Monday, February 1, 2016


James Karas

When the lights go up for the opening of Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Wagner’s taut music fills the auditorium, we see a stage strewn with the corpses of soldiers. Several women appear and they go from corpse to corpse trying to identify the dead person. Eventually one of them recognizes a dead person and she gives a heart-wrenching scream.

Photo: honorarpflichtig / Protected by copyright
This is the image that director Kasper Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing want us to keep in mind as we watch Wagner’s “romantic opera” as he called it.

Lohengrin has a romantic aspect and an almost comic one according to Holten but it is also about national unification, love, betrayal and war. Holten tells us about all of these but he wants us especially to remember war.

Swedish tenor Michael Weinius gives a fine accounting of himself in the title role. His voice has the amplitude and fortitude for the part but he does not quite strike the heroic model that one envisions for the knight of the grail. The fault may not be entirely his. As we know, Lohengrin arrives on the scene to defend Elsa in a boat drawn by a swan. He bids farewell to the swan upon alighting from the boat but Holten puts the wings of a swan on him and he wears them throughout the performance. He looks like an angel and I have some reservations about that appearance.

American Soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen sings the pure and virginal Elsa. In this production she walks on the stage blind-folded and of course launches into “Elsa’s Dream” almost immediately. This is sung in a reverie of remembrance and pain and it is her defining aria. Elsa will show spunk when dealing with Ortrud but she will return to the same mode in the end. Willis-Sorensen shows depth of emotion and tonal beauty in a sterling performance.

Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova can shoot poisonous darts wrapped in honey as the evil Ortrud. She plays an ambitious and conniving Ortrud that could give instruction in evil to Lady Macbeth. Vocal strength and projection of evil like guided missiles.

German baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer was all ambition and bluster as the evil Friedrich von Telramund who wants to usurp Brabant. He is under the thumb of his truly evil wife Ortrud and he seems to have less  cruelty than Macbeth but a much nastier wife than the hapless Scottish king. Mayer sang even though he had a cold. He deserves credit for so doing.

Baritone Bastiaan Everink was suitably stentorian as the Herald and Austrian bass Albert Pesendorfer was sonorous and regal as King Henry.

Lohengrin has some powerful choruses and the Deutsche Oper Chorus was supplemented by the Extra chorus for a performance that was simply overwhelming. Together with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, they, as they say, brought the roof down.

Back to the conception and design features. As I said we have the rather bizarre situation of Lohengrin who is so assiduous and unforgiving about his identity, going around with the wings of a swan on his shoulders. He should be gloriously heroic and look a bit less incongruous.

The stage in the first act is bare except for the soldiers who are dressed in khaki or gray. They are soldiers from any era. The main characters wear more traditional, perhaps medieval attire.  In the second act there is a raised platform on which Elsa stands and when she descends from it we can see that it is in the form of a cross. There is a bright red curtain and the image of a cathedral in the second act. After the magnificent wedding procession Lohengrin and Elsa end up in what should be their honeymoon suite but it consists of only one bed. Despite all the elevated love, Lohengrin shows that he a frisky young man as he gets rid of his wings, his sword and his robe and prepares for something more earthy. It got a laugh.

Elsa is under the influence of Ortrud and asks for the one thing Lohengrin cannot give her. The rest is a disastrous end for Elsa but a great evening of opera for the audience.  

Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on January 31 and will be performed on February 14 and May 5 and 8, 2016 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.

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