The famous swan never even honked. In Wagner’s epic tale of the white-shining Knight of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin, who arrives magically on a boat drawn by a swan to rescue the heroine, Elsa of Brabant, wrongly accused of murdering her brother, Gottfried, the swan has a central role.
For, in truth, he is Elsa’s brother, Gottfried, turned into a swan by the ruthless witch, Ortrud, who wants to steal the throne of Brabant for her husband, Friedrich von Telramund. The story is then put about that Elsa murdered Gottfried. Drowned him in the river. Lusted after the throne herself.
The full plot of Lohengrin is to be found here. Gottfried is the rightful heir to the Brabant dynasty, de-swanned by Lohengrin at the end of the opera, restored to the throne and on the point of picking up the sword, horn and ring left with Elsa by the Knight of the Holy Grail.
So armed, he will endure the trials and tribulations of Wagner’s future operas in which the character appears in one form or another. He is destined to become an ex-swan with attitude. He is an important swan. Missing in action he cannot be.
Yet, producer François Girard decided to write the swan out of this new Met production. Well, almost. Look hard and there was a desultory wing projected backstage at the swan-moment, heralding Lohengrin’s arrival. Plus, a difficult to identify rag-tag-bag of feathers and webbed feet floating in and out of focus from time to time.
Any swan-uppers on a census of the Met stage would have gone home with no more than a bag of down destined for a 3.5 Tog rated duvet. And a couple of webbed feet.
Why musical directors allow producers to get away with this sort of nonsense beats me. Girard directed the Met’s new production of Parsifal in 2013, so he has a relationship with the house. Also, this troubled Lohengrin production had to be completely re-invented before it came to New York. Plenty of time for re-writes.
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Originally slated as a co-production with the Bolshoi Theater, it premiered in Moscow on February 24th, 2022, the day of the Ukraine invasion. The co-production became an early casualty of war.
Soprano, Anna Netrebko, promptly consigned by the Met to the Ukraine war sinbin as a Putin regime consigliere, was the intended Elsa. $1m was spent in restaging. No-one was heading to Moscow to recover the original set anytime soon.
So, what’s all this fuss over a honking swan? The bird is not an incidental to be scratched out on a whim. It is symbolic of the mystery central to the legend Wagner is re-telling. Transformation from one world to another. The fulcrum on which the driving theme of the plot – Elsa’s innocence or guilt – hinges. And, without the swan, the triumphant restoration of Gottfried is incomprehensible.
That irritation aside, this Girard production had much to recommend it. The staging neatly spanned two worlds, with the realm of the Grail seen through the sort of time portal favoured by countless sci-fi movies, but firmly linked to earth and Brabant with ancient roots.
The score of Lohengrin is a supreme achievement, staking out the territory for Romantic music to follow. Truly, Wagner was driving a stake into the musical ground from which others were destined to build out.
All the diverse, sometimes extreme expressions of the genre are magnificently and coherently presented. Wagner’s most ethereal music for both orchestra and voice is on show. The choral writing is unsurpassed anywhere, expressing human hopes and fears that follow the unfolding fates of the principal characters.
The work reflects the dawning of a community consciousness, hardly surprising as Wagner was in revolutionary mood when the work was written in 1848. He was exiled from Germany in 1849 for taking part in the Dresden uprising.
A few days after the performance I had the privilege of watching a “behind the scenes” presentation at the Metropolitan Opera Club – do join if you want opera insider scuttlebutt – from Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, a dozen or so of the chorus and members of the Met’s Costume Department. We got the inside – literally – scoop on one of the most spectacular visual coups of this production.
Almost throughout, a full 140 or so chorus – 80 permanent members plus extras – are on stage, divided into two factions. They are all dressed in sinister, hooded cloaks. Those supporting evil Ortrud open their ankle length black costumes to reveal a red lining. Goody two shoes Elsa’s gang are green. Imagine 140 peacocks fanning their tails in unison and you will get the drift.
But that’s not all! Sometimes the Lohengrinny bits require everyone to flash white. Before dinner at the Club we were treated to a full cloak demo. Each cloak weighs 10lbs. So heavy that it requires a special bracing device looped under the arms and secured over the chest to prevent the body sagging.
It has three coloured linings, each secured by magnetic catches allowing the wearer to change from red, to green, to white, not in a flash, but in a complex gavotte that must be completely concealed from the audience. Choristers need not only nimble fingers, but nimble minds to remember, on cue, which colour they are meant to be.
We were told that over the run there had been occasional glitches, but on my night, there was not an errant batman flash to be seen. The caped crusaders were superhuman. And then, after entertaining us all – and enjoying dinner, to boot – the choristers headed to the stage for that night’s performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. The Met chorus is a wonder of the world.
All the voices were stunning. Tamara Wilson, an American soprano, sang Elsa and proved more than a match for any performance Netrebko might have given. I was disappointed that her stage directions lacked drama, as I was that Ortrud’s actions were not always allowed to chime with the music, as Wagner clearly intended. Wagner’s music reflects detailed narrative, which should not be ignored.
Ortrud was Christine Goerke, in top-flight, explosive form. Goerke is down to earth in person and stratospheric onstage. It’s worth spending some time watching all the principals being interviewed by Peter Gelb, the Met General Manager in a pre-performance talk, here.
Lohengrin was Piotr Beczala, the current Polish tenor of choice at the Met – Loris Ipanoff in Fedora, Lenski in Eugene Onegin, The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto in 2006, his Met debut. The honor roll spools on and on.
I met him backstage briefly post performance and he was still a psyched up Lohengrin. His wife, Katarzyna, an opera singer too, was clearly keen to take him away and bring him down to earth. Filling that enormous stage with both a voice and presence was a tour de force.
For decades, Lohengrin remained Wagner’s most performed opera and was regarded as a sort of “gateway” to his entire corpus of works. It contains several passages well-known beyond the opera house, from orchestral sections familiar from the concert hall and even film scores to the ubiquitous Bridal Chorus.
The Met’s last production of Lohengrin was a controversial Kabuki style, spare effort from Robert Wilson in 1998. It is the most-staged work in the opera company’s history – 618 presentations to date.
Mark Twain never liked Wagner’s new school of music. On Lohengrin he opined, “The pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the time I had my teeth fixed.” Totally unfair. But I wonder what he would have said about that missing swan?
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