The first opera of the season at La Scala is an event of huge cultural significance in Italy, so it raised some hackles when, for Giuseppe Verdi’s centenary year, the management passed over Verdi in favour of Wagner’s Lohengrin. But even Italians disappointed by the insult to their culture found it impossible to quarrel with the quality of the singing talent on show. Any of Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and René Pape could have sold out the house on their own, and their accompanying trio of Tómas Tómasson, Evelyn Herlitzius and Željko Lučić were barely a step below their level of star quality. I caught the sixth performance of a run of seven.
Kaufmann is probably the hottest property on the opera circuit right now, and he lived up to his reputation. He does legato in a way that others can’t, starting a phrase at the faintest of pianissimi and swelling it to full power without the tiniest break in smoothness. German himself, he sings German in a way that makes it sound like Italian, with the inherent roughness of the language smoothed out into gorgeous timbre. The addition of decent acting ability and matinée idol looks makes Kaufmann into quite a package.
Both Harteros and Herlitzius demonstrated that being Wagnerian doesn’t have to mean being shrill. Harteros matched Kaufmann for vocal control, producing exactly the right sweetness of tone for the ethereal character of Elsa - a lovely voice to listen to which was always matched to the changing mood of the music and the changing state of mind of her character. The character of the witch Ortrud is a more one-dimensional one; Herlitzius sung excellently within the limitations of the role, giving us power and evil genius without the voice ever turning nasty.
Pape’s King Heinrich and Lučić’s herald both provided real backbone to Wagner’s stirring martial music, with rich, smooth deep voices; both mastered their roles with virtuosity. Tómasson was an excellent unwitting villain as Friedrich von Telramund. Vocally, this was a magnificent night and one to remember for a long time, not least because it’s the first time I’ve been to La Scala and therefore the first time I’ve heard their chorus. Lohengrin has some big set piece ensemble numbers, and they quite simply blew the roof off.
Claus Guth’s production was set in or around the late nineteenth century, with the big military gatherings moved from the banks of the river Scheldt to a terraced block in an enclosed courtyard, and the bridal chamber moved to a reed-bed by the river. Not for the first time, I found myself on the wrong end of a “concept” production, baffled as to how the visual nature of what I was seeing on stage was supposed to relate to the words and music. For example, there was a piano on the stage for the whole of the proceedings - in one piece in Acts I and II, broken in Act III. The piano is played in mime at various times by various characters, including the appearance a non-speaking version of Elsa as a child. The swan, a key figure in the story, is absent - except for the occasional feathers and the appearance of Gottfried as a child, wearing a single swan’s wing. Lohengrin is mostly portrayed as ragged, barefoot and thoroughly unheroic, doing a lot of writhing around on the ground and looking as if doing great deeds is the last thing in the world that he fancies. I know from reading Guth’s brief notes in the programme that he has an agenda of people wishing to reach their own version of happiness after various forms of deprived childhood, but I simply don’t see how Guth's realisation of Lohengrin tied the opera to this agenda.
Wagner may have had a loose grasp of German history: the historical Henry the Fowler did not preside over anything resembling Wagner’s vision of a Great German Empire, and Henry's kingdom did not include the land later known as the duchy of Brabant, which was not created until 1183, over 200 years after Henry died. But Wagner did have a perfectly good grasp of mediaeval legend and understood its evergreen ability to tell all sorts of stories about the psychology of his characters - without the need to move them out of their time and place. Guth’s efforts added nothing that I found convincing, serving merely to confuse the story and make me expend mental effort wondering why characters were present when they shouldn’t have been, absent when they were being sung to, or simply behaved in ways that didn’t seem to match what they were singing. Anyone who didn’t know the opera in advance would have struggled dreadfully to understand what was happening.
But dislike the production concepts as I did, the music was so good that I couldn’t bring myself to care that much about them. Under Daniel Barenboim’s baton, the La Scala orchestra may have wavered a touch in the overture, but when they hit their stride, they generated a fullness of sound that was out of this world; the huge Wagnerian brass setting the military scenes, tremelando strings and quiet woodwind transporting me in quiet moments. And it may be a long time before I hear six singers and a chorus at the absolute height of their powers in quite this way. It made La Scala’s Lohengrin into an experience to remember and a true privilege.