Weighed Down Upon the Swanless River
[Lohengrin at Los Angeles Opera]
December 05, 2010
"There was no swan, there never is these days . . . ."
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times
No, there is no swan for the Knight of the Swan in Los Angeles Opera's new production of Lohengrin. There is very little in the way of emotional, historical, or practical logic in it, either. It sounds—with some qualifications—marvelous, and it is not the full-blown "turkey" that it was declared to be in Mark Swed's review linked above. It is entirely possible to enjoy this Lohengrin and to derive ample satisfaction from it so long as you, figuratively at least, pay no attention to what is going on when there's no curtain in front of it.
First, a synopsis of the opera* Wagner actually wrote:
The German states have been at war with Hungary, until a 9-year truce was agreed. King Heinrich of the Germans has used the time to rebuild and fortify his realms, and is now traveling about gathering armies to march on Hungary when the truce comes to its end. This brings him to the Duchy of Brabant, where all is not well. The Duke of Brabant has died. His heir, young Gottfried, has gone missing and the Regent—Friedrich von Telramund, who would not object to becoming Duke of Brabant himself—accuses Gottfried's sister Elsa of having murdered her brother. Elsa protests her innocence, in all things. The King declares a trial by combat, Telramund to face whoever will champion Elsa. Elsa has had a vision of an unknown champion and, just when all hope seems lost for her, he appears. A shining knight arrives riding upon, or in a vessel drawn by, a great swan. He will champion Elsa, and more, on condition that he must never be asked to reveal his name, his birth or his origins. Elsa promises. The knight promptly defeats Telramund, casts him out to meditate on his bad deeds, becomes engaged to wed Elsa and declares himself Protector of Brabant, ready to march with King Heinrich to inevitable victory over the Hungarians.
Of course, it ends in tears. Telramund's wife, the pagan sorceress Ortrud, successfully plants the seeds of doubt in Elsa's mind. What can warrant all this secrecy, wheedles Ortrud, but some Dark and Horrible Secret in the knight's past? Elsa succumbs: on her wedding night she demands to know her husband's name, birth and origins. Telramund chooses this moment to attempt to slay Elsa's knight, but is himself slain. The knight summons the people and answers, as he must, Elsa's questions: He is a knight of the Holy Grail, sent by the Grail to defend Elsa's innocence. His father is Parsifal, who rules in the Grail castle in far Monsalvat. He, as we have known all along, is Lohengrin—and having answered these questions he is obliged to leave, to rejoin the service of the Grail in the earthly paradise of Monsalvat. The great swan returns and Lohengrin makes to depart. Ortrud, having lost a husband but otherwise gained the upper hand, exults. Just to show her, Lohengrin produces the missing heir Gottfried, who was not killed but transformed by Ortrud's sorcery into, yes, a swan. Elsa, from grief over her error and loss, falls lifeless. Fin.
Some Thoughts on Directorial Choices
So, Lohengrin is a cautionary Holy Fairy Tale, built on the classic device of the Question That Must Not Be Asked or its variant, the Door That Must Not Be Opened. ("What a woman does is open doors," as Joanna Newsom would have it in her Bluebeard song, "Go Long".) With that as a given, how does one go about staging it? Count, if you will, the ways:
- Even today in our jaundiced and knowing age, it is possible if you are an opera director to stage a fairy tale as such, and to take the magical and mystical elements at face value. It happens all the time with, say, Magic Flute. [Afterthought: As an even better example, it also happens all the time in productions of Tristan und Isolde.]
- If that sort of literalism doesn't set well, you can adopt a contemporizing approach that will still build on and work with the themes and ideas that are actually there.
- You can even get fairly radical about that sort of thing while still maintaining high respect for the material, as I contend Achim Freyer did in his tremendous Los Angeles Opera Ring cycle.
- If you don't particularly care about the material, or if you have some Point of Your Own that you really want to make using the opera at hand as a mere excuse to make it, or if you have no higher calling than offending and annoying the audience, you can as an opera director perfectly well do that as well.
Or you can set Lohengrin in a field hospital constructed in a bombed-out cathedral at the end of World War I, with a hero sporting an unexplained silver-armored right leg and an overall look that crosses M*A*S*H with Les Miz. . . .
. . . as director Lydia Steier has done in Los Angeles.
It is not an offensive production. It is not an abusive production. It is not a production in which the director has Something to Say and is Gonna Say It. It is a production, I fear, without an idea in its head other than "Let's set Lohengrin in the First World War."
That and other directorial choices lead to an evening of head scratching. In the text, King Heinrich emphasizes how powerful and ready the German people now are after nine years' preparation to take on the pesky Hungarians, and boasts of all the fortifications he has constructed in that time. Why are we performing surgery in a ruin after nine years of peace? Were there no earmarks for the reconstruction of Brabant? Why, for that matter, are the Brabantian citizens so darned fond of King Heinrich, and so happy to march off in his support, when his troops—including his noble Herald—delight in raping and beating the populace every time the King's back is turned?
What's up with the armored leg anyway? Where did the homeless population of Brabant find the materials to weave colorful banners, half of them adopting the leg as their symbol and the other half adopting the (otherwise unseen) swan? Where do they attach that impressive chandelier, given that snow has been falling on everyone throughout because the cathedral has no roof?
Heinrich's army seems to carry only swords: where did Lohengrin find the gun with which he kills Telramund? Is that what the leg is really for?
And wait: these are all Germans. In World War I. Aren't the Germans generally counted as the Bad Guys in that war? And weren't they allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire? One could go on and on.
Basic blocking and stage business often gets muddled. I have it on excellent authority that a patient dies in a tent during the Prelude to Act I following the amputation of his leg, suggesting that Lohengrin may have manifested by occupying the dead man's remains. At least on the night I was there, the incident was so subtly performed, and so underlit, that I am certain most of the audience missed it completely. Not a positive, if indeed it was meant to set up the entire premise of the production.
There are some vitrues to the physical production. The ruined church looks very good, for a ruin, and the use of an enormous turntable to expose different angles is particularly effective when Ortrud and Telramund plot their revenge in Act II.
Ah! The Music!
The redeeming features—which are sufficiently redeeming that I would recommend seeing one of the remaining performances on December 9 or 12—are all musical. The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under James Conlon is simply tremendous in this performance. Maestro Conlon is a huge enthusiast for Wagner's music, deeply knowledgeable of how it works, and he and the orchestra provide full measure of satisfaction.
Among the principal singers, this production belongs entirely to the women. Elsa is something of a one-dimensional character—she's pure and innocent, don't you know—but she has been given some purely gorgeous music while she is about it. Soile Isokoski sings that music with warmth, point and precision, and is a joy to hear. As Elsa's nemesis Ortrud, Dolora Zajick carries all the conniving, dissembling, menacing force one could wish. Other than Maestro Conlon, it was Zajick who received the most enthusiastic response come the curtain call. Lohengrin was the last work Wagner structured around a large chorus, and both men and women shone.
Ben Heppner's Lohengrin is problematic at this time, despite being his signature role for the past two decades. I am given to understand that last night's performance was perhaps his best of this run, and there were stretches of real strength and impact, but one never knew when a note would suddenly be not quite there, or not quite the note that was intended. It was not an outright bad performance, by any means, but it carried a sad air of disappointment about it.
Proposal for a New Production of Lohengrin
I will close with my own production concept, which came to me during Act II last night. Make of it what you will.
In my konzept, Elsa is an allegorical figure representative of the Great and Good American Public. Her unknown knight, bearing with him the promise of hope and perhaps even change, is eventually revealed to be Barack Obama. Telramund and Ortrud are, of course, John McCain and Sarah Palin. By their carping, scheming and innuendo, they persuade the saintly Elsa to demand The Birth Certificate. His secret revealed, the nation's potential savior must instead return to the ether from whence he came, leaving us chastened and bereft.
Crazy? Yes, but it just might work. This is Opera, after all.
* Wagnerian purists distinguish between Wagner's "operas" and the later/greater "music dramas." Lohengrin is the last of the operas, opening the door to the music dramas to follow. Wagner was already contemplating the Ring cycle as he worked to complete Lohengrin, and hints of the musical advances to come gleam through, particularly in Act II.
Top Illustration: Stage machinery for a proper Lohengrin swan of the old school, from "Behind the Scenes of an Opera House" by Gustav Kobbé, Scribner's Magazine, volume 4, Issue 4 (1888), via The Wagner Library. In 1888, Lohengrin (1850) was a more recent and contemporary work than the songs of the Beatles or Jesus Christ Superstar are today.
Photos: by Robert Millard, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.
Lohrengrinicon by the blogger, via Obamicon.me