Lohengrin steamrollers the audienceLohengrin, by The Metropolitan Opera, in The Wang Performing Arts Center, Thursday, April 25.
Wagner was arguably the greatest musical genius of the 19th century. His musical career was extraordinary, considering that he never had a music lesson nor was able to play any instrument. His interest in music was purely aesthetic and philosophical. Cantankerous, anti-Semitic and misogynous, Wagner saw himself as a God-like spiritual reformer.
Wagner worked almost exclusively in opera, because he believed that it was the perfect synthesis of all the arts: literature, music, drama, etc., all wrapped into one.
He started working on Lohengrin in 1845, drawing his inspiration from an anonymous German epic poem. It relates the story of Parsifal's son Lohengrin, sent by God in a swan-drawn boat to champion a young maiden accused of killing her brother. Lohengrin clears her name in combat with her accuser and wins her love, betrothing himself to her on the condition that she never ask his name or origin.
The maid, Elsa, agrees enthusiastically, but her mind is soon poisoned by doubts through the scheming of the witch Ortrud, who desires Elsa's inherited lands for her husband Telramund. Elsa does at last ask the fateful question, and Lohengrin satisfies her, revealing that he is a knight of the Round Table and resides on the lonely Montsalvat, guarding the Holy Grail with his knightly brethren. But the price of the knowledge is high: Lohengrin's faithful swan returns, and he must go with it to resume his vigil, prohibited from staying with a wife who has broken faith with him.
Wagner was enchanted with Lohengrin's tale, seeing himself in an analogous situation -- lonely guardian of his genius, able to live only with those who would accept him.
Wagner's operas are always tests of physical stamina, on the part of both performers and audience. With intermissions, I was in the Wang Center from 7 pm until almost midnight. But a well-done production can be a singularly rewarding experience if you are prepared for the physical trauma.
The orchestra, under the baton of Jeffrey Tate, eased the audience into the drama with a marvelously fluid rendering of the prelude.
The staging of the first act helped keep up visual interest for its hour's duration. The angles of the floor and sides were tilted for an extreme perspective effect. Dozens of chorus singers crammed the stage, making it a source of interest to see if anyone would stumble on the angled floor and plummet into the orchestra pit. Everyone retained his footing, however, and the retinue of armored nobles, pikemen, ladies in waiting, as well as the blond, Aryan couple of Elsa and Lohengrin created a first act finale of stirring Teutonic splendor.
The strain began to tell in the second act, however, on both the audience and the singers. Lohengrin's voice couldn't make it to heroic proportions and was sometimes drowned out by the chorus singers. The drawn-out musical dialogues in the second and third acts, between villain and villainess, villainess and heroine, hero and heroine, etc., demonstrated that while the singers were certainly sturdy and competent, they didn't have the fire necessary to set Wagner's music alight.
The orchestra was in top form the whole night, but not having superior voices to play off, it couldn't shine to its fullest extent except in the preludes, each of which (especially the first) was a jewel.
Certain elements of the staging were either careless or clumsy, or both. Does the Met not bother to take trouble to mount a full production when on the road? The image of the swan was very important to Wagner when writing the opera, yet no swan appears in this production. Lohengrin arrives and disembarks from his boat offstage, and we have to imagine the swan somewhere in the wings. Thus Lohengrin is forced to sing one of his most stirring arias (a farewell to the swan) with his back to the audience.
And in the climactic duel between Lohengrin and Telramund, the two never actually came to blows. Telramund was instead repulsed by some sort of super-holy force field or other. I can't imagine a Wagnerian hero unwilling to prove himself by force of arms, as opposed to letting things degenerate into a wrath-of-God powered staring contest.
But Boston opera fans are hungry for opera -- any opera this season, since the Opera Company of Boston is out of production this year. The Met has provided a good, if not inspiring production of Lohengrin, and to do better than that with Wagner is difficult under the best conditions. Such chances to acquaint oneself with Wagner's music should not be missed.