This Lohengrin is no knight in shining armor, confidently riding in on a swan to defend a beautiful maiden.
No, the barefoot hero on view at La Scala these days acts more like a runaway from a home for troubled youth. He's full of odd, jerky arm movements, spends a lot of time picking swan feathers off himself, and is given to darting off stage suddenly or lying down in a fetal position when under stress.
He's well-matched with the neurotic Elsa, who is easily startled and plagued by fainting spells and psychosomatic itching. Small wonder, since she's been traumatized by seeing her younger brother Gottfried kidnapped — and, for all she knows, drowned in the Scheldt river by the sorceress Ortrud. (Actually, Ortrud turned him into a swan, which explains why Elsa is tormented by visions of him wandering across the set, one arm draped in swan feathers.)
That's all just for starters in the eccentric new production by Claus Guth of Wagner's early romantic masterpiece that opened the season last Friday at Italy's leading opera house. Seen at the second performance Tuesday, the staging proved consistently entertaining though sometimes puzzling — and with tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Daniel Barenboim conducting, musical values were in supremely capable hands.
As Wagner wrote it, Lohengrin is a knight of the Holy Grail who arrives to fight for Elsa when she is falsely accused of killing her brother. He falls in love with her and they marry, but he warns she must never ask his name.
Guth's revisionist take borrows from the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a mysterious teenager who suddenly showed up in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 1820s, claiming he had spent his early life in a darkened cell. This Lohengrin is a reluctant savior, so unsocialized that at first he can barely look at Elsa or touch her hand.
For the most part, the action, if not the hero's personality, follows the libretto. Christian Schmidt's set is dominated by a three-story balcony that surrounds the stage in the background — handy for the superb chorus — and his costumes evoke the Victorian era. There are odd touches, like a black upright piano that sits at stage left, where we see flashbacks of a younger Elsa practicing while a stern Ortrud stands over her. The grown-up Elsa also takes refuge there, and once Ortrud slams the lid down hard on her fingers.
At the beginning of Act 3, with the newlyweds alone for the first time, the libretto places them in a bridal chamber. Here they run off down to the river, where they sit on a bench surrounded by tall rushes. Lohengrin can't wait to kick off his wedding shoes, and he playfully splashes around in the water, until Elsa — her mind poisoned by Ortrud — asks the forbidden question.
Then he must leave her, but first he invokes a miracle that frees Gottfried from Ortrud's spell and changes him back from a swan. In this production, that effort seems to cost Lohengrin his life: Instead of departing, he writhes on the ground in torment until Gottfried appears, then lies still.
Guth's approach raises more questions than it answers, since we never understand why Lohengrin is so dysfunctional, or why someone in his condition would be sent on a holy mission.
Still, Kaufmann could perform the role standing on his head and it would be worth hearing, so effortlessly gorgeous is his singing. Long, liquid phrases melt into one another with stunning purity, and he shifts seamlessly from heroic blasts to hushed whispers, sometimes without pausing for a breath.
One example of his artistry: When he finally reveals his identity in the "Grail Narrative," Lohengrin sings of a dove that miraculously descends from heaven once a year. Kaufmann infuses the passage with a delicate sweetness, but when he comes to the word for dove ("Tau-be"), he spins the syllables out in an extended phrase of such quiet beauty that the very act of singing seems part of the miracle.
If none of the other performers are on his level, they all provide good support. Ann Petersen, a Danish soprano filling in for an ailing Anja Harteros, started shakily, with some errant high notes in Act 1. But she improved markedly, floating lovely phrases in her second-act song to the night air, "Euch luften," and singing with warmth and intensity in the fateful scene with Lohengrin.
As Ortrud, soprano Evelyn Herlitzius deploys her edgy, penetrating sound with abandon, and though it can turn squally on top, she is so dramatically compelling that it scarcely matters. Baritone Tomas Tomasson, announced as indisposed, makes an effective if blustery Telramund, Ortrud's hapless husband. There is luxury casting for two smaller roles: bass Rene Pape intones King Henry's utterances with grandeur, and baritone Zeljko Lucic is an elegant Herald.
Barenboim exhibits masterful control of the orchestra, allowing the long, lyrical melodies to breathe and building to the climaxes with skill, especially in the chilling scene between Ortrud and Telramund.
There had been some last-minute controversy over why an Italian house chose to open with a work by Wagner instead of Verdi, when the opera world is celebrating the bicentennial of both men's birth next year. Kaufmann's golden-age performance alone should put complaints to rest.