Lohengrin in Paris poses questions of interpretive choices

Lohengrin as Nudnik

The production of Lohengrin at the Opéra National de Paris, which I saw in early February, prompts inquiry into the creative process by which theatre artists choose interpretation of classic texts.

Many years ago I was involved in a production of e.e. cummings’ obscure play him, where the director extracted from the text a running conceit of the circus.  He based the entire production on circus performance,  thereby rendering the text vivid and immediately accessible.  By contrast, the current Met Opera production of Tristan extracts of the image of a nautical vessel and thereby frequently reduces, narrows or confounds the action of the play and the development of the characters’ inner journeys.

The Paris Lohengrin takes place in a neutral space, unspecific in geography or time.  The director, Claus Guth, chooses to use the play as an investigation of our need for heroes.  He posits that an otherwise ordinary, flawed individual can be turned into a hero by the group because a hero is needed, and not as a reflection of that person’s actual heroic attributes.  Elsa, Ortrud, Friederich, and indeed the citizens of Brabant, all seek a hero of this hour, and Lohengrin is selected, quasi-willingly.  Burdened with such expectations, Lohengrin’s heroism is a function of the needs of the moment rather than a reflection of his individual gifts – as Guth writes in his program note, “une fois arrivé là-bas, le personage authentique est recouvert par un archétype.”

As I’ve had occasion to comment in other contexts, this is an interesting notion, and someone maybe should write an opera about it.  The trouble with staging Lohengrin as an exploration of this conceit, however, is not only that it does not derive from the text – it runs in opposition to the text, is fundamentally at odds with it, and thus renders the narrative incoherent in performance.

The protagonist in this story explains that he is one of a devoted group that, in service of a divinely-derived icon, is gifted with “überirdischer Macht,” which follows him even to distant lands.  Knights of his community are granted the power to dispel evil wherever it is discovered.  He says that his arrival in Brabant was an exercise of duty, and that his inherently supernatural agency (his “hehre Macht, die Wunder meiner Art”) depended upon its receipt and acceptance by Elsa as an exercise of faith.  Doubt or distrust would render his virtue ineffective.  Therefore, once Elsa entertained such doubt, Lohengrin was obliged to return to the “fernam land” from which he came.

In order to render this story one of other-imposed heroic stature upon a fundamentally unheroic protagonist, we would need to undermine his own narrative.  Is Lohengrin deluded?  Lying?  Uninformed?  Why would he explain himself this way if in fact he was a mere schlemiel?  More to the point, does this interpretive choice illuminate the script?

This peculiar instinct for obstructive (rather than revealing) stage business is found in microcosm in the use of an onstage piano.  In a flashback, it is revealed that Elsa used to take piano lessons from Ortrud.  Later in the action, both Ortrud and Elsa retreat to the piano at times of emotional instability, reverie, or contemplation.  All very well, except that we’re talking here about a musical instrument.  A dog, a stuffed animal, a favorite pillow, all would be well – but a musical instrument?  In telling a story set to music?  The piano onstage was, of necessity, de-fanged (de-strung?) and made no sound.  The sound in this narrative has been pre-determined by Richard Wagner, with exquisite attention down to the last flute entrance.  But this activity of playing a non-playing piano made matters all the more complicated.  Of all the dramatic vocabulary available, why choose an emotional gesture that makes sound?  And then not have it make sound?

This production sets me once again to doubting my powers of sympathetic observation. Unlike some others, I come to the theatre with an open – even eager – mind.  I harbor a very strong presumption, when I take my seat at a place like the Bastille or Covent Garden, that I am about to be treated to an innovative and creative interpretation of a work that I know pretty well and seek to learn more about.  Indeed, the main reason I attend Wagner performances is not to hear people sing, but to reconsider the work from a fresh and (I hope) provocative new perspective.  In Paris I experienced instead an irritatingly pedantic nudnik who was in a constant state of apprehension that people expected more of him than he could offer, and where people took comfort in playing the piano.  What am I missing?

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