The Deutsche Oper’s new ‘Lohengrin’ gets Wings but does not take Flight

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(c) Marcus Lieberenz

Fallen Angel: Klaus Florian Vogt and Ricarda Merbeth in Kaspar Holten's new Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper.

By Rebecca Schmid, Berlin: War looms largely in the background of Lohengrin, yet one wouldn’t expect to find tombstones and blood-stained uniforms. The director Kaspar Holten, in his German debut at the Deutsche Oper, takes a morbid, socially-critical approach to Wagner’s blend of fairy-tale and historic drama. As the Danish native states in the program notes, the victory column to the German-Danish war of the late nineteenth century is only a few kilometers from the opera house, something which he felt he couldn’t ignore given the work’s bellicose references to Hungary and Denmark.

Holten, recently-appointed director of opera at the Royal Opera House, opens the production (seen at its premiere on April 15) with three women searching for their loved ones in a battlefield of slain soldiers. One of the damsels lets out a scream during the overture, only to disappear like a specter. The Brabantians, Saxons and Thuringians of the opening scene have reemerged from various historical eras, some donning pseudo-medieval costumes under their green trench coats and others resembling World War One fighters against an ominously grey backdrop (sets and costumes by Steffen Aarfing).

The production casts the demi-god Lohengrin as an earthly angel who arrives fumbling with a pair of strap-on feathered wings upon his delivery by the swan, represented through blinding light that pours through the back wall of the proscenium and the subsequent outline of a flying bird. This is a notoriously difficult part of the opera to stage, and Aarfing’s acknowledgement of the artifice involved was as refreshing as it was troublesome. Holten also takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to climatic moments of the opera. The protagonist’s swordfight with Friedrich von Telramund takes place among so much fog machine-induced smoke that the rival is left swinging into thin air. At the end of the opera, Lohengrin holds up his fist in victory yet he might as well be mocking the patriotic pride of a thoroughly defunct Brabantia.

Holten treats the naïve scenes between Lohengrin and his bride Elsa with more earnest, although layers of nebulous social commentary threaten to undermine the dynamic. In the marriage scene, they walk toward the image of a cathedral framed within a mini-proscenium that is hidden behind yet another stage curtain—perhaps an attempt to point to the political instrumentalization of religion as insidiously embodied by the politico-spiritual figure of Lohengrin—yet when Elsa is left to stare at rows of painted tombstones, the concept appeared superimposed. In the end, even the young Gottfried, who had been transformed into a swan by the magical powers of Elsa’s sinister rival, Ortrud, is never revived as a viable leader but remains a dead mannequin after Lohengrin is forced to depart.

In the title role, the tenor Klaus Florian Vogt—who also helmed Hans Neuenfels’ rat-infested production in Bayreuth last summer—was the standout of the evening, with a clear ringing tenor that remained unblemished into his final aria, “Im fernen Land.” He may come across as a bit youthful for the role to some tastes, but he retained musical authority through the most ambiguous moments of Holten’s staging. He was dramatically well-complemented by the noble yet innocent presence of Ricarda Merbeth’s Elsa, but the soprano sounded slightly strained and could have brought more poignancy to her portrayal of the heroine with rounder singing, particularly in the upper register. Petra Lang was an ideally demonic Ortrud, with a metallic, slightly shrill timbre that only heightened her dramatic powers. The American baritone Gordon Hawkins disappointed as Friedrich von Telramund, his voice often drowned by the orchestra. He was booed at curtain call along with Albert Dohmen, who sang the role of King Heinrich, similarly failing to live up to standard with an often constricted vocal production. Bastiaan Everink brought a steady, warm baritone to the King’s Herald.

The chorus of the Deutsche Oper proved itself a high point of the production, singing with crystal-clear diction and a warm vocal blend as well as realizing Holten’s blocking with convincing dramaticism. The orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, surprisingly did not meet the standards set by the music director in recent Wagner productions. The strings sounded uneven and slightly flat toward the end of the shimmering pianissimi in the overture, whose tempo was also a bit rushed for this listener. Although Runnicles provided powerful, unwaveringly accurate accompaniment for the singers, he did not imbue the searing, religiously evocative harmonies with the same tension and emotional impetus which he revealed in Graham Vick’s Tristan und Isolde last season and Kirsten Harm’s 2008 production of Tannhäuser. The occasionally shaky brass further underscored that this Lohengrin may not be fated for victory.