The Metropolitan Opera of New York City (Met) transmitted a Live in HD broadcast on March 18 of its new production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. This was seen on the Encore Presentation the following Wednesday, March 23rd, beginning at noon.
Lohengrin premiered in 1850 Weimar. Richard Wagner had sided with the wrong political faction and was banned from attending the premiere, waiting to see his own work years later after it had become a huge success. One of the many intermission features told us that Lohengrin is one of the most popular operas at the Met. Wagner used a 13th Century romance as the plot for Lohengrin and his Parsifal. It painted a rich and noble Germanic military history achieved through the Powers of God.
The opera opens in 10th Century Brabant during a crisis. King Heinrich arrives to ask the men of Brabant to help the Germanic peoples repel barbarians from the East, with a mention of the godless Hungarians. Heinrich finds himself embroiled in a civil war between the army of Count Telramund and the forces sympathetic to the frail, child-like Elsa, heir to the Duchy of Brabant, whom he has accused of killing her brother in the forest. Elsa has no oratory gifts, and appears incapable of answering even the simplest of questions posed by the King: did she kill her brother? Instead, she launches into retelling her dream of a champion who will save her. Behold, her appeals to God are answered. A gleaming, bold, and handsome knight arrives sailing down the river on a giant swan. Many take this as a miracle, with half the citizens still believing the Count and discounting Elsa’s knight. The King referees a combat to find the truth. God will decide if Elsa should live or die. In this production, the knight waves his hand and the Count falls, with the noble knight sparing the evil accuser’s life to contumely and penance.
This is how the opera begins. We later discover the Count is under a magic sex-thrall spun by his sorceress wife who channels Wotan and the Norse Gods to defeat the Christian God. Will she win? After another four hours, you will find out.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the Met’s Music Director (and adorable gay icon), conducted, and by all observations, brilliantly. Seasoned sopranos Tamara Wilson and Christine Goerke were Elsa and Ortrud, respectively, Evgeny Nikitin, Count Telramund, Gunther Groissbock, King Heinrich, and Piotr Beczala, tenor, in the title role.
Mr. Groissbock looked marvelous, sounded superb, and was one of the two best actors on stage. He wore unflattering robes with a strange, alien device apparently growing from his chest. One could easily imagine him in leather gear as a commanding top man in gay male porn in another story. Elsa wore a nightgown/wedding dress situation, while Ortrud sported an unfortunate fortune-teller/witch ensemble. Mr. Beczala, the other handsome, fine actor and singer on stage, was dressed along the lines of a Caribbean bartender, smartly attired in black trousers and a white tunic. The ravishing, erudite Christopher Maltman, himself a baritone of esteem, was the intermission host who informed us that this was the third decade of Mr. Beczala’s career, and still sounding fabulous. The chorus wore capes which on cue they flashed open to reveal various colors. It called to mind Tinky-Winky and the Teletubbies.
Much was made of the set and production. A Medieval Tale with period costumes? No! The intermission features often extolled the Production by Francois Girard. He himself explained in one recorded interview that he saw Lohengrin a thousand years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic world. The sets looked as if they were living in a destroyed planet, with life lived underground, with an occasional opening to the sky. This opening, and every other surface was covered by massive tropical vines, as one would see them today covering the ruins of Ankor Wat or Mayan temples. Living deep underground could explain why everyone not of noble birth was covered in filth, many with dirty faces, while some appeared to be wearing warrior pigments. Several times during the opera, mention was made of the brilliant sunshine. None could be seen in this production which assumed a permanent dark and gloomy lighting palette. An occasional bright sky could be seen far above through a circular opening blasted in the vault, as if it were a giant skylight or meteor crater.
Opening the opera with a beautiful lunar visual, it soon became tedious as the moon bounced about, changing colors, and finally spinning wildly. It was later explained, this simulated centuries passing. While this visual became ultimately annoying by overkill, the characterization of Ortrud far outstripped it in ridiculousness. The estimable Ms. Goerke assumed the role of acting archly and ridiculously, using claw gestures, semaphoric poses, and characterization reminiscent of moustache-twirling villains. It never changed. It even escalated. Made to look like a cross between Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray, Divine in Female Trouble, and an old Hannah-Barbera cartoon villain did no favors for this estimable artist. Elsa is another head-scratcher. Not since Melisande have we encountered such a numbskull. Unable to speak for the most part, she became obsessed with what she could not have, her husband’s name. One can assume that Wagner modeled this nitwit on a woman he despised.
Having this opportunity to see Lohengrin after last seeing and hearing it at the Met in 1984 was an unforgettable experience, if one overlooked the many foolish elements thrown at us by designers. Piotr Beczala is one of the few fine tenors in the world today. Mr. Groissbock is in demand for his excellence of singing and acting, and the Met orchestra did indeed sound superb. The $27.72 paid for the Live in HD cinema experience was truly a bargain many times over for the sheer joy of enjoying the masterpiece which is Lohengrin.