A giant moon suspended in the middle of the night sky, we, the audience, gaze through the open cave like a prehistoric cave dweller. In the opening scene of the new production of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2023, the strong visual effects of the moon create a sensational glorification that disorients us and brings us to a generalization of place and time. Confronted with the repetitive looping of the moon being absent and present, we experience the passing of days in serenity. The tension is brought to a peak by the combination of the cymbals and the explosion of the moon, fiery red emanating from its center; one could simply feel overwhelmed and forget to criticize.
The philosopher and art critic Theodor Adorno famously criticized Wagner’s opera as the starting point of the spectacle– a term popularized by Guy Debord– which refers to the society in which social relationships are mediated by images that permeate one’s daily life. In such a society, the distance between image and reality became obscure, fostering a breeding ground for capitalism. Adorno believes Wagner's technique involves removing the traces of production in order to create aesthetic illusions that embody the nature of commodities, which eventually leads to cultural industrialization and the spectacle. This is achieved not only through the creation of illusions but also by concealing the labor of production, for instance, his invention of orchestra pits and the concealment of instruments and musicians. As a major opponent of Wagner, Adorno’s critique is often mixed with his personal bias toward Wagner based on his belief that Wagnerism is an embodiment of the source of Fascism, as well as his Marxist political background. Nonetheless, this idea of spectacle is in some way what I felt about this new production at its face value– underneath its glorified visual effects, what I found is a resemblance to the Hollywood-made superhero movies.
A good production of Wagner’s piece would always interpret the piece both by tracing back the historical context and incorporating the perspective of the present day. The director of this new production, François Girard, incorporated these two aspects beautifully in his previous Parsifal production in 2013. However, the very similarities of the new Lohengrin to the Parsifal production also reveal the shallowness of the self-styled “prequel”. Although Wagner originally took inspiration from the same poem “Parzival” by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parsifal and Lohengrin are intricately different and were created at very different stages of Wagner’s life, with different intentions and emphasis. Lohengrin was composed right after he read the poem “Parzival”, in 1845-1848, which was the very beginning of his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and his other grand artistic visions. Parsifal on the other hand, was started in 1877, three years after the completion of the Ring Cycle, and is the last masterpiece of his life. At that point in his life, he was highly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and Buddhism– something that he hadn't brought any attention to at the time when he conceived. With that being said, the story of Lohengrin is very simple and direct, without much criticism from religious points of view– it is about, among other themes, an impossible love.
In the story of Lohengrin, the holy knight who was sent by God comes to the Earth to rescue the innocent Elsa who is accused of murdering her own brother. He offers to marry her and prove her innocence, but with only one condition– that she can never ask or seek to know who he is, because once she asks the forbidden question, he will have to return to where he came from, and of course, with his swan. This premise sets up an unfair power position between the two lovers: one was sent from the god, with his mission to rescue the innocent and to be her husband, and the other receives the dream of her lover and idolizes the hero before she had even met him. This suggests that Elsa is possessed with her tremendous love as an individual, and Lohengrin is a moral saint who only executes the will of god. In other words, his love for her is not humanized love, it is his noble responsibility.
However, in François Girard’s production, instead of emphasizing the individuality of the character, the characters are almost reduced to mere symbolism associated with the color of their outfit. Elsa is a symbol of innocence (white), King is a symbol of justice and kinghood (green), and Ortrud is a symbol of evil (red). The direct association of the sway of the crowd to the change of color to me almost became a Broadway fashion show. The intention seems to me like a reveal of the lack of critical thinking of the masses in an obvious way, but it also applies to the main characters. In other words, the direct representation of characters by colors reduces the depth and intricacies without revealing the character’s psychology and plot points as supports. Additionally, the staging of characters is always without interaction and tension. For instance, when Elsa and Lohengrin meet alone for the first time, the two singers sing without too much physical interaction. We can not see the immense love from Elsa of finally seeing and interacting with her lover in intimacy, as well as the detachment and nobleness of Lohengrin— there was no chemistry between the two. Elsa, a figure that is full of human emotion, was interpreted as a blank canvas of innocence. On the other hand, It was also supposed to in some way have a certain degree of the sexual implication that Elsa possesses a human desire for her husband, which forecasts the failure of their marital relationship. The tension between the two, one as the embodiment of a higher purpose, the envoy of god, and one as innocent and vulnerable, targeted and poisoned by the defect of humanity, was not at all shown by the interaction between the two characters. In other words, because of this production’s lack of character building, the audience can not at all feel the impossibility of love and the huge gap between the two figures.
Wagner in the mid-19th century clearly polarized the binary separation of man and women, Lohengrin is an image of the ideal heroic man who carries the grand mission from God, and who is free from earthly emotion, and Elsa, a generalization of the ideal woman, who is pure and innocent, and willing to sacrifice everything for the love of the man. But she is not at all perfect, unable to escape the women’s defect— symbolized by Ortrud, and eventually asks the question. In this portrait of men and women, men are always noble and innocent, and women are always the source of evil and cause problems. The innocence of Elsa also suggests the impossibility of the innocence of women— even the most innocent women are intricately possessed by their desire and emotion. Thus, one could simply argue that in this new Lohengrin production, the flattening of the character is an escape from this misogynist view. However, unlike the 2018 Bayreuth production, where the traditional notion of Lohengrin as a great hero and Ortrud as evil was subverted, for me, the new production does not seem like an intentional critique.
In the final act when Lohengrin prepares to depart Earth, he stands with his back to the audience, which strongly resembles the painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich made in 1818. This painting is famously used as the book cover of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" in various editions and has become a popular cultural symbol associated with Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch. However, the direct adaptation of this symbol reduces the philosophical connection between Wagner and Nietzsche to a shallow cultural trope. The issue resides not only on the equalization of Lohengrin to the Übermensch, a superior being who looks beyond the human race, but more so to the crude appropriation of cultural products— "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” = Nietzsches “Übermensch” = “Lohengrin”. Drawing this simple equation is a reduction of the complexity of character into merely cultural symbols, similar to the color connections that I mentioned above— another example that indicates its superficial nature.
While experiencing the highly contrasted invasion of our visual apparatus and the discernible cultural adaptations, one could hardly oversee the blasting of music, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Although Wagner’s music is famously very loud, Yannick managed to amplify the music to the maximum from the very beginning to end, executing the dogma of “ the louder the better”. The loud music and lack of variation again, foster the atmosphere of Hollywood movies and forget the potential of good conducting for a Wagner’s piece.
In comparison, the way how Christian Thielemann conducted in Bayreuth in 2018, is like breathing, guiding the whole orchestra as a living organism. So does James Levine’s 1983 the Met conducting, controlling, and extending the piece and uncovering the sensible details in between air. Or even Andris Nelsons’s 2012 conducting, which is harder/stronger and clearer than the other two, shows a saturated control full of variation, compared to Yannick. All of them shaped the piece into its climax when the loudness occurred, instead of using the volume as a weapon to paralyze the perceptual apparatus of the audience.
Altogether, the theatrical lighting design echoes the vigorous color contrast together with Yannick’s intense volume all points toward a visually stunning and conceptually mediocre presentation– a strong resemblance to Hollywood Superhero movies. However, a great Hollywood superhero movie does not necessarily, as Adorno suggests– diminish the cultural value. It was still great to see the execution of new technological instruments, the resplendent visuals, together with the high-quality musical performance. With my remaining appreciation, I went back on March 10th, 2023, when they substituted Yannick with Patrick Furrer. The blasting sound disappears, so does the remaining cohesion and harmony. I left after the first act, and hope Yannick will soon come back.
Debord, G., Knabb, K., & Perlman, F. (2021). The Society of the Spectacle. Critical Editions.
Adorno, T. W., Livingstone, R., & Zizek, S. (2009). In search of Wagner. Verso.
Adorno, T. W., Adorno, G., Tiedemann, R., & Hullot-Kentor, R. (1999). Aesthetic theory. Athlone Press.
Millington, B. (2002). Wagner. Macmillan.
Friedrich, C. D. (1818). Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
Nietzsche, F. W. (n.d.). Thus spoke zarathustra.
Adorno, T. W. (2001). In The Culture Industry. essay, Routledge.