Saturday, April 29, 2006

Say my name...

As mad props of every sort have already been served up for the current Lohengrin elsewhere, I shall be brief.

Seeing this Lohengrin carried some special importance for me, as Lohengrin was my first real foray into Wagner. Several years ago, I had idly mentioned I was interested in going beyond the excerpts which had whetted my appetite, but was procrastinating about blowing a lot of money on a set. A kind friend filed this away, and on my birthday that spring, the Domingo/Norman/Solti Lohengrin arrived in the mail. One cold and rainy April afternoon, I sat down with the libretto, started listening, and was immediately, and irretrievably, hooked.

Yet until last week, I had never seen it live.

How could anyone could hate this production? I can understand detractors if the original cast wasn't too game for the staging. But I also have a hard time seeing how that would be such a big deal considering the overwhelming success of the concept. I mean, do you really want a castle?

Methinks Lohengrin is really the toughest Wagner to yank out of Romantic kitsch. Even Tannhauser has the porn thing going for it. (And if you need reasons why this is justified and in fact imperative see the PW's excellent short post here). The truth of the matter is that Lohengrin is a more wonderful piece of music than could ever be done justice by a designer in 2006 trying to ape the style of 100+ years ago. Wilson's staging gives us this honesty, and I for one am grateful. For, as we all know deep down, the great love duet of the third act really has nothing to do with middle ages canopy bedding and the like, and everything to do with Karita Mattila, on her knees in a sea of simple blue fabric, plaintively raising her arms to her husband. That's the whole g-d thing, folks.

Shorter rest of the production: Auguin pleased me very much, if there were times when I felt he didn't really have a feel/patience for the momentum of certain passages; Mattila takes a while to warm up--maybe this is the issue--but here she had me at hallo; Hep B sounded great--I do get the constricted thing, but man does he push through it to great effect; Devol was terrifying, as it should be--J thought better of her the second go round; Rene "Say Hey" Pape does yeoman's work comme toujours.



Anonymous said...

Lemme play Devil's Advocate--what is there not to like?

Some expression of emotions at some times during the opera would be pretty cool. No reaction from Elsa at the end, no despair from Ortrud. Maybe the point of Wilson's production is that none of the characters develop and change, but that's not what the music says to me, at least.

The costumes are a total rip-off from Neu Bayreuth, but effective; I would have put Lohengrin in silver, because you need some contrast there...

La Cieca said...

Well, La Cieca is speaking from the experience of the first and second seasons (twice with Voigt, once with Mattila) here, but what LC finds to object to is this:

1) The staging is generic; basically it's the same old Wilson show set to different music.

2) The "Wilson show" is intellectually shallow to start with. In La Cieca's opinion, stylizing only works if it is stylized from something individual and vital. You look at a video of Callas in concert and the movement is every bit as "unnatural" as a Wilson show, and yet what she's doing is both specific to her own personality and intimately connected to the music. Wilson's stuff (it seems to me) develops from the opposite direction: he has a vision of a series of images he wants to create, and then he uses the singers as, essentially, living statues.

3) This is maybe more debatable, but I think Wilson's staging neglects Elsa in favor of Ortrud. Ortrud is a flashier character but she is not a protagonist. It's Elsa's story: she's the one who grows up in the process of the opera, and is left a sad, confused adult at the end of the story. But you don't get any of that from the Wilson: she's just an anonymous woman in a blue dress, one you overlook because Ortrud is busy glowering and dragging red curtains and things. (Admittedly Mattila refocuses some of the attention where it should go, but it's hardly praise for a director's vision to say, "the show doesn't play so badly when you have the world's greatest singing actress in the leading role."

4) Finally, LC personally finds it boring and hard to watch: too dark, too slow moving, too limited in color, and -- this is the key point -- too lacking in any kind of human emotion. Puppets are not as interesting as people, at least not over the course of four hours.

LC certainly does not require operatic stage direction to be naturalistic: she adores, for example, the Peter Konwitschny production of Lohengrin as seen televised from the Liceu in Barcelona. (That's the one where Eva Marton plays Ortrud as Lucy from "Peanuts.")

Alex said...

Cieca and Straussmonster:

I should admit that I've never seen another Robert Wilson show, and from the times I've heard the sentiment that he's a one trick pony, I'm kind of glad for that.

That said, I really was drawn to this. It sounds obvious to say it, but the production allows the bottomless musical drama to clarify itself in a way that is difficult when you've got swords and gold brocade everywhere. Yet the usual antidotes to swords and brocade don't really work for Lohengrin. I can't put my finger on it, but I really, really never want to see an updated or transposed Lohengrin, although I am perfectly game for this in other Wagner. At the same time, a Lohengrin that chucked the naturalistic sets but essentially maintained characters doing blocking wouldn't work for me either. That's not so much clarity as 'stripped bare' and Lohengrin don't play like that.

The Wilson production does something a window into a Lohengrin shadow world where only the most resonant movement is able to register through the music's spell. The staging is less about telling the story and more about depicting the grand architecture of the music as its internal weights shift toward their final configuation. In that way, I think the extra focus on Ortrud is justified. While no protagonist in Lohengrin the story, in Lohengrin the visualized musical world she is the starting point and primary embodiment of all the pressures gnawing away at Lohengrin and Elsa's heaven bound lines, and thus a far greater presence.

That doesn't mean I would want this to be every Lohengrin; I don't even know how many more times I would want to see it. A world where people don't portray Elsa in all her warm-blooded glory would be a pretty disappointing world indeed. But especially for this piece, I think it is a very satisfying and successful experiement.