Every new production, no matter how willful, seems to have its champion in the press, but not Richard Jones's Lohengrin, the debacle of last year's summer festival at the Bavarian State Opera. The ranking German critics tarred and feathered it; my impression at a mid-run performance was that they had been kind. But the cast was praised to the skies, especially Munich native Jonas Kaufmann in his role debut as the hero — which also marked his homecoming to a house that had never thrown him a crumb early on. To my mind, Kaufmann exceeded the brightest expectations, eclipsing his colleagues completely.
The video does him justice while at the same time working wonders for everyone else. Blessed with the leonine face and mane of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, Kaufmann conveys an ecstatic otherworldliness. Swirling through the Act I duel, heedless of Telramund's fumbling, he embodies an exterminating angel. Throughout, his bearing, gestures and expressions reflect the isolation of a proud and righteous soul. Incredibly, he delivers the great narrative of the Grail sitting in a chair, which would seem to put him at a disadvantage but somehow doesn't at all. Bleak yet radiant, working the material in the subtlest shadings of timbre, mood and attack, Kaufmann puts before us Lohengrin's inner landscape of love, loss and awe.
With the chalk-white face, ink-black curls, wide crimson smile and level gaze of a Minoan princess, Anja Harteros is ravishing in close-up as Elsa, and she shapes her music with clarion passion. Wolfgang Koch, the rumpled Telramund, gives a bruising account of his character's pain and outrage. In her blonde bob, Michaela Schuster's Ortrud looks like a heavy-set Edie Falco, and the play of her features, whether she is singing or silently scheming, gives a viewer plenty to watch. In the house, she sounded like an overextended chanteuse, but onscreen her vivid diction and clear projection carry the day. In Christof Fischesser, the production has a sonorous, anxiety-ridden King of tremulous integrity. His mobile eyebrows speak volumes. (The same is true of Kaufmann and Harteros, though they send very different messages.) Perched on an umpire's chair, with Groucho specs and an off-kilter wedge of marcelled hair, Evgeny Nikitin sounds the Herald's bulletins with authority. Kent Nagano, whose conducting felt square and nondescript in the house, comes off here as efficient and occasionally eloquent.
Ah yes, the production. Jones and Ultz, his designer, are both British, but their image bank is Walmart-meets-Oktoberfest. Lohengrin arrives in a T-shirt and running shoes but dresses for his wedding like peasant royalty in his Sunday best. Pinned-up braids abound, as do coats of arms, selectively emblazoned in Gothic lettering. The newlyweds move into a new two-story home of Elsa's design, the interior all knotty pine. (It rotates, too.) Through much of Act I, Elsa (in overalls) is seen laying brick for the place, a task in which Lohengrin, an army of extras, and momentarily even Ortrud assist. A flower bed at the footlights spells out the dedicatory couplet Wagner wrote for Wahnfried, his Bayreuth home, where, as he said, his delusions came to rest. Betrayed by Elsa, Lohengrin torches the wooden cradle for the child the couple will never have.
Thus, Jones and Ultz let their cat out of the bag. What, they ask, is Lohengrin but Wagner's sublimated fantasy of house and hearth, projected onto Elsa, and through her, onto the hero? In the theater, the juggernaut production that was mounted to realize this reductive thesis crushed the performers in the dust. On video, their searing emotional veracity blasts the show to very occasionally distracting smithereens.
Anja Harteros, Michaela Schuster; Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, Christof Fischesser; Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Kent Nagano. Production: Richard Jones. Decca 074 3387 (2 DVDs), 207 mins., subtitled