The White Knight

Richard Wagner: LOHENGRIN
07.12.2012, Friday, Teatro alla Scala – broadcast
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, director: Claus Guth
Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin), Anette Dasch (Elsa von Brabant), Tomas Tomasson (Friedrich von Telramund), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), René Pape (Heinrich der Vogler), Željko Lučić (Der Heerrufer des Konigs)

A new season at Teatro alla Scala, a new Sant’ Ambrogio, that everyone was expecting, what will happen this time, besides the opening performance? With Wagner and, most of all, with Lohengrin, the night of December 7th, a myth in itself in the operatic world, stays under the sign of legends. The first snow of this winter has just fallen on Milano.  The Monti cabinet is living its last days, confronted to the imminence of its collapse that it cannot face. After Anja Harteros forfeited even from the final dress rehearsal, another forfeit followed – from the one who was supposed to replace her, Ann Petersen, and now, the prime minister is alone in the state box, the President of Italy did not come, as  he had done the previous year, when his cabinet had just been invested. And no national anthem this year. In life, the knight in shining armor, sailing a ship driven by a swan, is more improbable than ever. On stage, things proceeded in a  completely different way…

Claus Guth is, today, the most important opera director in Europe, and the fact that he was chosen was no surprise. After the Bayreuth of the ‘40s, after the war, Wagner was saved from demonization by modernity. His operas being atemporal, supra-human, it was easy for directors’ imagination to go beyond all possible limits. At La Scala, the scenery was a several floor structure, like an internal yard of a building which looked in the first act like an austere palace, in the second act, the one of the wedding, like an old hotel, or even a motel from the seaside, and in the last part like the walls of a prison. Of course, the heroic imagery could not lack: the choir was dressed in Prussian uniforms, the symbol-sword was there, Lohegrin’s horn was present too, even if minimized. The play of symbols can be commented and will be commented quite a while, as always, but I cannot express verdicts, it is not necessary.

Jonas Kaufmann - Lohengrin - (c) Reuters
Jonas Kaufmann – Lohengrin – (c) Reuters

Elsa’s wedding dress is a reverence to Visconti, it is the same dress Claudia Cardinale was wearing in Il Gattopardo, and the idea of dressing Ortrud in an identical but black dress was cheap, but beautiful. I loved the upright piano where all characters stopped and also the brainwave of suggesting a domineering influence of Ortrud in the ruling family of Brabant – like the relationship between a piano professor and her pupils, a professor with a stick in her hand, correcting by reflex Elsa’s position in front of the keyboard. The upright piano falls upside down in the final act, like a break free from all constraints, when the princess marries the knight dressed in white. An extraordinary scene, this of the final act, because I have always succumbed in front of “agricultural” scenography, I cannot explain why, but all scenes with dry vegetation, be it a wheat field or, here, the reed on a pond (that exists on the stage, real, incredibly!) have always had a strong effect on me.


Barenboim tried to recreate Wagner’s craziness, doubled by his own one, and made visible efforts to push an orchestra which is superb only in Verdi and Puccini. Fortunately, the choir completed the grandiose vision and everything finished well. With Wagner, even loggionisti’s contestations vanish. Anette Dasch, who came at the last moment (on December 5th) from Bayreuth, sang the part with great success. The character imagined by Guth is neurotic from the beginning to the end of an opera lasting more than four hours, and the moments when Elsa falls on the stage are so many, that I lost track at a certain moment. Dasch, even in this continuous state of shock, has a physical resemblance with a plump Scarlett Johansson, and she knows the part very well, she has already sung it in 2010, in Bayreuth. The oversized concept of La Scala required a voice even ampler than hers, but the result was more than convincing. The only supra-human voice, in my opinion, was Ortrud’s, Evelyn Herlitzius sang like in transfiguration, and, at the curtain call, seemed to be somebody else. Her final intervention, Fahr Heim!, simply put an abyss between Verdi and Wagner. René Pape, very good as always, can leave place only for admiration, the same as the luxury Herald of Željko Lučić and, of course, as Tomas Tomasson’s Telramund, discontented and implacable in his own decline.

But this time, more than ever, Jonas Kaufmann was perfect.  There is no other word for describing what he did last night. He felt absolutely comfortable in his native language, and he sang as if for once a part perfectly placed on his baritonale voice, but with an absolute lyricism in the passages allowing this, one of a mezzavoce only he is capable of. While in Don Carlo, his physical qualities complete what is missing from the voice, if, in Don Jose, his nobility seems a disadvantage, if in Alfredo he looks too serious, if his Mario Cavaradossi is too German, well, in Lohengrin, he is a god, and only Guth’s direction, making him sing in fetal postures, made him human sized again. What is he doing in Italian opera? This seems to be the answer to a metaphysical question, in fact an answer he hasn’t found yet. And I start believing he will never find it outside Wagner, except for the situation when he finds the courage to sing, at any price, but mostly with the chance to make history, an Otello. When the white knight becomes black. Who knows, maybe in a few years?…

Lohengrin - Teatro alla Scala 2012

It was a triumph. La Scala kneeled in front of the Wagner year that will start in less than a month. 15 minutes of frantic applauses frantic applauses ended a new Sant’Ambrogio, which offered then Italy’s national anthem, accompanied by the sensational choir that illuminated the entire performance. This time, Barenboim made it big, there was no single indifferent person. Even more, I will keep in mind, for a long time, that extremely moving image of Anette Dasch crying with emotion, after coming as from nowhere in the most precious night of an operatic year. This is like a dream which, once fulfilled, cannot stop, but only release the most beautiful tears.

In Bucharest, the bunch of people who saw this performance in HD live broadcast left for their homes around midnight, when the first snow flakes were beginning to fall over the Romanian capital too. We were less than last year, for Don Giovanni, on Sunday there are elections, where nobody will truly win over nothing. Opera – Quo vadis?

P.S. Meanwhile, the next day after the La Scala premiere, Monti resigned.

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