Opera News
Wagner: Lohengrin, Teatro alla Scala, 18. Dezember 2012
Lohengrin - MILAN - Teatro alla Scala
Opinions vary on whether La Scala has maintained — or lost, or regained — its artistic superiority to other Italian opera houses over the past decade. There is no doubting, however, that under Daniel Barenboim's musical direction it has become the best theater in Italy (and one of the best in Europe) for Wagner, as this season's opening production of Lohengrin amply demonstrated. At the first three performances, the originally-engaged singers were not able to perform together owing to health problems, but they were reunited as scheduled on December 18, when everyone in the pit and onstage (including the chorus, magnificently prepared by Bruno Casoni) seemed intent on exploring the full potential of Wagner's drama as a powerful human and spiritual experience, in spite of the intermittent perversities of Claus Guth's production.

The German director's desire to present Lohengrin as a psychologically fragile character — a man who tends to curl up in a fetal position or bend with anguished glances over an upright piano whenever he's not involved in serious singing — was not undermined by any resistance on the part of Jonas Kaufmann, who has always found insecure characters highly congenial. But Guth's conception was contradicted by the nature of the music, and by Kaufmann's own unflinching respect for the score. Every time the tenor opened his mouth, the sheer serenity of the music shone through, for Lohengrin is surely the least neurotic character in all opera. And although Wagner, in A Communication to My Friends, hinted that the mysterious knight was not entirely comfortable with his god-like status, there is nothing in the score or in the composer's writings to back up the almost comically schizophrenic effect of Guth's "reading" of the character. Similarly, his heavy (and in this case hardly original) emphasis on the traumatic after-effects of Elsa's childhood loss of her brother might have risked alienating the audience if the role had been assigned to a less winning singer than Anja Harteros.

These willful eccentricities, which could have been curbed by the conductor or artistic director, had a less compromising effect on the performance overall than one might expect. This was true partly because the attractive three-tiered set with its multiple exits, designed by Christian Schmidt and skillfully lit by Olaf Winter, functioned very well in acoustical terms and thereby naturally reinforced — thanks to the vivid projection of the sung text — the meaning of the original dramaturgy. The decision to move the action forward from the early Middle Ages to about the time of the opera's composition (always an easy way out) was at least partly justified by an extra degree of naturalistic spontaneity in the acting and an undeniable correlation between the musical idiom and the visual settings. This was true even of the "bedroom" scene in Act III, transferred, unusually, to a reedy river bank, for Wagner's music always blends easily with a natural setting, and Kaufmann and Harteros interacted in such a way as to highlight every psychological nuance.

Kaufmann is unmatched today as an interpreter of this music. It was particularly moving to hear him sing it at La Scala with a sensitivity of dynamic shading and rhythmic freedom that often recalled the filigreed elegance of early-twentieth-century interpreters of the Italian school. And it is a tribute to Barenboim and the Scala Orchestra that they allowed him all the time and delicacy of accompaniment he needed to shape the opening solo in Act I, and to deliver "In fernem Land" with a hushed beauty of unforgettable intensity.

Harteros makes less of a feature of her technique; it was refreshing to hear the role of Elsa sung with a voice of lean beauty, free from any trace of self-regard. All one was aware of was the emotional coloring of every word and the intriguing range of facial expression and gesture that accompanied it. It is rare to come across such a fully-integrated performer, although the apparent lack of a pure head voice may cause her vocal problems in the future.

Guth's attention to psychological detail paid dividends in the portrayal of Telramund and Ortrud. And while he dispensed with Lohengrin's swan, he didn't make any great effort to undermine Ortrud's belief in the pre-Christian deities. The scene between husband and wife at the beginning of Act II came across with devastating intimacy, and both Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson and German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius conveyed an impressive range of expression as singers and actors. No less striking were Željko Lucic, who proved an ideally forthright Herald, and René Pape, in one of his rare Italian engagements, as a commanding yet ever-sensitive Heinrich. The director in no way interfered with this classic portrayal, in which the words were delivered with the utmost eloquence and were bound together by an underpinning legato, while the singer's face proved as emotionally revealing when the character was listening to others as when he held the center of the stage.

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