Australian director Barrie Kosky set his eyes upon the libretto to Wagner's "Lohengrin" and decided he wanted nothing to do with its heavy-handed symbolism drawn from Teutonic mythology. For his debut at Vienna State Opera, Kosky instead sees the tale of a mysterious knight who appears in a boat drawn by a swan as the kind of melancholic fairytale spun by the Brothers Grimm.
Australian director Barrie Kosky set his eyes upon the libretto to Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and decided he wanted nothing to do with its heavy-handed symbolism drawn from Teutonic mythology. For his debut at Vienna State Opera, Kosky instead sees the tale of a mysterious knight who appears in a boat drawn by a swan as the kind of melancholic fairytale spun by the Brothers Grimm.
This all looked great on paper and, indeed, many of Kosky’s ideas play out quite beautifully. Elsa, hapless victim of the evil couple Ortrud and Telramund, is portrayed as blind, justifying her many visions. When Elsa is put on trial against the couple’s accusations, she relates her dream of a pure knight in shining armor who will appear and defend her; Kosky takes this narrative farther and paints the entire opera as a dream. The moment of Lohengrin’s arrival — sans boat, swan or armor — is depicted by the chorus wildly gesturing to the heavens as if witnessing a miracle or the sighting of a UFO.
But what the cast and chorus mostly do is sit — on small black stools, which they carry with them — and face forward, or stand at the lip of the stage and sing directly at the audience (the chorus inexplicably makes innumerable sudden exits and entrances through the wings).
For the third act, opening with the immortal Prelude and Bridal Chorus followed by the great love duet, the chorus remains offstage as Elsa and Lohengrin sit on chairs in front of a closed curtain for half an hour, mostly facing front.
It’s as if Kosky’s concept was not developed beyond rudimentary ideas. Coherency is greatly lacking, and some of the imagery is inexplicable (unless one reads a six-page interview in the program, there is no way to know that an omnipresent model truck is meant to remind us that Elsa’s young brother, Gottfried, has been kidnapped and is presumed dead, the crime of which Elsa has been accused). The puzzling denouement in which Gottfried reappears is straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Musically, it’s a different story. Russian-born maestro Semyon Bychkov draws from the superb State Opera Orchestra and Chorus a poetic perf of great dramatic flair, punctuated by intense moments such as the choral outburst at Lohengrin’s appearance, and the act-two finale with its pipe organ and 10 onstage trumpets.
If “Lohengrin” is a story of good vs. evil, then evil wins. As Telramund, Falk Struckmann (the only cast member to shake off the inertia of Kosky’s non-staging) erupts volcanically from his first word, using his ebony-colored bass-baritone with bold abandon.
Every bit his match, newcomer Janine Baechle (subbing for superstar mezzo Agnes Baltsa, who withdrew from the production) makes a proud, glamorous Ortrud, sexually manipulating her husband in their treacherous plans and spewing blazing top notes in her challenging act-two evocation of pagan deities. Both Struckmann and Baechle use word coloration to insinuate evil rather than descend to cartoon caricatures.
Johan Botha sings the swan knight with lovely tone, but his performance remains one-dimensional (as big a guy as Pavarotti, he’s not helped by a white wig reaching down to his backside, which makes him look rather like a yeti in a suit).
Soile Isokoski’s complex Elsa is a lesson in operatic method acting, but her warm, feminine lyric soprano — at times achingly beautiful — is easily overpowered.
When presented with high concept productions, the State Opera public usually is split between conservative factions crying defamation and defenders eager to embrace new ideas. But at the “Lohengrin” premiere, Kosky and his designers were vociferously booed by the entire opera house. One thing the Viennese will not tolerate is boredom.