Australian Book Review, 16 May 2022
Peter Rose
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
Richard Wagner’s music of hypnosis
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime we drink and drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
he hits you with leaden bullets his aim is true …
(from ‘Todesfuge’ by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris)

Not long before the 1845 première of Tannhäuser, Richard Wagner was holidaying at the spa of Marienbad. He had with him a copy of the anonymous German epic Lohengrin, and he was possessed. Ever the sensualist, he described the impact in luxurious terms:

No sooner had I got into my bath at noon than I felt an overpowering desire to write Lohengrin and this longing so overcame me that I could not wait the prescribed hour of the bath, but when a few minutes elapsed I jumped out and, barely giving myself time to dress, ran home to write down what I had in my mind. I repeated this for several days until the complete sketch for Lohengrin was on paper.

Writing to a friend, Wagner said: ‘I wrote the final words of the libretto yesterday; I have now only the music to compose.’ What other composer would put it so nonchalantly? Neville Cardus has observed: ‘Every sentence in a Wagner libretto was a vein of music waiting to flow as soon as opened.’

The first performance took place in Weimar on 28 August 1850, with Liszt at the podium. Wagner was by then a political refugee from Saxony after the 1849 May revolution in Dresden. He would not see a performance of Lohengrin until 1861, in Vienna.

Lohengrin stands at the crossroad; Wagner was impatient for change. His art, Michael Tanner has suggested, ‘springs from a radical dissatisfaction with life, but the sources of that dissatisfaction lay so deep that he had the greatest difficulty in finding an adequate situation to embody it.’

Soon after the Weimar première, Wagner wrote to the literary scholar Adolf Stahr:

There is a whole world between Lohengrin and my present plans. What is so terribly embarrassing for me is to see a snakeskin I shed long ago dangled in front of me willy-nilly as if I were still in it. If I could have everything my way, Lohengrin … would be long forgotten in favour of new works that prove, even to me, that I have made progress.

Yet the snakeskin begins with a Prelude of ethereal beauty, based on one of the leitmotifs that begin to infiltrate his music: that of the Holy Grail. Tanner again: ‘As the most intelligent and self-conscious, as well as the most intellectual of artists, he could see that in the prelude he had written a new kind of music, one for which he had a dangerous gift: the music of hypnosis.’

The new production in Melbourne is a co-production of Opera Australia and La Monnaie in Brussels, where it had its première in 2018. It is the work of French director Olivier Py and his regular designer, Pierre-André Weitz. Gone is the River Schedt, the fortress of Antwerp, the bridal chamber – gone is the swan! Instead, on a very effective revolve, we have a ruined theatre in Berlin, bombed during World War II and now gingerly inhabited, despite the debris, by the players of Brabant. The choristers – brilliantly illuminated (Bertrand Killy’s lighting is inspired) – occupy the devastated tiers in the theatre; occasionally they join the principals on stage.

Py, like other European directors, is haunted by the putative (and debatable) link between Richard Wagner (who died in 1883) and the origins of Nazism. In a useful interview, Py states: ‘I believe that the link between German romanticism and National Socialism is most apparent in Lohengrin.’ He contends that Wagner ‘anticipated the possible outcome of an alliance between German metaphysics and German nationalism’. In a woollier passage he argues that, ‘When directing an opera, you always have to try and capture the Zeitgeist. Otherwise you ignore the subversiveness of the work.’

Lohengrin, to some of us, feels too innocent, too elemental – too daft in a way – to qualify as subversive. Ultimately, almost embarrassingly, good does indeed triumph over evil (whatever that means).

The massive set – with its sombre palette, complemented by Weitz’s black costumes, with occasional bursts of grey and a stylish off-white overcoat for Lohengrin – mostly works, especially at the end, during ‘In fernem Land’, when the sorrowful Lohengrin casts a terrifying shadow on the theatre’s rear wall.

Now and then, Py indulges in clichéd effects seemingly designed to satirise the drama. Telramund’s anguish at the start of Act II, when he rues his disgrace and banishment, is too genuine to be mocked by a noose lowered from the ceiling. One soon tires of the buckets of postwar debris passed along the row of Trümmerfrauen. During the famous march that precedes the bridal chorus in Act III, Py introduces a sprightly acrobat – a camp throwback à la Leni Riefenstahl. (The audience duly applauded the acrobat’s one-arm planche: everything is circus after all.)

Apparently, the chalking up of poetry and symbols is a signature trick of Py’s. ‘Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland’ – the graffito on the back of the theatre – comes from Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, or ‘Death Fugue’. Then there are the mysterious symbols patiently daubed by Ortrud. Not random road signs as some may have thought, these are drawn from esoteric Nazi iconography – the Celtic Cross and the Black Sun (Schwarze Sonne), a kind of sun wheel. (Some hint, some note in the welcome program, might have helped Australian audiences.)

Of the six principals, three were Australian: Warwick Fyfe, Daniel Sumegi, and Simon Meadows. Sumegi – Opera Australia’s Wotan in next year’s Ring in Brisbane – brought his usual presence and volume to the king’s role, with its testing high passages. Fyfe, our Herald – fresh from his magnificent Wotan in Melbourne Opera’s recent Die Walküre – was every bit as good as when he sang the same role in Melbourne twenty years ago. Simon Meadows, an outstanding Alberich in last year’s Das Rheingold from Melbourne Opera, sang with equal power and flair as the nefarious Friedrich von Telramund.

Telramund and his wife, Ortrud, are wonderfully unscrupulous. Theirs is a Macbethian marriage steeped in intrigue and manipulation. Ortrud is certainly the most powerful figure in the opera. Interestingly, Wagner saw her as a politician, a member of a class he abhorred. In 1852 he wrote to Liszt: ‘Ortrud is a woman who does not know love. Her nature is politics. A male politician disgusts us, a female politician appals us.’

Ortrud is such a meaty role. One thinks of fine performances from Nance Grant (VSO, 1985) and Elizabeth Connell (OA, 2002). Our Ortrud on this occasion was the French-Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri. We first heard her in Sydney four years ago when she sang Amneris in David Livermore’s LED-happy production of Aida. At the time I wrote, ‘This was brilliant singing, fearlessly enacted.’ Nothing has changed. In her role début as Ortrud, Gabouri – busy, saucy, baleful, mordant – threatened to walk away with the show. Very funny to watch, she played Telramund – that reliable dupe – like a fiddle. This was a creepily filial kind of coupling, brilliantly conveyed by these two young singer–actors.

The sheer scale of Gabouri’s voice is phenomenal: even at the end, when Ortrud pushed her way through the crowd and exulted in her perfidy, the high notes were ringing, as if Gabouri could have sung the role all over again. Gabouri’s Azucena in Opera Australia’s new Il Trovatore in Sydney this coming July will be quite an event.

Emily Magee was Elsa of Brabant – poor vulnerable, vestal Elsa, gullible and masochistic – another of Wagner’s truly silly female characters. Magee – American-born and now in her mid-forties – sings roles such as Eva, Ellen Orford, and Salome. She and Kaufmann have been performing together for years (Tosca and Ariadne auf Naxos). Magee, with her sure technique, fine diction, and high floated notes, was at her best in Elsa’s Dream in Act I and during the long, complex scene in Act II when Ortrud, facing exile and disgrace, oilily beguiles Elsa and persuades her to do the one thing that Lohengrin has enjoined her never to do: to ask about his name, his origins, his ancestry. This is one of the finest scenes in the opera, and both women were at their best.

After the festal opening in Act III, the set for the conjugal scene – hardly the bridal chamber that Wagner had intended – did Magee and Kaufmann no favours. This was a kind of three-tiered set-room, with props of all kinds and busts of Goethe and Beethoven and all. The long love duet that follows – rightly described by Gustave Kobbé as ‘one of the sweetest and tenderest passages of which the lyric stage can boast’ – is another highlight of this opera, but here it was compromised by the pinched, vertiginous set. Placed high above the stage, Magee had difficulty projecting into the vast State Theatre. Our attention was diverted by the newlyweds’ complicated movements and ascents, a distraction from the drama of Elsa’s stubborn insistence on learning Lohengrin’s name, which shatters their accord.

The chorus, under Paul Fitzsimon, was in mighty form throughout, and how good it was to hear a young Australian at the podium. Tahu Matheson’s subtle and sympathetic conducting should take him far. Orchestra Victoria has rarely sounded better.

Jonas Kaufmann has been a frequent visitor to Australia since 2014 when he gave concerts in Sydney and Melbourne – exclusively French and Italian fare (no Wagner). We next heard him as Parsifal in 2017 – a concert version – and this was followed in 2019 by Andrea Chénier, also in concert.

In a post-lockdown coup, Opera Australia has lured the German tenor back to Australia in one of his most celebrated roles, his first fully staged production in the country.

Kaufmann, who recently added Peter Grimes to his repertoire in Vienna, is now fifty-two, prime time for tenors. Inevitably, the voice has changed since 2002 when I first heard him. This was four years before Kaufmann became internationally famous after singing Alfredo at the Met. La Monnaie had brought its celebrated production of La Damnation de Faust to Dresden, with Susan Graham and José van Dam. But who was the impossibly good-looking Faust with the long dark curls and thrilling high notes of rare amplitude? Well, we found out!

The voice now is darker, richer, with unusual baritonal qualities. The high notes are still clarion and utterly secure. Kaufmann knows this role inside out; he moved and sang with complete assurance, easily negotiating the tedious chair that the principals had to use whenever they mounted the stage (few opera singers look graceful climbing onto a kitchen chair).

After the third summons by the Herald, the knight normally arrives on a boat drawn by that kitschy swan to some of the greatest music in all opera. Instead, Py has Lohengrin romping around backstage with an otiose boy dressed in white (the ghost of the murdered brother Gottfried, perhaps). Then Lohengrin moves onstage and presents himself as Elsa’s champion. All that is left of the Swan is a handful of feathers. Lohengrin then farewells the Swan to exquisite music, sung beautifully by Kaufmann, mostly unaccompanied. Then he introduces the requisite steel in his voice as Lohengrin offers Elsa – defamed by Telramund and accused of murdering her missing brother – his hand in marriage, on one condition. For Lohengrin, like the Ring that will follow, is an opera about the making and breaking of contracts.

At the end of the opera, after Elsa’s suicidal betrayal (‘O Elsa! What have you done to me?’), Kaufmann moved front-stage and sang ‘In fernem Land’, the great aria of declaration and extrication, music we know already from the Prelude. Here, Kaufmann was at his most magnetic; rarely has a Melbourne audience held its breath for so long. Kaufmann’s dynamics are always daring; he is capable of such stillness, such hush. Lohengrin is one of those idealised, lonely heroes who suit Kaufmann temperamentally. He seems most focused, most energised, when alone on stage. In ‘In fernem Land’, Kaufmann risked much with the inward fervour of his singing of the early passages, especially the description of the Grail and its wondrous power. It was a heart-stopping moment in the theatre. The aria ended radiantly. The Farewell was similarly poignant. In all, it was a memorable and suspenseful performance from the German tenor.

Py, in the interview mentioned earlier, spoke of the synaesthetic dimension of Wagner’s art. ‘Its effect is such that sometimes I don’t know if it’s my ear that’s watching or my eye that’s listening.’ Despite the absurdities of the story, the sheer silliness of some of the characters, Lohengrin contains music of great beauty and addictiveness. We need to hear this early work every few years to remind us of the revolutionary advances of the music-dramas that would follow over the next three decades, and of what made them possible.

Once again, just weeks after that splendid Die Walküre from Melbourne Opera, Wagner reveals himself – notwithstanding his longueurs, his ambiguity, his seemingly endless thorniness for European directors with their fretful consciences – as indispensable for the health of any serious opera company and its audience. At his best, Wagner stirs us, slays us, seduces us as no other composer can – a unique entrancement.

Just three years separated the first two operas in this short season from Opera Australia: first Lohengrin and then La Traviata in 1853. The current pairing is not without interest. Musically, dramatically, these two operas are worlds apart – the one mythic and nebulous, the other domestic and incisive – and yet passages from Wagner’s Prelude and the equally melodious one that opens Act III of Verdi’s opera seem ironically related despite the opposing personalities of these two nineteenth-century titans and adversaries.

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