Saturday, 19 May 2018

Wagner - Lohengrin (Brussels, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2018

Alain Altinoglu, Olivier Py, Gabor Bretz, Eric Cutler, Ingela Brimberg, Andrew Foster-Williams, Elena Pankratova, Werner van Mechelen

ARTE Concert - April 2018

When it comes to Lohengrin, a more cautious director would seek to downplay rather than actually highlight any associations that might be made between Richard Wagner and the Nazis. It's an issue however that is hard to avoid, since the question of German nationalism lies very much at the core of the opera and, regardless of it certainly formed a view of it that Hitler and his adherents took in another direction. Olivier Py, directing for La Monnaie in Brussels, however tackles the issue head-on a roundabout sort of way.

In fact, Py even takes to the stage before the start of the opera to explain why he sets his production in 1945 at the end of the war when Berlin and much of Germany was lying in ruins. Mainly it's because he believes that Wagner's Lohengrin is not just a nationalist display, but a warning of where such sentiments can lead. Wagner can't be entirely exonerated for his antisemitism, for a sense of jingoism in his works or for their and his family's later association with the Nazis, but there is certainly a case that Lohengrin is a work of artistic and cultural expression that does consider the disastrous future impact of nationalistic sentiments that can take art and culture and twist it toward personal and political interests.

Certainly Olivier Py and his regular stage designer Pierre-André Weitz's touch is all over the La Monnaie Lohengrin. It works in contrasts of black and white with little of shading in between. On one side we have Elsa and Lohengrin in pale blue, Lohengrin even associated with angels, while Ortrud and Friedrich von Telramund are all in black. King Heinrich incidentally (and somewhat negligibly) is dressed in grey. Py's Catholic or Christian faith may well play a part in reducing Lohengrin to such stark divisions, but it's perhaps more a case of emphasis as they are already there in Wagner's work. Ortrud certainly appeals to the pagan gods Wotan and Freia in a way that "allows evil to enter this house" as Telramund describes it. Is it a lack of 'faith' that leads to the ideal of the German nation being destroyed from within? And is this inevitable corruption of a pure ideal not indeed what Wagner's opera is all about?

Well, it's perhaps a little more complicated than that and it's certainly not as 'black and white' as it looks in the La Monnaie production. Firstly, there's the setting of Lohengrin, which as Py indicated, appears to take place in the ruins of the Third Reich, in a burnt-out theatre that has a platform at the front and the rotating ruin of the building behind. It's hard to imagine a 'straight' playing out of the legend then, and indeed the early indications point to a little bit of reinterpretation with the suggestion being that it is Ortrud who has choked the child Gottfried, the future ruler that would have taken Brabant to glory. Py, as he often does, introduces other obscure quotes, symbols and messages; "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" (Death is a master from Germany) on a wall, Ortrud painting a thick black cross, Elsa a white cross in chalk. Lohengrin's duel with Telramund in on a chessboard (black and white) rather than with swords, although a battle between factions takes place in the background.

It's hard to see any real connect between Py's 1945 setting of the work and Wagner's setting of the medieval legend, but that could well be intentional, showing a disconnect between a glorifying vision of Germanic culture (contrast this with the rather ideologically vacuous 2016 Dresden production) and the reality of the inglorious conclusion that awaits when it appropriated towards what Py describes as "the aesthetisation of politics". That kind of reading is certainly heavily supported by the rather meta-theatrical set of Act 3, Scene 1. The pastoral idyll behind the massed chorus of the people of Brabant in this burnt-out theatre is nothing but a rolled-out backdrop that the stagehands lift, the set rotating to reveal a sentiment that is built on a framework of German romanticism and idealism, represented by dusty statues, busts and monuments to Schiller, Holderin, Casper David Friedrich, Goethe, Novalis, Schlegel, Grimm, Heine, Carl Maria von Weber and Beethoven, with even what might be a Nothung buried in the stump of a dead tree.

There are a lot of ideas and ideals here that never quite seem to gel together into something entirely coherent in a way that works hand-in-hand with the opera itself, but the essential points are valid and well made. The lack of faith in the ideal even by as pure a spirit as Elsa (who Py aligns with a view of Wagner that Elsa represents the 'volk') who has fallen under the corrupting influence of the likes of Ortrud and Telramund, means that Lohengrin refuses to be the figurehead that leads the forces of King Henry the Fowler into battle against Hungary. Ortrud certainly hammers home the point of ideals being corrupted in her final words: "Erfahrt, wie sich die Götter rächen, von deren Huld ihr euch gewandt!" (Learn how the gods take vengeance on you who no longer worship them!). In case that message isn't delivered forcefully enough by Elena Pankratova, the fact that it is uttered amidst the ruins of 1945 makes it hard to ignore the implication that you could also see Lohengrin as a substitute for Wagner foreseeing and denying responsibility for the misuse of his art that the Nazis would put it towards.

Pankratova, as it happens, gets that across with absolute conviction in one of the strongest performances among the cast here, but even if not everyone is up to her level, there are no weak performances or anyone who lets the side down. Andrew Foster-Williams might not have the same strength of personality or voice, but that suits a dominated, wheedling portrayal of Telramund and it's an effective performance. Ingela Brimberg mostly meets the challenges of the role of Elsa and her voice likewise complements that of Eric Cutler as Lohengrin. Cutler is almost Italianate in his phrasing and lyricism, if not quite to the extent of Piotr Beczala (at Dresden). With Klaus Florian Vogt's monopolisation of the role in recent years however, we know that a lighter higher voice can work well, but it's a romantic-heroic role that allows a wide range of interpretation, and it's always interesting to see what a new voice can bring to it.

It felt like it was more Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra that was a little stiff, not really succeeding in capturing the romantic lyricism of the opera or finding a way to connect it with the perhaps harder edged tone of the production - but as ever it's hard to give a fair assessment of that from the compressed audio reproduction of a live streamed broadcast. There are moments however that capture the more militaristic and Germanic side of the work well, and some fine contrasting moments of warmth and sentiment, as in the lovely warm low brass of Lohengrin's regret in having to reveal his identity. It's an interesting production, one that does try to engage with the issues surrounding Lohengrin and its subsequent history, and indeed even look at it as an opera that looks towards the future, but inevitably in those circumstances - much like Hans Neuenfel's recent Bayreuth production - it doesn't feel like it gives a true sense of the opera as Wagner may have intended it.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert