Photo: Laurent Guizard
At the Opéra de Rennes, the Wagnerian experience has brought mixed results. The legend of Lohengrin tells the story of a valiant knight, who arrives incognito and whose name must not be asked. In the wedding night however, his new wife asks the taboo question and so loses him again. The crucial question of this story and maybe the reason it still grabs us today, is the question of trust inside of the family and marriage, and of blind faith in politicians concerning whole societies. Carlos Wagner, the stage director of this new production of the Opéra de Rennes, co-produced with the Landestheater Coburg and Opéra de Rouen Haute Normandie, sees also a parallel here with 20th century politicians, who appear out of nowhere promising to fix everything as long as they are blindly obeyed. Wagner’s staging, for that reason, is rooted in the real world and not in fairy country. Rifail Ajarpasic accordingly constructed a decoration that consists essentially of a four level platform, with long tables on them and chairs behind these. In the middle, a lectern where characters will expose their point of view. On the walls, rows of cardbord boxes spilling papers. An enormous tree root can be seen through the roof, vaguely menacing – some kind of monster ? As the curtain rises, the chorus, wearing 30s style working clothes, coveralls and smocks, or some kind of uniform, are busy, making phone calls, carrying papers to and fro – with the crescendo of the prelude, a feeling of emergency arises. King Heinrich occupies the lectern; he greets the people of Brabant, and deplores the sad state of affairs in the duchy. Friedrich von Telramund, sung by warm-toned and intense baritone Anton Keremidtchiev, explains: the duke is dead and of his children, the daughter Elsa is suspected to have killed her brother. Elsa is now summoned to explain herself. Kirsten Chambers, soprano, blonde, young and frail, plays her with juvenile charm and trust. Clad in a man’s coat over an undergarment, she seems lost in thought, hardly aware of the proceedings around her. She ends up declaring that she has seen in a dream a knight who will fight for her. Telramund accepts to fight this hypothetic knight in order to obtain a divine judgement about his accusation. Elsa’s champion is accordingly summoned. At the herald’s third call, the platform splits in two and – just what is it that now appears in the corridor that opens in the middle? Bathed in a golden light we see: some kind of grey block, on which a man is standing, clad in white from head to foot, and at his feet, kneeling, another man in a straitjacket. Now this is borderline ridiculous. Where on earth did this straitjacket come from? The white-clad man, half soldier half clergyman, obviously some sort of spiritual knight, is of course Lohengrin, sung by tenor Christian Voigt. His warm and natural timbre and rather light approach, nothing Heldentenor here, make his Lohengrin more human than superhero, in contradiction to his martial outfit. The love scenes with Elsa are a bit forced, none of them wholeheartedly embraces their part and their partner. Ortrud, by comparison, sung by soprano Catherine Hunold, is full of life and very much present, wily with Elsa, when she plants her seed of doubt that will eventually lead to Lohengrin’s disappearance, and wild as they come when she is confronted for what she is. And so it goes, the drama runs its course, punctuated by questions : is the straitjacket supposed to symbolize bewitchment ? Why not, but how is this related to the rest of the staging ? The costumes are fine, Lohengrin’s total white and Elsa’s unfinished bridal dress contrast Telramund’s and Ortrud’s black. But, if Ortrud is ultimately the « good guy », since she rids the people of a potential dictator, why is she defined as « bad guy »? I don’t quite understand this staging. It is musical enough however, respecting the music and the singers. Maybe I should have left my brain on standby and just stayed with the music: Rudolf Piehlmeyer who conducts the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne with a keen sense of drama, strength and attention to details. And the chorus of the Opéra de Rennes under Gildas Pungier, sublime as usual.