Lohengrin at Bayreuth

I enjoyed this
quite a lot, although it’s probably a bit long to be a
good introduction to Wagner if you don’t already know you want
to watch him.

With my memory refreshed on my previous viewing of the opera by
my post
last Monday
, I could see that the Bayreuth organization
and Werner Herzog (who did the stage direction) had to struggle
with many of the same problems that the Met touring company so
flagrantly failed to overcome.

Of course, the DVD had electronic means of overcoming any
imbalance between the singers and the orchestra, but probably
they hire singers to sing live at Bayreuth who have the right
vocal equipment. This is less rare than the right vocal
equipment for Hynes Auditorium, since Wagner designed his
theater very carefully for exactly that kind of production,
whereas Hynes Auditorium was designed for something else. (I’m
not really sure what, but it wasn’t Wagnerian opera.)

They coped with the problem of opera singers not always
grabbing the right end of the sword in the heat of all the other
things they have to think about by giving them “swords” that were
like wiggly light-sabers, which could be held anywhere along the
length of the weapon. The sword fights weren’t particularly
elaborately staged, but they did always seem to attack with the
“point”. The light-sabre conceit made some good lighting
effects possible.

The Swan was a stuffed Swan head and wings on the actor playing
the non-singing
role of Gottfried. And lots of lighting. As I remember the
Hynes Auditorium production, it wasn’t at all clear where the
dopy looking boy came from at the end. In this production, you
wonder why you can see the boy with the stuffed swan on his head
when none of the characters can. It’s one of the places where
I’m sure Wagner would have loved Hollywood special effects.

I thought all the singing was quite good. The acting was a
little more variable — Elsa was very good; Ortrud was
monochromatically angry; the men all verged on being a bit
wooden, with Lohengrin the best of the bunch. In general,
we shouldn’t expect opera singers who have been trained to act so that the
third balcony can see what they’re feeling to suddenly be subtle
in a film closeup. And I’m not sure we have the cultural
training to reproduce 19th century depictions of ancient
cultural figures in their public personas. We might well have
thought King Henry was wooden when he was addressing his
people if we had seen the real thing.

The scenery, lighting, and camera work were all quite good,
which you’d expect with a famous film director in charge. The
costumes were what I’ve seen in other Bayreuth-produced DVD’s —
nightgowns in attractive colors. This is one of the areas where
the production ignores explicit text in the libretto —
Lohengrin should have been wearing shining armor instead of a
vaguely steel-colored nightgown.

In general, I don’t believe people staging an opera from a
century and a half ago should feel compelled to follow all the
stage directions, or even all the staging explicitly called for
in the libretto. But I do wonder why they don’t change the
libretto when they’re changing the staging. Another place where
this production ignored Wagner’s writing was in the final scene when Lohengrin is
leaving his Sword, his Horn and his Ring for Gottfried when he
comes back. He does leave the light-sabre, but his costume
doesn’t have a horn, so he just sings about it without actually
putting anything down. This isn’t as irritating as when Brünhilde
is calling for her horse, and then talking to it for several
minutes and there isn’t anything remotely resembling a horse on
stage. But I do think they should address the problem when they
change something.

I spent a good part of the third act thinking what lousy wife
material Elsa was, aside from being able to deliver the Duchy of
Brabant. Before the wedding, she goes on and on about falling at
his feet and worshipping him. Then as soon as the ceremony is
over, she starts nagging him about telling her his name, which
is the one thing he’s asked her not to do. The marital
relationship between Ortrud and Friedrich is actually fairly
well-drawn, but virtuous women weren’t really Wagner’s strong

There are other reviews: of this DVD at wagneropera.net,
and of the production as seen live (with a different cast) in The
New York Times
. I don’t disagree with much that they say,
but I think the wagneropera.net reviewer was a little harsh on
the acting.


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