Opera, Swans and Panzers: Lohengrin at Opéra Bastille

Thanks to a last minute spare ticket provided by lovely Dame Kozlika, I went yesterday to a production of Lohengrin, at Opéra Bastille (the ugly 80’s monsterchild one of the two). I figured I may as well post a quick personal review – I’m told this is what this whole blog thing is about: empowering the People, all that… So here goes…

The Story

I’ll let you peruse the Wikipedia entry for a complete synopsis, but story goes a bit like:

  • Beautiful Damsel in Distress is saved in extremis by Handsome Stranger from Unknown Origin, who washes her honor by pounding on Manipulated Semi-Vilain Consigliere.
  • Beautiful Damsel in Distress offers own hand to Handsome Stranger from Unknown Origin, who gladly accepts it with proviso that she shan’t ever ask for his actual name or try to uncover his Unknown Origin.
  • Evil Manipulating Witch manipulates.
  • Naive Beautiful Damsel in Distress is manipulated.
  • Beautiful Damsel in Distress lasts all of 24 hours before asking the forbidden question: Handsome Stranger no longer from Unknown Origin, turns out to be none other than, theretofore unmentioned, opera’s titular character.
  • Swan this, swan that, swans are everywhere.
  • Handsome Stranger Better Known as Lohengrin leaves, pissed off. Swan becomes a prince. People rejoice, broken love mourns, evil pouts.
  • The End.
    • [rough outline]

      Lohengrin was one of the few remaining major Wagnerian works I had not seen. Which must now bring my compounded Wagner experience to a few trillion hours. That is, like every other of his other opera, this one is long, very long. Unlike the Nibelungen tetralogy, though, it isn’t particularly fast-paced.

      I must confess to a couple yawns during the first act, while second and third act peaked up a bit, both story-wise and musically.

      The Production

      Being one of those terminally unhip opera amateur who is quite content with your basic romantic era kitsch décors and costumes, I am not best fit to judge the mandatory “daring” productions usually put out by major opera houses nowadays.

      However, as far as Robert Carsen’s production went, it was overall rather palatable, if not particularly inspired (which, frankly, is probably a good thing when it comes to contemporary productions). The usual blend of nondescript soviets-style uniforms, 1930’s rags and a couple medieval props thrown in. All taking place in the perennial Sarajevo-style, slabs-of-concrete-distractedly-put-together decor that, for some unfathomable reason, still passes for breakthrough stage work. I’ve seen worse, way worse.

      The Music


      Loud, unsubtle, yet occasionally captivating and oddly beautiful.

      Did I mention: Loud?

      Let me put it this way: I’m still not sure whether this morning hangover was the half-dozen tequilas imbibed at Pierre’s birthday party, or four hours of Wagner beforehand.

      To be fair: this isn’t his loudest opera, nor, in my modest amateur views, his best.

      The Singers

      Doing their best, despite having to fight for their right to sing with the very uncompromising musical score of a German madman. Unfortunately, modern-day opera sopranos (and Opéra Bastille sub-par acoustics) aren’t quite equipped for the Wagnerian repertoire (I suspect, nothing short of a 3000 Watt military siren is).

      Fresh on the tail of one scathingly bad review for her performance (amidst an altogether positive review) in that morning edition of Le Canard Enchaîné lead soprano Mireille Delunsch (as Elsa von Brabant) diplomatically had herself announced “diminished” of health before start. Yet, did her best… which wasn’t much, as it turned out (see issue of having to fight an entire wagnerian orchestra score with your lone vocal chords).

      Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier (as the delightfully evil Ortrud von Telramund) laid a considerably stronger impression, though I could swear I heard her a smidgen of a tone off a couple times, when reaching for those amazing glass-breaking highs one comes to opera for. Their male counterparts did fine and, judging by their average girth, belonged to the more traditional school of opera singers (the one that packs enough air in their chest to put out a Kuwaiti oil fire with a single blow).

      I suppose one of my main pet peeve with Wagner operas would be the disproportionate amount of male and/or chorus parts, compared to the [relatively] minor soprano/alto roles. There again: matter of personal taste entirely, but I do like meself some good old-fashioned Italian arias.

      The Wrap-up

      A very nice evening with some lovely people and a honest, if not enthralling, musical performance. If you aren’t a die-hard opera fan, I wouldn’t recommend it as your introduction to the genre, especially to Wagner. But if your ears perk up at the mere mention of an umlaut and you routinely attend 20-hour marathon performances of the Nibelungen tetralogy in Bayreuth, then you might definitely want to check out this one (provided you can secure some tickets, which, erm, you probably can’t. well anyway).