The ticket to get at the Munich Opera Festival this year was the new Lohengrin by Richard Jones. That didn't change, either, after the production was panned by a slew of critics : local, German, and foreign: because the singing of the leads, as everyone acknowledged, was superb, and the smaller roles well cast, too. Manuel Brug, usually quicker with pointed criticism than lavish praise, wrote in Die Welt that he could not think of any cast more perfectly matched, so youthfully enthralling, in short: so wonderful, since the 70s. Amid general vocal and especially dramatic excellence, the audience (and critics) agreed that Anja Harteros as Elsa outshone even Jonas Kaufmann, the nominal star of the production. Few complaints and much laude was also heard about Christof Fischesser's virile king, Evgeny Nikitin's sung (not belted!) Herald, Michaela Schuster's curiously seductive, finely frayed Ortrud, and Wolfgang Koch's believable, euphonious Telramund.
The production, to be kind, divided the audience. Richard Jones lets Elsa: and then later Lohengrin: build a house (that is the new Germany?). And he mocks his own direction through strained ironic distance in moments like Lohengrin's duel with Telramund which is presented as a cutlass-ballet so cartoonish that it makes Errol Flynn's such seaborne adventures look positively Olympian in restraint. He elicited even more derision when, parallel to Ortrud, everyone in the Brabantian chorus offs him or herself with a shot to the head. This seemingly extraneous point : perhaps about losing freedom and fearing the new, old, totalitarian order under F‹hrer Gottfried : was either not understood or judged to contradict what the text and music tells us. Then again, it wouldn't be Festival time in Munich if not for a fair helping of juicy boos from the audience.
Elsa is a defiant down to earth girly in Jones' production, who ignores the accusations hurled at her, insisting on building her nest... err, house. When she gets a handy-man helper in the form of Kaufmann: whose gritty and earthy Lohengrin makes an ideal partner-in-masonry: we have domestic bliss. The house, strained as a metaphor but working very nicely as a set in the third act, contains a pair of rather common newlyweds, happily in love and hopeful. When Elsa asks the questions she shouldn't have, it's the primarily the matrimonial harmony that goes up in smoke. Literally... as Lohengrin burns down the house, starting with the cradle that had expectantly stood upstairs.
The setting is a mix of a 1960's collegiate society with the red-headed men in their Brabant-High letter jackets and wavy hairdos and a vaguely fascist Telramundian regime. (Costumes and set by "Ultz", lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin.) Building the new house with Elsa and Lohengrin (Act II), the society changes into loosely Swabian costume by the time they consecrate Mr. & Mrs. L.'s new abode. The interplay of the couples: Ortrud and Telramund, Lohengrin and Elsa: is defined by great sensitivity and moving tenderness. Ortrud keeping Telramund from committing suicide or Elsa trying to keep Lohengrin from (having to) pronounce his name are the kind of little gestures so perfectly timed that they suffice to elevate the production to an intimate story of love-gained-and-lost.
The Munich Opera Festival continues through July 31. For information, visit Bavarian State Opera.
All photos by Wilfried H‹sl.