I notice that Netflix is finally shipping me Lohengrin as
directed by Werner Herzog, so I’ll tell you about the only live
performance I’ve ever seen, to explain why I wanted one with a
It was sometime in the 70’s; I remember discussing it with
people I worked with in 1976, so probably then, although I did
stay in touch with those people for a while afterwards.
I thought the idea of Wagnerian opera was wonderful, but I’d
never had a chance to see one. I didn’t have an operagoers
income, but I decided that when the Metropolitan Opera was going
to do Lohengrin in Boston, I should buy a ticket
anyway. My sister wanted to come too, although for her it was both more
money than she really had and a fairly long drive into Boston.
We didn’t get the top price tickets, but they were fairly good
seats — pretty close to the front, with a pillar you had to
move your neck to see around occasionally.
James Levine had just become music director of the Met, and had
a fine reputation as a conductor. The orchestra in this
performance was wonderful.
The minor roles were also well-cast. I particularly remember
Mignon Dunne (Ortrud) fondly — I had previously seen her as a
magnificent Carmen who threw things. In this, she was a
magnificent Ortrud who threw things. I don’t know whether he
has a wider acting range than this, but it’s a pretty good skill
for a mezzo-soprano. In any case, the fact that we had no trouble
hearing either the mezzo or the baritone or the bass indicates
that a properly selected soprano and tenor should have been
They weren’t. James Alexander played Lohengrin. In addition
to being largely inaudible, even as close to the stage as we
were (probably closer than 80 or maybe even 90 percent of the
audience), his stagecraft left one wondering whether he knew
which end of the sword to hold on to.
Elsa was played by a singer whose name I’ve forgotten, but at
the time I was excited about hearing her because she had been a
good Countess in a recording of The Marriage of
Figaro that I’d heard. I probably would have still
been excited if I could have heard her, but her Mozart soprano
voice was completely inadequate to the demands of singing over a
full Wagner orchestra in Hynes Auditorium.
The staging in general was pretty ludicrous. In the scene
where armed men break into Lohengrin and Elsa’s bedroom, and
Lohengrin needs to get his sword out of the chest, Wagner’s
stage directions say that Elsa hands it to him. They don’t say
anything about her needing to run around him to get to the chest
first so that she can obey the stage direction to hand it to him.
The staging of the subsequent sword fight would have embarrassed
any decent high school theater production.
The Chorus sang well enough, but stood in sections facing the
conductor, even when they were allegedly imitating a bunch of
happy guests at a wedding.
The first thing most reviewers mentioned about this production
was that there was no swan. It was just a spotlight in the
reeds at stage rear. I suppose better acting could have made
you believe that the characters were seeing something
transcendant in that spot of light, but I didn’t.
I had studied the libretto carefully before going to see my
first Wagner opera, and it reminded me that the chapter that in
literature and music textbooks is called “Romanticism”, in
history books is often titled “The Rise of European
Nationalism”. In Lohengrin’s farewell speech, he says:
Deutschland sollen noch in fernsten Tagen
des Ostens Horden siegreich nimmer ziehn!
Never, not even in the most distant future,
shall the hordes from the East rise up in victory against Germany!
I thought it would be appropriate for a modern audience to hiss
and boo at that point, but I couldn’t hear the words well enough
to know when it came. I don’t know a lot of German, but both
Deutchland and Horden are in my vocabulary.
So in conclusion, when the Met decided a couple of years later
to discontinue touring to Hynes Auditorium, I wasn’t
disappointed, and I had the impression that a lot of the people
who said they were hadn’t actually ever attended a performance
there. If you search the Times Archive, you will find
complimentary reviews of this production, but they all have
bigger names in the star roles. If the Met touring company had
put enough energy into casting and staging it would probably
have been more successful, although I doubt that Hynes
Auditorium would have ever made anyone’s list of the great opera
houses of the world.