The New York Times, December 11, 2012
|By GEORGE LOOMIS
Wagner: Lohengrin, Teatro alla Scala, 7. Dezember 2012
On opening night, it’s Verdi vs. Wagner
MILAN — For an event charged with social and cultural significance unlike
any other on the Italian calendar, this year’s opening of the Teatro alla
Scala’s new season had a German orientation that some found unsettling. The
impact was slight on the characteristically festive atmosphere, as the
familiar parade of Italian political, business, artistic and social
luminaries gathered at the opera house in Milan on the time-honored date of
Dec. 7. Heading the list was Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was there even
as his governing coalition lost crucial support that very day.
Daniel Barenboim, its music director, La Scala has opened with a Wagner
opera two other times in the last five years, but this year’s “Lohengrin” is
different. For one thing, it comes on the eve of 2013, the bicentennial year
of both Wagner and Verdi. That La Scala, which should be the gold standard
for Verdi, chose Wagner for the season’s inaugural offering struck many as
out of line and called into question Mr. Barenboim’s commitment to the
In retrospect, however, the German aspect that
proved the most contentious was embodied by the staging by Claus Guth. Mr.
Guth is a favorite of those who favor directorial boldness, but of late his
productions have subjugated not only the letter of an opera but also its
spirit to arching concepts of questionable relevance.
In this updated
“Lohengrin” the action is shifted from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th
century, not so much to illuminate from a new perspective the artistic
truths of Wagner’s Romantic opera but to say something about the
(apparently) repressive society that produced it. If the music loses out, so
For eagerness of anticipation, sheer excitement and musical
splendor, no character in opera has an entrance like that of Lohengrin, the
knight sent to rescue the falsely accused Elsa. In Mr. Guth’s staging,
choristers simply part to reveal him stretched out on the stage floor in
slovenly dress, looking as if he has a hangover, although his paranoid
behavior and spasmodic actions soon tell us that he is in worse mental shape
than Elsa, who clearly has problems of her own. The basic set by Christian
Schmidt, who is also responsible for the costumes, is of the grim,
brick-wall school of design prevalent in current productions; possibly, it
depicts an asylum, though we never really know. A black upright piano in the
building’s courtyard serves as a place of refuge, for Elsa especially.
In scenes in Act 2 for the scheming couple Ortrud and Telramund and for
Elsa and Ortrud, Mr. Guth displays his appreciable talent for working with
singers, with telling results that are recognizably close to what Wagner had
in mind. Mr. Guth strikingly calls attention to Elsa’s moment of supreme
happiness before doubts set in about Lohengrin’s origin as she converses
with Ortrud in dreamy ecstasy while playing with a feather. (The production
does without a swan, but feathers and wings randomly appear.)
Barenboim affirmed the point by stretching out the gorgeous concluding
violin statement of the theme the singers just sang. Elsa’s long exchange
with Lohengrin, during which they splash in a pool, is also deftly done, but
it is another detached point of lucidity in a scenario so far removed from
what “Lohengrin” is about that it is pointless to try to fathom it.
Another downside of Mr. Guth’s staging is that it prevents Jonas
Kaufmann, today’s reigning Lohengrin, from portraying the role coherently.
Since the character seems to suffer from bipolar disorder (or worse), the
tenor finds himself singing heroically one minute and cringing the next.
Bayreuth’s current Elsa, the soprano Annette Dasch — who stepped in
at a late hour after Anja Harteros and the back-up Elsa, Ann Petersen,
contracted the flu — showed an astonishing mastery of the complex staging
and sang with freshness of tone.
The dramatic soprano Evelyn
Herlitzius is a bloodcurdling, vocally rock-solid Ortrud, and the baritone
Tómas Tómasson offers a vocally adequate but not tormented Telramund. The
excellent René Pape is an amusingly avuncular yet still authoritative King,
and the fine baritone Zeljko Lucic sings the Herald from a disadvantageous
position in the rear of the stage. Mr. Barenboim’s account of the score, not
one of Wagner’s trickiest, is forthright and robust.
With a staging
like this, you might wonder whether old-style Scala opening nights are
things of the past. A reasonable facsimile did turn up recently, but you had
to go to Rome to see it.