Review: 'Lohengrin', Opera Australia, Melbourne, 21 & 24 May 2022



By Terence Watson

Conductor: Tahu Matheson; Opera Australia Chorus; Orchestra Victoria; Director: Olivier Py; Revival Director: Shane Placentino; Set & Costume Designer: Pierre-André Weitz; Lighting Designer: Bertrand Killy.

Cast—Elsa: Emily Magee; Ortrud: Elena Gabouri; Lohengrin: Jonas Kaufmann; Telramund: Simon Meadows; King Heinrich: Daniel Sumegi; Herald: Warwick Fyfe; First Noble: Dean Bassett; Second Noble: Tomas Dalton; Third Noble: Nathan Lay; Fourth Noble: Clifford Plumpton (21 May) / Ryan Sharp (24 May)

I saw the performances on 21 and 24 May. This production of Lohengrin premiered in Brussels in 2018 as a co-production between Opera Australia and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. I found the production a mixture of arresting images, very moving interactions between characters, puzzling stage images, actions and props, and some very silly moments (the silliest perhaps being the moment when Telramund tries to hang himself with a rope suspended improbably from the flies!).

Director Olivier Py set the opera in post-World War II Berlin, which proved to be a poignant and powerful reminder of the futility and devastation of war in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the production opened about 4 years after Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. The Melbourne production opened on the 88th day of the invasion.

The opening stage image was therefore arresting and disturbing. As the prelude to Act 1 began, a huge round glass and steel set began to revolve in time to the music. At first, I thought the set might represent a bombed-out office building, but it revealed itself as the remains of an opera house. This image became even more affecting with the announcement by King Heinrich that he was in town to raise troops for the renewal of the war after the ending of a 9-year truce. He also boasted that he had rebuilt fortifications, but clearly had not thought it necessary to rebuild the opera house. I could not but understand this as Py’s political comment on the priorities of leaders in wartime.

One of the faces of the revolving set reveals the tattered remains of the opera (upper) stage on which some action happens; most action, though, happens on the real (?-lower) stage. This made me wonder if there were some significance to the transitions between the stages, but I could not work out a consistent explanation. At times, there is a mobile, metal clothes hanger on the upper stage, presumably a reminder that this is an ad hoc performance in difficult times, or perhaps a touch of postmodern irony in the midst of an otherwise traditional interpretation? There were times when a character was left alone on the lower stage while the revolve took most of the cast away. Most memorably, Lohengrin was left alone as he sang “In fernem Land....” Kaufmann began singing this aria and the farewell to the Swan aria in the softest sotto voce delivery I think I have ever heard—truly riveting; the audience was entranced, nary a breath was taken. Kaufmann increased his volume during both arias to deliver the climaxes in his characteristic burnished tones.

One of the bizarre aspects of the production was the decision to require many of the characters to leave or climb onto the upper stage by means of a kitchen chair. Another chair was placed at front of the stage where a prompt box is often located. Warwick Fyfe in his heraldic duties was required to mount the chair many times. For no apparent reason, so was the King etc. My OH&S background made me shudder at the prospects of falls and possible deaths. Fortunately, none happened. But why, what was this intended to convey? Warwick took what is a relatively small role in the opera and turned it into a vocal tour de force, as is his wont. His diction was so much easier to follow than Daniel Sumegi’s; to me the latter’s voice, and so his diction, tends to disappear into the nether regions of his vocal range. Warwick was also given the task of photographing important moments in the action. I guess this was another nod to the time in which the action is set, when photography—of the war itself, for instance—was making its mark on society. The Herald’s occasional selfies also pointed towards the future in which nothing exists unless I have photographed myself in a scene and, almost by definition, excluded the historically significant from the record.

At the end of the Act 1 prelude, Ortrud elaborately hauls what looks like a small body wrapped in a shroud across the upper stage and deposit it through a trapdoor. It seems that this is intended to be a dead Gottfried, even though in Wagner’s story he returns alive at the end of the work. As the prelude ends, characters slide on their back from under the upper stage!!??

I have no suggestions, except that, perhaps, they are the performers who have been hiding in the basement of the opera house until it was safe to emerge and play their parts. Shortly after, we see the figure of a young child—possibly Gottfried—playing around the upper and lower stages. Is he a ghost, a figment of someone’s imagination, the child of a performer? Just before Lohengrin is due to appear, we see him and the child playing aeroplanes on the upper stage as it slowly revolves into centre stage. The child then wanders away to leave Lohengrin to defend Elsa’s honour.

Ortrud’s relentless rational attacks, while also displaying, I think intentionally on Wagner’s part, her inability, as a woman, to resist intellectually Ortrud’s attacks. Elsa is intended to be a paragon of female virtue, and Ortrud the monster who has mastered masculine rationality. Elsa is vulnerable to Ortrud’s attacks because she begins to question, which disposition, in Wagner’s ontology of the female, will lead to disaster. Questioning is, in short, the basis of Aufklärung rational philosophy and, for Wagner, one of the reasons his world is in a mess. Lohengrin, then, can be understood as a morality tale about the consequences of males and females acting outside their proper, natural roles. In Wagner’s ontology, Telramund represents the parallel diversion from proper, natural gender roles and behaviour because he allows himself to be manipulated by Ortrud, rather than taking the lead in the plot against Elsa.

The prelude to Act 3 is accompanied by a bare-chested athlete (who has also served in other capacities in previous acts) who treats us to a display of gymnastics. The ethos and his actions suggested Leni Riefenstahl was the source in a further reference to World War II, but I was not able to find an image of the athlete’s initial, iconic stance. This the closest I could find on the internet—especially the arms.

While entertaining, the display seemed intended to fill in a static moment in the opera, and to make a clever cultural reference, rather than to tell us much about how Wagner’s artwork could be interpreted as a step in the direction of National Socialist politics and aesthetics, if indeed it can be seen as such a step.

Act three begins with some chorus members crossing the lower stage carrying suitcases that they then deposit on front stage (other suitcases have been brought on earlier, so they are clearly intended to convey some significance). I presume that these are refugees, but why strew their luggage over the stage? I guess it might be to remind us of the consequences of war, but, if so, it might have helped (me at least) if there had been a consistent stage image of war, apart from the bombed opera house.

The scene in which Elsa finally demands Lohengrin tell her his name etc, takes place in a 3-level set with 3 box settings on each level, rather than their bedroom. Each box contains an image of an iconic person or object purported to be of significance to Wagner, but also, according to Py, to raise a question about the relationship between Wagner and National Socialism that has intrigued him since his first Wagner production.

By directing Tristan und Isolde first and then Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer, I didn’t immediately need to address the question of whether German romanticism might have been the seed-bed for National Socialism. But the day came when I couldn’t avoid the question any longer.

Py does not explain what kind of “German romanticism” he has in mind—there are arguably as many kinds as there are of people who use the term in a vast variety of situations. I interpret Py as having in mind a very religious (mostly Roman Catholic), politically conservative variety of Romanticism, such as Wagner would have been exposed to through the works of the Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, the Heidelberg school of poets (including Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, and Joseph von Görres), Joseph Eichendorff, and the painter Philipp Otto Runge. The larger proposition that might be a direct link between that kind of Romanticism and National Socialism is a complex matter that has kept busy historians, cultural theorists, philosophers, and sociologists among other researchers.

Some of the icons Py selected are somewhat oblique, if they are meant to enlighten the audience about these matters. Two are immediately clear for other reason. The centre box bottom level contains a tree stump with a toy sword stuck in it. The box stage right contains a very bad bust of Goethe. The box stage left contains a better bust of a tousled and annoyed Beethoven. Another box contains a sailing ship with the jib sail in the shape of a face—a reference to Friedrich Schlegel, author of The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, one of the sources of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Other boxes refer to the painter Friedrich Caspar David, the poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, and an ancient Greek temple. The centre box on the second level, dedicated to the philosopher Georg Hegel, features a large alarm clock. The hour hand of the clock becomes the weapon with which Telramund tries to kill Lohengrin, but Lohengrin kills him with the minute hand—his time has come! There might well be a meta-metaphor buried in this that seeks to link Hegel’s philosophy of history with Wagner (who had read at least some of that work, but with derision and bemusement), and with World War II. One of Hegel’s most quoted sentences says history is a “slaughter bench, upon which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals were sacrificed.”

In among these props, Kaufmann managed to imbue his moment of truth with Elsa with deeply touching tenderness for the love of his life who is progressively betraying her promise and his trust of her devotion. He frequently embraced Elsa and stroked her shoulders in a mixture of love and exasperation as she anguished her way to demanding he reveal his secrets.

Whether it is Kaufmann’s or Py’s interpretation, these gestures helped reveal Lohengrin as a deeply compassionate, committed lover. After Lohengrin has answered her demand, and she has appeared through a hole in the back wall of the opera house and broken down in a paroxysm of regret, he takes his jacket off and drapes it over her shoulders. Perhaps the jacket will bring her comfort in later life.

In another stage action that confused me, out of one the suitcases (glowing from the inside) Lohengrin hands Elsa 3 paper crowns (the same kind as King Heinrich wears—post-war limits on exotic materials for crowns?) that he claims are the sword, hunting horn, and ring she is to pass on to Gottfried when he reappears. Even more confusing, in this production he reappears (?) as the body bag, presumably containing Gottfried’s body, is pulled out of the trapdoor. So, is Gottfried alive or dead? I’m pretty sure that Wagner’s ending is different, though not much more positive!

I had not experienced the conducting of Tahu Matheson before, but I found his interpretation of the score exciting and at time revelatory. His shaping of the many climaxes by bringing out both the brass lines, and getting a much sharper edge to their sound, added to the tension of the scene. At other times, he drew out a sensuous line to match the characters’ emotions, or kept the sound low just to support the characters as they bared their souls or revealed their nefariousness. I look forward to him conducting other Wagner works. His job was made easier by the wonderful playing of Orchestra Victoria whose members gave one of the most confident and responsive performances of this music I’ve heard in a long time. Such playing demonstrates the value of building a tradition of playing Wagner’s music, rather than performing his works occasionally, as had been our lot in Australia until relatively recently. The Opera Australia chorus was, as always, in fine voice, even though for much of the time they were confined to barracks, or rather the opera boxes behind the upper stage, or squeezed in on the sides of the lower stage.

I was very happy to see this production twice, despite the oddities of the staging, because of the quality of the music from the orchestra and most of the singers. The production, though, contained many more moments of wittiness, confusion, puzzlement, and affect than I have discussed, but perhaps it will make more sense if I see it in a revival soon? If you are interested in reading Py’s own account of his motivation and interpretation, you can read it online at www.lamonnaiedemunt. be/en/mmm-online/928-for-me-the-aesthetization-of-politics-is- pivotal-in-this-work. For me, his comments about the politics of the opera produced as much confusion and puzzlement as his production—perhaps there is a link?

From Wagner Quarterly 166, September 2022