The Times, December 11 2012
Neil Fisher
Wagner: Lohengrin, Teatro alla Scala, 7. Dezember 2012
Lohengrin at La Scala, Milan
Did Wagner topple the latest Italian government? Mario Monti, Italy’s Prime Minister, was there for the opening night of the La Scala season but his next announcement was that he intended to resign, after the news that Silvio Berlusconi’s party had withdrawn support.

Berlo might not have wielded the knife during the performance (he prefers the football to a night at La Scala), but for all the glitz this gala did touch a political nerve. Next year is the bicentenary of both Wagner and Verdi; choosing to perform Wagner’s Lohengrin at the most important night in the Italian operatic calendar looked to some like unacceptable cultural weakness.

But La Scala’s general director, Stéphane Lissner, is French; its leading conductor, Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli who specialises in German music. Fold in Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, a German tenor and soprano both favoured by Mediterranean good looks, and La Scala had made a compelling argument.

Harteros, alas, succumbed to flu; so did her cover, giving the house 24 hours to find a replacement. In the end the rather over-parted Annette Dasch did a creditable job as Elsa in a gloomy new staging by Claus Guth. In a spooky Victorian courtyard evoked by Christian Schmidt’s spare and not very singer-friendly designs, Guth has the story unfold alongside a befuddling array of psychological allusions and strange flashbacks.

Many of these concern the death by drowning of Elsa’s brother Gottfried, and when Kaufmann’s terrified Lohengrin appears (no swan, only a handful of feathers), writhing and twitching neurotically, the strong implication is that he is just a projection of Elsa’s sisterly guilt. That’s one idea. So is the odd relationship Elsa seems to have with her female nemesis, Ortrud (sung with demonic vehemence by Evelyn Herlitzius), one based on sadistic childhood lessons at a piano that never leaves the stage. But by the opera’s denouement both internal logic and external drama have seeped away.

A shame, because Kaufmann’s commanding portrayal of the title role — which effortlessly spans the sweetly lyrical and commandingly heroic — is superb and Barenboim’s conducting, though dramatically over-generalised, produces spine- tinglingly gorgeous playing from the La Scala orchestra, who purr through the overture like a dream. There’s powerful support, too, from René Pape’s King Henry and Zeljko Lucic’s imposing Herald. Opening the season next December will be Verdi’s La traviata. As you were.

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