Associated Press, 12 December 2012
|By MIKE SILVERMAN
Wagner: Lohengrin, Teatro alla Scala, 11. Dezember 2012
Jonas Kaufmann opens La Scala in magnificent form as a barefoot, dysfunctional Lohengrin
Review: Kaufmann triumphs as La Scala's Lohengrin
This Lohengrin is no knight in shining armor, confidently riding in on a
swan to defend a beautiful maiden.
No, the barefoot hero on view at
La Scala these days acts more like a runaway from a home for troubled youth.
He's full of odd, jerky arm movements, spends a lot of time picking swan
feathers off himself, and is given to darting off stage suddenly or lying
down in a fetal position when under stress.
He's well-matched with
the neurotic Elsa, who is easily startled and plagued by fainting spells and
psychosomatic itching. Small wonder, since she's been traumatized by seeing
her younger brother Gottfried kidnapped _ and, for all she knows, drowned in
the Scheldt river by the sorceress Ortrud. (Actually, Ortrud turned him into
a swan, which explains why Elsa is tormented by visions of him wandering
across the set, one arm draped in swan feathers.)
That's all just for
starters in the eccentric new production by Claus Guth of Wagner's early
romantic masterpiece that opened the season last Friday at Italy's leading
opera house. Seen at the second performance Tuesday, the staging
proved consistently entertaining though sometimes puzzling _ and with tenor
Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Daniel Barenboim conducting, musical
values were in supremely capable hands.
As Wagner wrote it,
Lohengrin is a knight of the Holy Grail who arrives to fight for Elsa when
she is falsely accused of killing her brother. He falls in love with her and
they marry, but he warns she must never ask his name.
revisionist take borrows from the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a mysterious
teenager who suddenly showed up in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 1820s,
claiming he had spent his early life in a darkened cell. This Lohengrin is a
reluctant savior, so unsocialized that at first he can barely look at Elsa
or touch her hand.
For the most part, the action, if not the hero's
personality, follows the libretto. Christian Schmidt's set is dominated by a
three-story balcony that surrounds the stage in the background _ handy for
the superb chorus _ and his costumes evoke the Victorian era. There are odd
touches, like a black upright piano that sits at stage left, where we see
flashbacks of a younger Elsa practicing while a stern Ortrud stands over
her. The grown-up Elsa also takes refuge there, and once Ortrud slams the
lid down hard on her fingers.
At the beginning of Act 3, with the
newlyweds alone for the first time, the libretto places them in a bridal
chamber. Here they run off down to the river, where they sit on a bench
surrounded by tall rushes. Lohengrin can't wait to kick off his wedding
shoes, and he playfully splashes around in the water, until Elsa _ her mind
poisoned by Ortrud _ asks the forbidden question.
Then he must leave
her, but first he invokes a miracle that frees Gottfried from Ortrud's spell
and changes him back from a swan. In this production, that effort seems to
cost Lohengrin his life: Instead of departing, he writhes on the ground in
torment until Gottfried appears, then lies still.
raises more questions than it answers, since we never understand why
Lohengrin is so dysfunctional, or why someone in his condition would be sent
on a holy mission.
Still, Kaufmann could perform the role
standing on his head and it would be worth hearing, so effortlessly gorgeous
is his singing. Long, liquid phrases melt into one another with stunning
purity, and he shifts seamlessly from heroic blasts to hushed whispers,
sometimes without pausing for a breath.
of his artistry: When he finally reveals his identity in the "Grail
Narrative," Lohengrin sings of a dove that miraculously descends from heaven
once a year. Kaufmann infuses the passage with a delicate sweetness, but
when he comes to the word for dove ("Tau-be"), he spins the syllables out in
an extended phrase of such quiet beauty that the very act of singing seems
part of the miracle.
If none of the other performers are on
his level, they all provide good support. Ann Petersen, a Danish soprano
filling in for an ailing Anja Harteros, started shakily, with some errant
high notes in Act 1. But she improved markedly, floating lovely phrases in
her second-act song to the night air, "Euch luften," and singing with warmth
and intensity in the fateful scene with Lohengrin.
As Ortrud, soprano
Evelyn Herlitzius deploys her edgy, penetrating sound with abandon, and
though it can turn squally on top, she is so dramatically compelling that it
scarcely matters. Baritone Tomas Tomasson, announced as indisposed, makes an
effective if blustery Telramund, Ortrud's hapless husband. There is luxury
casting for two smaller roles: bass Rene Pape intones King Henry's
utterances with grandeur, and baritone Zeljko Lucic is an elegant Herald.
Barenboim exhibits masterful control of the orchestra, allowing the
long, lyrical melodies to breathe and building to the climaxes with skill,
especially in the chilling scene between Ortrud and Telramund.
There had been some last-minute controversy over why an Italian
house chose to open with a work by Wagner instead of Verdi, when the opera
world is celebrating the bicentennial of both men's birth next year.
Kaufmann's golden-age performance alone should put complaints to rest.