Lohengrin: Swan Dive ... or Not?


White Knight, photo @ Marty Sohl

On March 5, 2023, one of my lifelong musical goals was finally fulfilled: I saw Wagner's Lohengrin live, in the flesh. An opera I had loved so much on recordings and videos I had somehow never seen live. Sometimes with these types of situations, expectations can be so overwhelming that the reality falls short. I'm happy to report that this was not the case -- Lohengrin live was everything I expected it to be and more. This easily jumps to the top of the list of favorite operatic performances post-pandemic.

For one, the sound of the chorus and the shimmering orchestra is so much more potent live. Second of all, this is maybe Wagner's best-paced opera -- there are no down or redundant moments. Each act is a bladder-friendly 65-to-70-ish minutes. The drama zips along to its inevitable conclusion without characters telling and retelling the same story. Third of all, the musical performances were all very strong. Not perfect, but no one was unacceptable vocally.

The color-coded chorus, photo @ Marty Sohl
The production by Francois Girard is simple and somewhat static. It takes place in vague antiquity. Thomas Yip's unit set is a stony underground hole. Everyone is dressed in medieval-style robes except for Lohengrin, who is wearing the outfit Girard had Parsifal wear -- plain white button down shirt, black slacks. (Get it? Lohengrin is Parsifal's son so they shop at the same places.)  Different color moons and stars are projected in the background. I tried to figure out what the projections meant but lost track after about the fifth moon color change, and that was just the prelude.

The main conceit of this production is that the different teams have different colors, Game of Thrones/House of the Dragon-style. Team Hightower Heinrich wears green, Team Elsa/Lohengrin wears white, and Team Evil Lannisters Ortrud and Telramund wears red. Another connection to Game of Thrones was the fact that Daenerys Elsa has the white-blond Targaryen hair.

The chorus has these flaps of red, white, and green panels built into their otherwise black robes, which they flash depending on who is singing. Team Elsa/Lohengrin sings, they whip out the white panel. Team Evil sings, they whip out the red. I saw one chorus member get the flap wrong -- it was supposed to be white, and he did red, and he was obviously mortified and went back to the black cloak.

The Iron wooden throne, photo @ Marty Sohl
Otherwise, not much happens in this production. Ortrud makes some campy hand gestures, but it's a very stand-and-sing production. In fact, the second act very much resembled a concert opera in the way characters parked themselves in different spots onstage and sang directly to the audience. 

In this production, Lohengrin enters by slowly descending the stairs to the underground cave. While this was effective, there was no swan. The swan is a metaphor in Wagner's vision -- beautiful and remote, it glides away just like Lohengrin at the end of the opera. It's both such a musical motif AND a verbal motif ("Mein lieber schwan") that having no swan with Lohengrin's entrance is just lame. I guess the feathers they projected in the background is supposed to be the swan?  It's notable that other extremely "regie" productions of Lohengrin like Richard Jones' production for Munich do include a swan. Another misfire was the act 3 duet. The production unfortunately stages the Act Three duet/confrontation by having Lohengrin and Elsa stand on opposite ends of the stage in front of a large stone wall. It was an incredibly ineffective way to portray a duet that is supposed to build in tension and drama. 

This is a production that can be brought back many times without much rehearsal, which is good? 

Jon Snow and Dany, er, I mean Lohengrin and Elsa
Musically, the role of Jon Snow Lohengrin sits beautifully in Piotr Beczala's voice. There's no strain, no effort, the music just sounds so right when sung by him. Dramatically he seems to be have been directed to always have the thousand-mile-stare onstage. But in terms of vocal interpretation, Beczala had a total triumph.

The same could be said for Tamara Wilson's Elsa. Her soprano took a bit to warm up, but when she finally did her voice soared over the orchestra and sounded appropriately silvery and innocent. Her and Beczala's voices blended well together in the fraught Act 3 duet. Wilson was on the bland side acting-wise, but let's face it, Elsa is not the most scenery-chewing character.

Christine Goerke as Ortrud, photo @ Marty Sohl
The most fun performance was Christine Goerke as Cersei Ortrud. I've heard Goerke in several things over the past few seasons and had mixed feelings. Ortrud capitalizes on all her strengths -- the thrilling, organ-look chest voice, the sheer volume, and the singer's own campy sense of humor (obvious if you follow her IG "heldenmommy.") She looked like she was having a blast. She even made the interpretive dance at the start of Act Three work. 

Thomas Hall was a substitute for Evgeny Nikitin and he acquitted himself admirably. Nice, deep bass-baritone. Günther Groissböck (Heinrich) was MAYBE the only disappointment -- he is now a bass with no low notes. Brian Mulligan was excellent as the Herald and made the most of a small role.

The greatest performance came from the amazing Met chorus -- onstage for all of act one and a huge part of act three, they sounded heroic and unflagging. The Met orchestra also sounded incredible. 

The finale, photo @ Marty Sohl
The opera has so many meta moments for Wagner fans. The opera is a sort of sequel to Parsifal, even though it was composed much earlier. Both father and son have an affinity for "mein lieber schwan" -- Parsifal enters after shooting a swan, Lohengrin enters riding a swan. The opera also has a dichotomy between the Christian themes that Wagner returned to time and again (Knights of the Holy Grail and all that) and the Germanic mythology that would make up the Ring Cycle (Ortrud prays to Wotan and Freia!). 

Lohengrin is a bridge between the past -- the musical set-pieces (both Elsa and Lohengrin get a rather traditional entrance aria, there are concertatos that end both act one and two, there is almost no sing-speak) recall the operas of the past, while leitmotifs portend the Wagnerian music dramas of the later years. That's why it's so important the Met has returned this opera to the repertory. Go see this!


  1. Such a perfect review. Well written and agree completely. Except I did not mind the absence of a swan.

    1. Well, there was a swan- sort of. In the feather image in the projection.

  2. Loved the singing but the staging is bland

  3. I just saw this last night and I loved it!


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