A tragedy of contemporary Wagner productions lies in their frequent combination of impressive musical talent with stagings that can be stultifying. Barrie Kosky’s 2005 production of Lohengrin for Austria’s principal operatic stage is not vulgar or obscene. It is not provocative or creepy. With one exception, portraying Elsa as a blind woman, it is simply a bore.
To be fair, it did make some dramatic sense to have the impressionable young Elsa led around sightlessly. In any production the character’s overly trusting nature opens the door to betrayal, while her naivete ends in the indiscretion that wrecks the fairy tale romance. The fact of her blindness here allows Lohengrin’s chivalry to swell to greater than usual heights when he fights as her champion, leads her to the altar, and tries in vain to stop her from destroying the happy ending. When Elsa shows Ortrud and Telramund kindness in their disgrace, they can mock her without having to resort solely to Telramund’s shadowy line about misfortune entering the house or Ortrud’s furtive invocation of the pagan gods to help her gain vengeance. It did deaden the impact of Ortrud’s resentment, with which her second act music is so enthrallingly pregnant, but Telramund’s description of his wife as a “wild seer” highlighted her juxtaposition to Elsa to an extent I had never considered.
Given the rest of the production, however, it is clear that Elsa is not missing much. Like so many post-modern approaches to Wagner, almost everyone else appears in business attire. King Heinrich’s Reich is apparently some kind of business office and its Brabant branch consists of a chorus of nobles and freemen lazing about on cheap schoolroom chairs. Lohengrin’s entrance is suggested by a float of large plastic chain links. He and Telramund both “fight,” or rather gesture, while seated across a wide open space from each other. Yawn. Elsa’s world is a childish one sparsely suggested by Fisher Price quality toys and a playhouse that converts into the Act II church, all rendered in a depressing mustard color. Lohengrin and Elsa have their turbulent Act III scene before a plain red curtain seated side by side on the same boring chairs from the first act. The Fisher Price motif recurs toward the end when Lohengrin presents the horn, sword, and ring that Elsa is supposed to give her missing brother Gottfried when he returns. Gottfried’s release from Ortrud’s evil spell tentatively returns him to life via some kind of giant tear drop at which the sorceress sticks out her hand before the stage goes dark.
I have absolutely no idea what Kosky was trying to convey, or if he was trying to convey anything at all. Is Lohengrin as childish as the Fisher Price toys suggest? If so, then why is most of the cast so drearily businesslike? Elsa is surely impressionable. But is that really the same as innocence, or are the innocent, along with the good and the merciful, merely handicapped? Having Elsa appear blind focuses a lot of attention on her susceptibility to Ortrud’s successful pursuit of a common feminine means of sabotaging relationships. Are we meant to share Wagner’s well known misogyny? Lohengrin, it seems, really cares for Elsa despite the dissolute surroundings. Is caritas a cartoon?
Fortunately the musical effort was strong enough for me not to care. Peter Seiffert’s singing has been uneven in my experience, but in this performance he showcased a resounding tenor capable of tackling the greatest challenges in the title role. He is clearly a growing artist, and this might have been the best I have ever heard him sing. Soile Isokoski’s cool Nordic tonality sailed merrily through Elsa’s gorgeous music. It only missed some of the lilting musicality that suggests innocence in the lighter Wagner soprano roles. Wolfgang Koch’s gruff Telramund captured the part with sharp characterization and somber baritonal chest voice. Ortrud fully displayed the Renaissance of Waltraud Meier’s singing in recent years. A performance of hers in the role that I heard recently in Berlin was hair-raising in the best of ways, and she matched it evil eye for thrilling evil eye in Vienna. The unfortunate production took the edge off some of her flair, but the well studied gestures and expressive acting combined with her smoky mezzo to dominate every scene in which she appeared. Ain Anger blustered through King Heinrich’s underappreciated heft. Markus Eiche made a fine impression in the small role of the Royal Herald. Leif Segerstam’s driven reading of the score inspired the best from the Staatsoper’s orchestra and chorus, which were in fine form.