The New York Times, December 11, 2012
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.

Under 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 Italian composer.

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 be it.

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.)

Mr. 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.

 back top