortrud care about. At the same time, there is the abandonment of the whole ethos of welcoming an outsider with gifts and wonders, that embodied the idea - the Holy Roman Empire. The Germans have always been in open society of traders and skilled workmen who understood the deal that life without borders demands — in a huge soup of different talents and races and types. That was what the Holy Roman Empire presided over and also what the dream of modern Europe is. In Lohengrin, we are at the very heart of what it means to be German and therefore revealing something central about European identity. After all, the disasters of German nationalism are going to affect our pan-European culture for a very long time to come.

Jones and his designer Ultz put all this together absorbingly at the Bavarian State Opera by focusing on the story of Elsa and her imaginary knight, Lohengrin. They show us her whole dream as she conceived it — which is nothing less than ‘the building of the house’. Is that a concept or is it a story? What the rising, carefully constructed house means in Jones’s production is indeed the whole project of German civilisation. Jones, like David Alden, is drawn to this kind of investigative questioning interpretation of Wagner. It is a pity that Kent Nagano’s conducting was an unstable contribution to the experience, though Munich’s orchestra is capable of marvellous playing and gave us some great music-making. Nagano was not inside this score, as he needs to be — though he can take some credit (despite his reluctance to give singers their cues) for the faultless delivery by such a terrific singing cast.

Ultz’s set showed us a high-up railway-style bridge right across the stage from wing to wing with the whole vast space of the Nationaltheater’s stage open around it, and underneath we almost could not notice, to start with, that there were the footings of a building. Ultz isolated the front of the stage to enable the frequent intimate confrontations of the opera to be experienced on a human scale. But at the same time, Jones articulated the epic social dimension of the gathered tribes and people. Of course this was all happening in modern times, though, equally, precise period was immaterial. Jones’s production is not a comment on something in the past — it is lived through now, as it were.

At Harteros’s first entrance, you might not have recognised that this was so different that they were almost not in the same world (Lucy Burge worked with Jones on the choreography). Michaela Schuster’s Ortrud was perhaps less impressive than usual, though her persuasive undermining of Elsa’s faith —with Telramund witnessing everything from the bridge and from the top of the house — was eerie and brilliantly staged. The conclusion of the whole opera. after the restoration of Gottfried, was dramaturgically provocative: Gottfried’s monochrome ‘missing’ picture had been on display in the theatre from the start, and also handed out to audience members as they arrived.

Telramund tries to commit suicide with a gun in his mouth but, of course, cannot bring himself to quite do it. Eventually, he is shot by Lohengrin. But the production ends with all the chorus in pairs seated at desks around the stage, facing each other with guns in their mouths waiting to pull the trigger. Jones succeeded in creating a Wagner production that was brilliantly objective, yet truly original and fresh. He didn’t show us a story we were being invited to ‘identify with’, but a warning parable that makes us think hard. It was both theatrically exciting in the technical accomplishment with which it was achieved (and I have said nothing about the subtle editing of Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting), and deeply unsettling. It was also free of vanity as a piece of work in an age where many productions are rather pleased with themselves. Wagner was served superbly, even if he might have been alarmed at where his ideas had ended up.

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