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Wagner saw the flaws that would undermine his nation's dream

Jonas Kaufmann with his avian burden and Anja Hart

The primary job of an opera production is of course to tell the story. Richard Jones’s Lohengrin in Munich certainly told the story - though not in the usual context. But you cannot just tell the story of Lohengrin these days. This is the ur-opera of German nationalism, the work of which Heinrich Mann had a character in Der Untertan (1919) declare: “A thousand performances of such an opera, and there would be no one left who was not nationally disposed.” It isn’t just a musical setting of a legal squabble, with the chorus as jury in tiers at the back - which was Stuttgart Opera’s way of providing action to accompany Manfred Honeck’s beautifully lingering affectionate exploration of the score.
 Nor, at the Berlin Staatsoper, was Stefan Herheim’s typically intricate and complex game with puppets and medievalism, exactly on the mark - after commencing with a pantomime showing a carnival figure of Wagner himself, in that famous velvet cap, obsessing egomaniacally with a poised quill as he floated up into the ether of the flies during an exquisitely played Prelude from which Dabiel Barenboim lovingly squeezed the last drops of nectar. This opera is unquestionably one of Wagner’s most lusciously aesthetic scores - exhibit A in the case against his self-regarding aestheticism - as Covent Garden’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1977 staging with its highly original medieval religious imagery also reminded us thanks to Semyon Bychkov’s minutely controlled but bizarrely undramatic reading of every musical note Wagner wrote (all usual cuts re-opened).
 Another strange thing about this mystifying opera is that Lohengrin is a tale of failures all round. There is lots of bad behaviour in it, very Germanic and conformist bad behaviour as Heinrich Mann so amusingly reminds us. Jones’s understanding of that, his determination that the consequences of Elsa’s failure should be virtually suicidal for the whole tribe, is one of the most striking aspects of his production. That failure in trust, despite Lohengrin’s repeated warning, was a dramaturgical stroke of genius by Wagner in his adaptation of the myth for one crucial reason - because of its ambiguity. Was it not perfectly reasonable, you might well ask, for Elsa to need to know? Our right to know is one of the most proclaimed modern “rights” in Western civilisation.
 But what Elsa, despite all Lohengrin’s best efforts, does when she pops the forbidden question - and I have never seen that extraordinary marital love scene so convincingly directed and staged as Jones does it in Munich, or so naturally and touchingly acted and sung as by Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros - is both a betrayal of the old German values, oaths taken and stood by, about which Telramund and Ortrud care, and at the same time an abandonment of the whole dream of welcome for the outsider with gifts and wonders that embodied the idea of the Holy Roman Empire. Elsa’s insistent investigation of Lohengrin’s origins, in its way, provided the foundation on which Hitler could build his evil and thankfully brief Dritter Reich.
 The Germans were always an open society of traders and skilled workmen who understood the deal that life without borders demands - in a huge soup of different talents and races and types. That was what the Holy Roman Empire presided over and also, incidentally, what the dream of modern Europe is. Here in this Wagner opera we are at the very heart of what it means to be German - confronting something central to the identity of all of us who count ourselves Europeans. For the disasters of German nationalism are going to affect our pan-European culture for a very long time to come, though we Brits think we can escape it (which is why we remain Euro-sceptics) because we believe that our rescue of Germany was our finest hour. Jones and his designer Ultz put all this together absorbingly at the Bavarian State Opera through focusing on the story of Elsa and her imaginary knight Lohengrin by showing us her whole dream as she conceived it - which is nothing less than “the building of the house”. Is that a concept or is it a story? What the rising, carefully constructed house means in Jones’s production is indeed the whole project of German civilisation.
 Jones, like David Alden, is drawn to this kind of investigative questioning interpretation of Wagner. It is a pity that Kent Nagano’s conducting was at many points a somewhat unstable contribution to the experience, though Munich’s orchestra is capable of marvellous playing and gave us some great music-making. Nagano was not inside this score as he needs to be - though he can take some credit (despite his reluctance to give singers their cues) for the faultless delivery by such a terrific singing cast. Ultz’s set showed us a high-up railway-style bridge right across the stage from wing to wing with the whole vast space of the Nationaltheater’s stage open around it, and underneath we almost could not notice, to start with, that there were the footings of a building. Ultz used a front drop with two doors in it to isolate a kind of forestage meeting space almost at the footlights which enabled the frequent intimate confrontations of the opera to be experienced on a human scale. But at the same time Jones articulated the epic social dimension of the gathered tribes and people. Of course this was all happening in modern times, though, equally, precise period was immaterial. Jones’s production is not a comment on something in the past - it is lived through now, as it were.
 When we first saw Harteros (a singer I did not know before) we might well not have realised that this girl in dungarees was the heroine of a Wagner opera - she could just have been an extra engaged on an urgent task. At the very start of the evening we had been shown a man in front of an architect’s easel mapping out how the building would go. It took some time to latch on to all the questions that Jones was dealing with. At the top of the set there were a pair of what looked like fog horns which later acted as screens where we could see mugshots of the Heerufer: Evgeny Nitikin giving another of this flawless European cast's terrific performances. We also later had four soloists from the Bad Tölz Knabenchor instead of the usual women in trousers - this was another telling touch (as it also was in Peter Stein’s critically despised Parsifal) because reinforcing the sense of a male-dominated society gave a different tone of verisimillitude to what we were watching, as well as reducing the variety of theatrical conventions we were having to deal with. 
 Jones's production was very rich theatre indeed. It was full - if we cared to notice - of significant bits of evidence showing us what was going on. For example, Lohengrin turned up first in a pale blue t-shirt, and one sign of his being totally accepted and welcomed later in the opera as the new heroic role model for this society was that all the men were wearing that t-shirts of that colour - though by then Lohengrin had himself adopted a sort of black Austrian wedding waistcoat topped by an Amish-like wide-brimmed hat. Elsa for her wedding-garb wore the plaits and dirndl Frau Winifred used to put on to greet Wolfi, her dear friend the great Adolf. Jones treated the gathering of the tribes more like a great sporting event, with quite a lot of helpers in blazers.
 As each act progressed and scenes were held at the front where we could be privy to every word, Elsa’s wooden house grew higher and higher - until finally its roof was ritually (and mechanically) settled in place. Lots of good German workmanship on display. There was a pram to be noticed on one side - for the new family. Lohengrin and Elsa were all about procreation - this is an opera about the future as much as The Ring. Upstairs we could see a cot for the baby. After Elsa’s breakdown, her inability to be reassured by the loving Lohengrin who does everything in his power, kissing, embracing her, things I have never seen Wagner productions show, Lohengrin left along to think eventually went upstairs, brought down the cot, put it on the double bed (which we had seen ritually placed in the bedroom for the wedding-night scene (the sidewall of the house having been cut away for the audience’s benefit). Our hero emptied a jerrycan of petrol all over the cot and the bed and set light to them. It was the end of the dream.
 For his original entry Lohengrin came in carrying a swan that seemed almost alive, if dying, though actually it was a mechanical stuffed toy. A well-observed aspect of Jones's production was the sense that Chrisof Fischesser’s fine youthful König Heinrich was also culturally set a bit apart from the tribal crowds. The role of the Fowler was wonderfully, beautifully sung. Wolfgang Koch’s Telramund, whose performance in Stuttgart was the triumph of the evening, here seemed distinguished but not outstanding - but his acting was finely graded, too. The duel with Lohengrin showed two people whose approach to battle was so different that they were almost not in the same world. Telramund never stood a chance. Lohengrin was like an eastern dervish, using his sword with wildly whirling hacking movements (Lucy Burge collaborated with Jones on movement). Michaela Schuster’s Ortrud was perhaps somewhat less impressive than usual in this interpretation, though her persuasive undermining of Elsa’s faith - with Telramund witnessing from the bridge and from the top of the house what she was doing - was eerily, brilliantly staged. The bridge above the set, which eventually was lifted out, meant Jones could place the chorus very strikingly from time to time.
 The conclusion of the opera, after the restoration of Gottfried, was dramaturgically very provocative: Gottfried’s monochrone “missing” picture had been stuck to the left-hand box-front in the auditorium from the start, and also handed out to audience members as they arrived in the foyer. We saw Telramund try to commit suicide with a gun in his mouth at a very early point in the show, but of course he could not bring himself quite to do it. Eventually he was shot by Lohengrin. Jones at the end presented us with all the chorus sitting in pairs opposite each other at desks around the stage - all with guns in their mouths and waiting to pull the trigger.
 Jones has again created a Wagner production that is brilliantly objective, yet truly original and fresh. He certainly did not want to show us a story we were being invited to “identify with”, but a warning parable that could make us think and think. It was both theatrically exciting in the technical accomplishment with which it was achieved (and I have said nothing about the subtle editing of the narrative thanks to Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting), but also deeply unsettling. Above all, Jones's Lohengrin was devoid of vanity as a piece of theatre work - where many productions can make one feel they are rather pleased with themselves.  Wagner was served superbly, even if the composer were he alive might be more than a little alarmed at where his ideas had ended up. But that’s life and art for you.

I saw Lohengrin in Munich at the Nationaltheater on July 8, in Stuttgart on April 2, at the Berlin Staatsoper on April 4, and at Covent Garden on April 27.

A fully illustrated version of this article will appear in the November/December issue of Opera Now.

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