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Lohengrin Opens the Season at the Teatro alla Scala

Monday, 10 December 2012 , ora 10.52

I am certain that most of us have been surprised when the most traditional Italian opera house chose to open the season of the VERDI year - 200-year birthday - with Lohengrinby Richard Wagner. Of course, 2013 is also a WAGNER year - the bicentenary, as well - but Italians, much like the rest of music lovers around the world, were waiting for a Verdi title on the poster. Conductor Daniel Barenboim, who led the Lohengrinshow, offered the explanation, whose main argument seems that... Wagner was born in May, a few months before Verdi, who came into the world in October. We accept the explanation and appreciate the supreme tribute that the La Scala Theatre pays to the personality and the creation of the German composer.

We watched the show on Friday, 7th December, broadcast live in one of the halls of the Grand Cinema Digiplex in Băneasa. This is a second salutary initiative - after The Light Cinema broadcasting live in HD from the New York Metropolitan Opera, for the fourth season in a row, if I am not mistaken - of offering the Bucharest audience the chance to take part live in fantastic shows that are otherwise practically out of reach.

Music... a round ensemble

In general, commentaries for such high-level shows can only be enthusiastic; the greatest orchestras, the best conductors and musicians, the (technically) best-prepared lyrical theatre stages and… the most interesting directors of our day. Lohengrin's conductor at La Scala was Daniel Barenboim, a complex artist, unique in his own way, a virtuoso pianist and strong conductor whose main distinctive personal trait might be the way he sees and makes the music that he feels into a round ensemble where each constituent has its own role and equal importance. We have felt and understood it at his concerts as both soloist and conductor at the 2011 edition of the 'George Enescu' International Festival in Bucharest. We have rediscovered, under his baton, perhaps more than with other renowned conductors, the concreteness of a Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art - as the creator of the concept, German composer Richard Wagner, conceived and desired it to be. And if we say that he was leading the orchestra of the La Scala Theatre, we have said everything about the quality of the Italian instrumentalists' performance.

Performance of the highest quality

The show's cast was changed at the last minute and the German soprano Annette Dasch replaced Anja Harteros as Elsa. I saw her last summer at Bayreuth in the same role and admired her beautiful voice, her passionate performance, the gentleness and strength which she put in creating her character. I found all these qualities in the Italian show, as well, although the director's vision was a very trying one. But more on this, later.

The star of the evening was definitely tenor Jonas Kaufmann, in a role that he has played a lot, on very important stages, including the Bayreuth one, and which seems to fit him like a glove. Jonas Kaufmann represents the ideal tenor for music lovers everywhere: tall, handsome, elegant, a complete artist, an actor with a calling, and above all, the owner of a voice that brings tears to one's eyes and a lump to one's throat - those who were in the hall and experienced along with me the third act of this performance of Lohengrin will understand very well what I mean. The cast also included René Pape (Henry the Fowler), Tomas Tomasson (Telramund), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud) and Zelijko Lucic (The King's Herald), all of whom did very well.


I have not seen any other show staged by the German theatre director Claus Guth (born in 1964), who is also considered a very successful opera director. I have looked for general information and references to his work with Wagner scores and I have discovered that the artist created personal versions of all the great titles by the German composer. He started in 2003 with The Flying Dutchman at the Bayreuth Festival. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg followed in 2007 (Dresden and Barcelona), then Tristan and Isolde (2008 in Zurich and Düsseldorf), The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy (2008, Hamburg), Tannhäuser (2010, Vienna and Basel), Parsifal (2011, Barcelona) and finally he staged Lohengrin in Milan this year. I am trying to determine a few personal directions that define the artist in his approach of renowned scores, by reading commentaries by fellow critics and seeing images from his shows. All this to know what to expect from his interpretation of Lohengrin. I notice that he likes closed/open spaces where one does not know whether one is within or without walls, surprising details that have a certain connection to the subject, leaps into the oneiric and sick illusions/hallucinations, beginnings of roads that eventually seem not to have led anywhere. This staging of Lohengrin has a little bit of everything.

I am trying to convey and interpret it in my own way, without excluding the possibility that I might be mistaken. I only got one idea from an interview with the director, shown in the second pause of the show, and it is not fully supported or justified: Lohengrin does not exist, he is merely one of Elsa's fantasies. The idea is not new. In Claus Guth's Tannhäuser in Vienna, Venus is a figment of the hero's imagination, much like the pilgrimage to Rome. The entire Lohengrin show takes place in the open/closed space of a huge room with a large desk and a piano, a room that is in fact a courtyard around which there is a two-storey building with long hallways lined with myriad doors. There is also a corner with reed thicket and a little pool behind the piano. With the last notes of the heavenly prelude the curtain opens and, by the pool, Elsa clutches desperately to her chest the coat of his young brother, whose disappearance is clearly suggested by Ortrud draining the water that had collected in a boot. Elsa looks epileptic - she keeps collapsing suddenly and she's shaken with convulsions. Moreover, she obsessively scratches her whole body and bites at her nails in despair. Ortrud is actually the two children's piano teacher and apparently she has left them traumatised; the sight of a flexible twig still makes them shudder with fear and worry. Strangely, the music seems to have been a symbol of aggresivity in their childhood, whereas now, as they are older, it becomes a haven of isolation which gives them the illusion of security. In her most difficult moments, when she is accused by Telramund, for instance, Elsa seems absent-minded and taps rhythms, melodies and harmonies that only she can hear at invisible keys. Coming back to Ortrud, her appearance strikes by the strong resemblance with the most famous portrait of Cosima Wagner - a stiff posture, an intricate hairdo, with a middle part and thick braids tied together with a large black ribbon. In the second act, I receive the conspicuous living copy of another very well-known photograph - Claudia Cardinale dancing in her famous white ball gown in the movie The Leopard by director Luchino Visconti. Elsa's wedding dress is the same as the one worn by the beautiful actress, while Ortrud's gala dress keeps the design, but changes the colour to black.

The strong clash of the two women in the presence of the guests attending the wedding takes place once again around the piano where Elsa is looking for help. She will not find it, but her fingers will be painfully and forcefully scratched by Ortrud, who cruelly smashes the fall-board over the girl's hands.

When Lohengrin first appears - crouched on the ground, trembling and scratching all over the body - the director seemed to have confused the characters, bringing Parsifal into the wrong context. The impression remains because Lohengrin/Parsifal is absent, confused, does not know where he is coming from and what for, what he is doing here and what people want from him. The fact that he is barefoot triggers certain connections - Lohengrin is in fact the human form of the lost brother coming back to earth to save his sister from harsh accusations. There are several other arguments to this interpretation - there are always two children walking around on the stage, Elsa and her brother, some time in the past, and Lohengrin is wearing the same clothes as the child. When he faces Telramund, the child comes out of the reed thicket holding a huge sword and wearing a crown made of swan feathers… and pretends to fight. The entry of a new character allows room for new speculation. There are not just two avatars of the same brother - the child and Lohengrin - but also a third one, the teenager dressed in the same clothes, as well, passing about the stage like a shadow, slowly and very beautifully lifting an arm turned into an enormous swan's wing. If the lack of any eroticism or touch between the two future spouses during the first two acts convinced me that I was right about my interpretation, a very explicit rape scene destroyed the whole idea that I had built with such difficulty and complexity. This time the pool has grown considerably larger, we have a small lake with a pontoon which Lohengrin and Elsa jump from into the water and where they play their scores with ever more difficulty because of their ever heavier costumes, soaked in water. Needless to say, the piano is still in place but now it is turned upside down, inaccessible to art. All it can be used for is as a stand where Elsa sits and dries herself while on the pontoon Jonas Kaufmann alias Lohengrin sings his aria In Fernem Land heavenly.

The circle is closed. Lohengrin hands Elsa the wet boot which swan down has stuck to and which trickles with water. Then he collapses, barefoot, crouching and shivering, his back to the audience. He will remain in this position until the end, when Ortrud kills herself by slashing her wrists, and Elsa's brother comes on the pontoon, safe and sound, without his wing-arm. When he recognizes him, either happy or desperate, I cannot decide which, the young girl collapses and disappears almost completely under water.

Alone, in front of everybody

Rounds of enthusiastic applause and cries of bravo rewarded the conductor, the orchestra, the singers and the chorus. The booing was saved for the director. But Claus Guth stepped proudly in front of the curtain, self-confident, and his gaze seemed to be saying: it was not I who was mistaken, you are not able to understand - alone, in front of everybody who was present in the Great Hall at the Milan Teatro alla Scala the night the 2012-2013 season was opened with the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner.

Cristina Sârbu
Translated by Irina Borțoi and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, Bucharest University