Lohengrin Day

Sunday, August 20, 2000

If it's Sunday, this must be... Lohengrin!  Yes, Lohengrin.  With operas almost everyday beginning at 4:00 p.m., half the day is spent in getting ready for the day's opera - from studying to dressing up and making sure that one has taken the correct ticket out of the hotel safe deposit box, a daily ritual that I found time-consuming, but necessary.  I treated each ticket like a precious gem.  Keep each one locked up until you need it.  Luckily you get to keep the tickets as souvenirs after the performance!

Lohengrin... it boggles my mind, and has done so ever since I saw my first videotaped one and read the libretto years ago.  I love the music, expecially the familiar world=famous bridal chorus at the beginning of Act III.  When and if I ever get married, that is the melody I would definitely choose for the bridal procession.

My problem is the character of Lohengrin, himself.  What kind of man is this? A knight of the Round Table, and son of Parsifal, living in Montsalvat with the other knights.  His mission is to go out into the world and do good deeds.  However, if anyone dares to ask him his name and origin, his power fades and he must leave the area never to return.  This is part of the myth of the knights of the Round Table, an old Arthurian legend.  I knew it well as a child, long before I was exposed to the wonderful magic of Wagner's music.

It was Wagner who opened up this wonderful and fantastic world of magical Arthurian legend to me again, as an adult.  It was also Wagner who led me into some hard thinking about the characters I used to admire as a child.  Yes we admire Lohengrin, the knight who goes into the world to fight evil and search for the Grail (which Wagner in my opinion does not assign a Christian signficance) and serves as a champion for the downtrodden.  As children we learn to see Lohengrin and the other knights as flawless.  Wagner the artist makes us see that our dreams and beliefs may not be all that we envision.  He forces us to ask some hard questions and face things that might not be as pleasant as we would like.

Wagner makes us keenly aware of Lohengrin's faults.  My question has always been how come Lohengrin, if he is such a perfect knight of the Round Table, cannot see that his beloved Elsa had grown up in a sheltered environment and had no way of knowing of the evil ways of people like Ortrud who plants the seed of doubt into Elsa's head.  One of my majors was psychology.  I know that once seeds of doubt are planted, it is extremely difficult to get rid of them.  I've been there!  Wagner had no training as a psychologist, but he knew this.  Psychology often appears in his operas, and Lohengrin is no exception.  Perhaps Wagner wants to awaken his audiences and force us to probe the depths of our thinking while at the same time letting ourselves go and becoming totally captivated by the music.

Now, on to that day's performance!

CAST of Lohengrin:

Heinrich der Vogler:
Antonio Pappano
Wolfgang Wagner

Roland Wagenführer
Melanie Diener
Jean Philippe Lafont
Linda Watson
Eric Halfvarson

As the Overture began, the darkened stage was illuminated from the back by a ball of bright yellow light slowly descending toward the stage.  In the center of the light, one could make out a silhouette of a man (Lohengrin).  In the front part of the stage, a realistic looking toy swan appears and is slowly moving from one side of the stage to the other.  By the end of the overture, the swan faded away and Lohengrin's face became visible.   I didn't think the swan was to arrive until the middle of Act I.  I found it disturbing to have Lohengrin already present at the beginning of the opera.  It spoiled the effect for me.  Equally bothersome was what was used for the swan in Act I when Lohengrin is really supposed to arrive.  The swan in Act I was a tall bright column of light from floor to ceiling.  Why not use the swan from the Overture?

Although the music was beautiful (of course!) and the singing was flawless, I was disappointed in the staging.  Too dark.  The characters were dressed in black or dark brown.  Even the wedding scene in Act III was dark, with Elsa dressed in brown.  When the opera opened, the stage lighting was so bad, that Heinrich's men were hardly visible.  I could barely make out that most of the "men" were mannequins positioned on a backdrop.  Heinrich himself was hard to see.  I could hear this man singing the parts that were to be sung by Heinrich, but where was he?  I had a similar problem identifying Lohengrin and Telramond.  I could tell who was who only by their voices and roles.  I would have expected brighter spotlights and appropriate clothing.  What they wore did not match up to who or what these characters were.

Act II was dark and should be dark.  Ortrud and Telramond are "dark" characters, plotting the ruin of an innocent young bride just to satisfy their own needs for revenge.  The music and set designs reflect the darkness of their hearts.  I did find it strange that when Elsa appears the scene does not brighten up.  Act III, especially during the bridal scene, was also quite dark. Why should a wedding scene (which is supposed to be joyful and full of light) be portrayed so darkly as this one was?  There was no contrast between the dark-hearted Ortud/Telramond and the "pure" Elsa and Lohengrin.

It is hard to explain the rest of what I felt about this performance.  The staging was not appropriate and did not add anything to the production.  Perhaps if I had experienced this production by way of audio recording, or live radio broadcast, I would not have been turned off by the staging.  Perhaps the darkness of this production was deliberate, to emphasize the tragedy of human failings and lack of trust portrayed by some of the characters.

by Jan Rosen

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