Benjamin2011-03-10
Lohengrin (warning: quite long)

I recently had the unlooked for opportunity to see the Lyric\'s Lohengrin. I\'ve been hearing, over and over, that this was the show to see this season, and had attempted to get tickets myself. Unfortunately, the only remaining seats were far outside my price range. At the last moment I learned that my good friend was sick, and had two tickets to spare! Thanks to her misfortune and her generosity I was able to see it after all, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Here are my thoughts on the production and on the opera. If this is all too long for your taste, the final paragraph summarizes my feelings. For an even shorter summary: magnificent!

It feels a little arrogant to be critiquing choices made by the Lyric, as these are without a doubt some of the best artists in the world. For the most part I have nothing but praise, and if someone has an answer to any of my complaints I\'d happily acknowledge that I don\'t really know what I\'m talking about.

Music

This is where I regret my lack of a classical upbringing. I was not raised with this music, and in general I find the music of both Lohengrin in particular and opera in general less moving than I would wish. What others might find sublime I find merely pleasant (with a couple of exceptions that I will mention later on), and this is a great pity. So while I enjoyed the music greatly last night, I was not profoundly moved by it. This is largely because I was hearing it all for the first time, I think. After all it took me a few listens to come round to Ke$ha\'s latest album, and Wagner\'s work is quite a bit more complex.

With that caveat, so as to avoid giving the impression of damning with faint praise, I can say that I enjoyed the music very much indeed. For one thing, I was quite impressed with its range—Wagner is usually very heavy and dark, but this opera contains a number of very delicate pieces as well. There was plenty of good old Wagnerian sturm and as much drang as anyone would want, but to my surprise a number of the cantos were surpassingly bel!

There was an excitable* brass section and four additional trumpeters standing onstage whenever the King was about, but there were other sections (such as the very first notes—the prelude to Act I) which were light and airy. \"Ethereal\", someone suggested, and I thought that was a good adjective. This breadth was especially apparent in the third act, which began with a soaring love duet and ended in a fine shouting match, hallucinations of swans, and accusations of delusion.

That\'s about all that I was sufficiently astute to notice about the score itself, save a disappointment in the Act II pagan god aria that I\'ll get to later and these two observations: the Bridal March really is glorious, and I can see what it caught on. Also, there was an organ in Act II that totally took me by surprise. Where were they hiding that thing?

Story

If music is the most important feature of opera, then traditionally the story is the least important. I disagree, for a number of reasons, and one of the chief things that I like about Wagner is that he disagrees as well. Having said that, in the overall outline this is a very silly story.

In the country of Brabant, the lovely Elsa (daughter of the former Duke) rejects Count Freidrich\'s offer of marriage. Pagan sorceress Ortrud marries him instead and secretly turns Elsa\'s brother into a swan. This is all against the backdrop of a possible invasion (\"May God preserve us from the fury of the Hungarians!\") that never actually takes place.

Friedrich is hurt by the rejection (although perhaps he rejected her?) and so allows himself to be convinced by Ortrud that Elsa drowned her brother in the forest stream. He accuses Elsa before the king, she announces that she\'ll prove her innocence via trial by combat, and a magical knight arrives riding on a swan. This Mysterious Stranger insists to Elsa that she never ask him his name and then handily dispatches Friedrich (sparing his life, however). Friedrich and Ortrud are exiled for making false accusations.

In Act II Ortrud (after calling upon the pagan gods for strength) plants suspicions in Elsa\'s mind by pointing out that she\'s about to marry this guy without knowing a damn thing about him. Meanwhile, Friedrich is talking smack and recruiting discontented knights so that he\'ll have someone to carry off his corpse after he tries round two against the Mysterious Stranger.

In Act III Elsa and the Mysterious Stranger get married. Things are going fine, but then Elsa confesses that she\'s worried that he\'ll leave her as mysteriously as he arrived and, ultimately, demands that he tell her his name. At that point, Friedrich and his four pallbearers rush in, the Mysterious Stranger guts him like a fish, and they carry off his corpse. Everyone still living goes to find the King, to whom the Mysterious Stranger explains that he\'s Percival\'s son Lohengrin from Grail-land, and that the Holy Grail gave him magical powers, but only as long as Elsa didn\'t ask for his name. He further reveals that Elsa\'s brother (remember Elsa\'s brother?) was only going to be a swan for one year (!) because after that his contract of service would expire (?) and he\'d return to human form. However, since Lohengrin no longer has super powers he\'ll have to abandon his new wife and return to Grail-land. Before he leaves he might as well re-humanize her brother then and there, so the swan turns into a brother again, and Lohengrin hits the road.

As you might expect, the majority of my trouble with the plot occurs in Act III, in which everything is revealed. This is because everything is revealed to be largely arbitrary and confusing. The Grail was perfectly fine with this knight getting married, ruling a kingdom, and fighting duels, but not ok with anyone learning his name? That doesn\'t even start to make sense, and the whole business with the swan-boy \"contract of services\" thing also comes out of nowhere. As I say, it\'s silly and it manages to be overly-complicated while also being all too simple.

On the other hand, there are many details that I like in this story. For one thing, take a look at other instances of this trope (Bluebeard, Pandora, the Selkie myth, &c.): it\'s almost always the case that the cautioned woman (or man, in the case of Selkie and Kitsune stories) simply can\'t deal with her curiosity any longer and breaks her word due to a lack of self control, or \"feminine curiosity\". In Lohengrin, however, Elsa isn\'t losing control when she demands his name, and it isn\'t idle curiosity. In fact, she is regaining control, or attempting to. In the heat of the moment she was ready to devote her life to a complete stranger, but after some serious thought she makes a deliberate choice to insist that she know more details.

As Cat pointed out, there is a huge disparity in the amount of power that each person is bringing to the marriage: he knows all the information, he has magic powers and has just turned down the title \"Duke\", while she has just escaped an accusation of murder and will probably soon be pregnant. Asking for a little reassurance that the Lohengrin won\'t hop right back on his swan and drive off is a far cry from the typical Pandoric curiosity.

Glossing over the particulars of the grail\'s bizarre prohibitions, I like the general theme that for any loving relationship to work, it must be founded on trust. Personally I don\'t feel that this should mean trusting nameless strangers on swans, but a rational, earned trust in your partner\'s motives is perhaps the most important factor in a successful relationship. In a way this idea is only ham fistedly alluded to—I wish that it had been treated with a bit more seriousness.

Finally, I think that a lot of the characters in the story are well drawn. Friedrich, for example, is never given any other explanation for the disappearance for Gottfried (his ward) than the one that his wife suggests, and she claims to have witnessed the murder herself. It\'s not unreasonable, then that he would see Elsa as a murderess, and it\'s even admirable that he would go to such lengths for justice, even risking his life against a (presumably) conjured champion with magical powers. Of course the evidence is pretty spotty, and there\'s not even a suggestion of motive for the murder. There\'s also plenty of circumstantial evidence towards Elsa\'s innocence, and it is very much to Friedrich\'s self-interest that Elsa be put to death. This makes him a interesting character, willing himself to blindness in order to honorably bring about his own fortune.

Lohengrin himself, a literal cipher throughout the play, has some interesting character attributes. As Johan Botha (the amazing tenor who portrayed him in this production) puts it, \"He is a hero, he\'s come to save Elsa, but he\'s also naïve... The ultimatum he puts to Elsa is impossible, but he really believes that things are going to be perfect\". Lohengrin, after all, a young man who was raised grew up in Munsalväsche**, the Castle Adventurous and home of the Holy Grail. Growing up in the presence of the Cup of Christ and surrounded by the most brave and most enlightened people in the world means there\'s never a thought of \"stranger danger\" to be had.

I\'ve mentioned how reasonable I thought Elsa\'s struggle was, even Ortrud was more human than the cartoonish witch she might have been. We don\'t actually get to see much of this humanity, which is too bad, but it\'s there somewhere.

Performance

But enough about the story—how was the singing? With two exceptions, the performances were absolutely phenomenal. Elsa was performed by Amber Wagner (no relation... or is she? No one seems to know!) in an unbecoming wig. I don\'t know enough about sopranos to say anything technical, but I thought her voice was both beautiful and powerful, the two things I want most from a soprano. Several people, including Cat, have told me that she was stretching just a bit too much during the first act (this is one of the exceptions I mentioned) but they also all agreed that she more than made up for it throughout the rest of the evening.

Johan Botha played Lohengrin, and was the person that everyone was most excited about. There are plenty of drop-dead gorgeous tenors who can sing airy, romantic arias at you and loads of other tenors who have the raw power to compete with the loudest orchestras. I\'m told that very few who can do both, however. And as I mentioned earlier, this opera has beautifully light bel canto moments but also contains plenty of Wagnerian force. Thus the lead needs to be able to carry off either, and Botha certainly did. Again, beauty and power. He probably also had skill, but I\'m too unsophisticated to have been able to judge that. He sounded lovely and held his own against the raging trumpets, that was all I asked.

I should add that he was also a perfectly reasonable actor—he didn\'t have much to do, but there were two flashy sword fights that he carried off with a ton of panache (stealing a sword and double a wicked double flourish, even). In the second fight scene Friedrich rushes into the bedroom and Lohengrin sidesteps and strikes. Friedrich carries on a few more paces, sword over his head, and then stands perplexed. Lohengrin makes the classic samurai \"shaking the blood from the sword\" motion, and Friedrich falls dead. Very cool.

Next to an impassioned soprano, the bit I love best is a deep bass, and both Friedrich (Greer Grimsley, a bass-baritone, I suppose) and Georg Zeppenfeld\'s King Heinrich were both admirably low and rumbley.

Which brings me to Ortrud, and my second disappointment. First of all I should say that in general I really liked Michaela Schuster\'s performance, and especially thought that her duet with Elsa in Act II was delightful. She was also a great actor, being seductive without being trashy, and evil without being cartoonish—not an easy feat to pull off. In fact my only complaint may not even be her fault—perhaps Wagner dropped the ball here—and is only worth noting because of a personal preference.

That preference is for sopranos (or better still mezzo-sopranos like Schuster) who go completely bug nuts and lose their head entirely, shrieking up the scales in a mad passion. That\'s pretty much the Best Thing in Opera, and I have a whole rating system based on the Queen of the Night\'s second aria. I said above that I didn\'t experience the sublime very often while watching opera, but two characters: Salome and Astrifiammante, the Queen of the Night, (Deborah Voigt and Erika Mikolsa, when I saw them) certainly did the trick for me in their final arias.

So here in Lohengrin there\'s a pagan witch, exiled and at her wits end with one final chance to ruin her enemies and bring glory to herself. Just before she sits down with Elsa to drop some poison in her ear she takes a moment to call forth her Entweihte Götter, her profane gods. Everything was pointing to a serious mezzo breakdown on the order of Salome\'s final chat to the Baptist\'s head, but it just felt flat.

For one thing, it was a pretty short piece—less than a minute from start to end (you can hear Christa Ludwig perform it here). The two other arias I mention are longer, and come at the culmination of their respective operas, which allows them to convey a lot more emotion than this did. After all, this is really just an aside from a secondary character.

It was also difficult for me to hear her over the orchestra in this performance, and that dampened my appreciation as well. Now it may be that this is an unfair thing to expect, as Wagner and Sir Andrew Davis had whipped those brass players into an absolute frenzy, but I\'m pretty sure that Elsa and certainly Lohengrin could have sung plenty loud enough for me. Maybe they just set the bar too high, or maybe I was hoping for something that was never really intended for the scene. And it isn\'t like it ruined the act for me (especially with the awesome duet that followed!), it\'s just that I feel like it could have been a moment to remember.

Design

A number of people had told me that the scenic design was nothing to write home about, but I disagree. It certainly wasn\'t a Svobodian clockwork or anything—quite the reverse, in fact—but I thought that it worked very well. The stage was completely flat, and covered in sand. I have no idea why the sand, I guess Antwerp\'s a desert now or something, but it was just the thing for conveying a sense of loneliness and isolation (both the isolation of Elsa in Acts I and III, and of Ortrud and Friedrich at the beginning of Act II).

In this desert landscape the only structures through the performance were three posts. One was a tall pillar, topped with a bull skull with gilded horns. Another, with a platform of human skulls, had two arms wide enough for people to stand on them and was topped with a Roman eagle. The third, which had two higher, thinner arms, was topped with an open hand—my first thought was that it was a khamsa, but I don\'t know for sure if that was the intent. Cat\'s suggestion was that these stood for the power of the pagan gods (the bull\'s skull), the power of the state (the roman eagle) and the power of spirituality (I\'m proud to say that I came up with the link to Fatima myself). In addition, in silhouette (and they are often in silhouette) two of these structures cast shadows like a crucifix. This cruciform theme was also reflected in a lot of the costumes, but never overtly. As in many Arthurian stories, Christianity is rarely referenced explicitly, but like the shadows cast by these structures it is always there in the background.

The majority of the stage pictures were not done with traditional scenic elements but with costumes. The Lyric did a similar thing in their recent Faust (the Gounod, not the Berlioz) where they used the chorus and its costumes to great effect against a fairly monochromatic set.

The opening image for Lohengrin was of a series of clay statues or stone formations that then reveal themselves to be the women\'s chorus, dressed in brown and grey. In short order they are joined by the men\'s chorus, who wear white with shining silver mail on their heads. The king enters, dressed in bright silver and white, with golden shoulder pieces and flanked by tonsured monks wearing pure white. Everything is whites, greys, silvers and gold, and this fairly restrained palette is kept up until Act III.

Stage director Elijah Moshinsky made beautiful pictures with the actors, arranging them to form visually compelling patterns of color. The trial by combat, for example, took place between Friedrich (dark blue and silver) and Lohengrin (pure white and gold) surrounded by a ring of monks in white. Beyond that there was a sea of browns and greys as the rest of Brabant looks on.

Act II had my absolute favorite scenic moment of all, as the curtain rose on Ortrud and Friedrich seated at the base of the bull skull pillar stage right. All was in dim cool light, and they were being hit by a blast of barely warm ambers from head-level lights just offstage. Somehow the whole effect was beautiful, and incredibly lonely. I really felt the immensity of the Antwerp desert (whatever, it worked for me) and the fact that these two exiles had no one in the world but each other.

After a time, there was an up swell of music and the sun rose, red and angry in the distance. It looked more than a little like the Eye of Mordor, which was an odd choice, but they were both more or less evil so I guess that was ok. Either way, it silhouetted one of the structures in the rear, making it look like a dead try, and it was quite beautiful.

Friedrich left and we saw Elsa, behind a scrim, at home. We could tell it was her home because a ginormous four-paned window gobo appeared, and I\'m very conflicted about it. On the one hand, hey, it worked—I instantly knew where the action was taking place! On the other hand, it was blatantly and aggressively anachronistic, while throughout the rest of the production things were consistently 10th century, if stylized.

Towards the end of the act was another favorite visual moment of mine, a beautiful dawn. I\'m not sure quite how the lighting designer (Christine Binder) accomplished it, actually. The whole stage (and the white, unbroken drop across the entire back wall) looked to have the warm colors of impending sunrise, but the overall feel was the cool of pre-dawn. Knights entered in almost silhouette here, and it was gorgeous.

Finally, In Act III a new color was added to the palette—blood red. Let me tell you, I may not be so hot at subtlety, but I really do appreciate restraint. Confine yourself to a bare minimum, and then when you introduce a new element it speaks volumes! So the Act III prelude starts with a bang, and two groups of four noble women rush out of the wings, cross each other, and each grab hold of an enormous piece of red silk. They run it back to the orchestra so that it completely covers the stage, spread it flat and then walk along it. As they did it settled into place, rippling and billowing like water. As I say, this was a very arresting imagine. Not only because of the beauty of the silk and the purity of the color, but also because the stage walls were all white, and the bounce from the silk turned them red as well—an amazing visual.

This would have been my favorite design element of the show except for the fact that it came completely out of nowhere and ultimately had almost nothing to do with what was happening on stage. All of the characters were essentially striding through an enormous pool of blood, but why? True, a guy eventually dies, so there\'s some blood spilt there, but that\'s not until much later on in the scene, and isn\'t really a major turning point in the piece (he had it coming, he really did). This act dealt with loss of innocence, and it was their wedding night, so maybe the red silk was a reference to Elsa\'s loss of virginity? Except that the marriage is not actually consummated—they get into a big fight instead. So the red silk was perplexing to me, for all that it was a stunning image.

Eventually the silk was cleared away and everyone stood before the king once more (in another beautiful stage picture). Lohengrin explained his life\'s story, and added that now he had to leave. He had a long and awkward conversation with an invisible swan*** and then declared that it was time to bring back prince Gottfried. He turned his back, did something or other, and hey presto! Young Gottfried was there! He appeared like magic through a trap door that was not only clearly visible center stage, but had been clearly visible for the better part of four hours now.

That really bugged me, by the way, the fact that I\'d been staring at the grooves in the stage floor for three acts. It\'s not because it \"spoiled the illusion of magic\" or anything, but rather because on a stage a trapdoor contains an implied narrative—someone is going to come through it at some point in the show. And this expectation competes with the ongoing narrative onstage, so that when I should be focused on the evil plots of Pagan Ortrud I\'m instead thinking, \"gosh, I wonder when they\'re going to use that trap\".

I just can\'t believe that it\'s such a difficult problem to fix—surely you could put a sheet of paper over it for the first couple of acts, at the very least? Or, better still spend some of the Lyrics enormous annual budget to pay someone to make it look better—it must be a solvable problem, right? And yet I had the same problem (repeatedly) with the Ring Cycle back in 2005 where obvious trap door lines were everywhere. And I had a similar problem with the Met\'s recent production of Nixon in China—there\'s a very striking scene of the very end where a door appeared in a giant (like 30\' high) portrait of Mao, and various people walk through it. It\'s lovely, but throughout the entire previous act they used the same picture of Mao, with a god-awful outline of a door plainly visible across his nose. It\'s the Metropolitan Opera—didn\'t they have enough money for a second Mao portrait, at the very least?

Anyway, the young prince appeared, and Lohengrin headed off. As he left, a heavy scrim came down to separate him from everyone else (most notably his wife, Elsa). They were all still lit, but now it was as if they were standing in a dense fog while he alone was clear. This made the feeling of separation quite keen, while remaining intangible. Unlike a more physically imposing barrier, the scrim made it clear that Lohengrin could return to them (i.e., there was nothing to stop him) yet was honor-bound not to. This is an example of a perfectly lovely way to use a scrim.

For a contrary example, I refer you to Act I of this same opera, in which a different scrim (further downstage) was left in front of the entire cast for the majority of the act. That murky fog of which I spoke? Almost all of Act I happened inside it. It worked well when the focus was on Lohengrin, standing downstage of the scrim—he was easy to see and, moreover, easy to light. With everyone behind it, however, almost all of the front light (everything not on the grid, basically) was useless. And without front light (and with the fine mesh of the scrim itself in the way) everything looked very muddy indeed. And people were singing arias that way!

I am convinced that the reason for this scrim was for a single effect: when Lohengrin finally arrived, a stylized swan gobo was projected onto the scrim, floating in the air above the heads of the people watching. After the swan left, the gobo faded out, and the scrim was finally raised. I tell you, it was like cleaning the dirt off my glasses—I could see again! Now this would have been a pretty fly trick if the point of the opera had been to show how benighted the country was before Lohengrin\'s arrival, but wasn\' the case at all. True, King Heinrich was looking for help against the bloodthirsty Hungarians, but the focus of the act was Elsa, not Brabant as a whole, so the visual effect seemed accidental. And the swan gobo, while nice enough, certainly didn\'t merit an entire act with no frontlights.

I know (believe me, I know!) what it is to be a lighting designer at a production meeting. I suspect that Christine Binder knew better than to drop a scrim in front of the cast and was simply overruled by the director. The swan gobo had all of the hallmarks of a hasty last-minute change too—maybe they had planned for there to be a giant mechanical bird, and when it broke down the director insisted on the gobo instead. No LD that I\'ve ever met would voluntarily give up her front lights so it must have been someone else\'s idea. The anachronistic window gobo, as well, could easily have been interference on the part of someone else (although I\'m astonished that the Lyric didn\'t have a more appropriate gobo in stock). But hell, she\'s the Head of Lighting for DePaul University, so I\'m perfectly willing to believe that there\'s a reasonable explanation.

Summary

So, my overall take on the matter: the story had a lot to offer, given that in broad strokes it is so ridiculous. The scenic design was restrained, beautiful, and wonderfully complimented by the costume design (as well it should have been—John Napier was in charge of both). I didn\'t understand the red silk in Act III, but there\'s no doubt that it was a striking image. The lighting, although marred by what I consider to be an unfortunate choice throughout Act I, more than made up for it in Act II. Finally and most importantly—this being Opera after all—the music as written and as performed was simply wonderful. There was a surprising breadth in tone, from light, sweet bel canto passages all the way through full on Wagnerian thunder. More impressively, the two leads were able to keep up, being perfectly suited to either mode. I met a co-worker in the lobby who summed it up nicely: \"Now this is opera!\"

*I mean no offense to the orchestra, who all played splendidly—if they had flaws, I could not detect them.

**In Wolfram von Eschenbach\'s original story, Lohengrin and the other knights are sent out anonymously to \"provide lords to kingdoms that have lost their protectors\" and given magic powers as long as they do not reveal their identity. An army of King Batmans, in other words.

***And how is this usually handled? Because he looked foolish talking to empty space, but opera houses don\'t usually bring in trained birds, do they?

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