Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin in 2018 at the Bayreuth Festival was the first production there by an American director and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are echoes of contemporary events in the US in the show. Specifically Sharon’s Brabant is a conformist theocracy in which society has regressed technologically. Some of the action takes place in and around a prominently placed disused electrical installation of some kind. The Brabanters are cowardly and subservient, initially to Telramund and then, equally, to Lohengrin. The advent of a charismatic leader. does not necessarily equate to liberation or full citizenship. Sharon also claims in his director’s notes that the real dissenter is Ortrud and that it is her actions that liberate Elsa and Gottfried. Whether the staging supports this is, I think, questionable.
The 2018 Salzburg Easter Festival production of Puccini’s Tosca was directed by Michael Sturminger. The only Sturminger works I’ve seen before are his rather odd Mozart collaborations with John Malkovich; The Giacomo Variations and The Infernal Comedy so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The production riffs off film noir and is updated to more or less the present. It opens with a shoot out between Angelotti and the police but that lasts only a few seconds and the first act and the first half of the second act are fairly conventional, bar Scarpia on an exercise bike as Act 2 opens. That said, it’s big and monochromatic and it does have a noir feel. It starts to get a bit more conceptual around the Scarpia/Tosca confrontation. It’s an interesting take on Scarpia; perhaps more bureaucrat than psychopath. The relationship between the two is well drawn and Anja Harteros does a really convincing job of her build up to killing Scarpia including a first class Vissi d’arte sung from some unusual positions. There’s a hint of what’s to come at the very end of the act when an “I’m not dead yet” Scarpia is seen crawling towards his phone.
To quote a quite different opera, “it is a curious story”. In 1967 a production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, heavily influenced by Herbert von Karajan  who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the performances, opened the very first Osterfestspiele Salzburg. 50 years later it was “remounted” with Vera and Sonja Nemirova directing. I use inverted commas because it’s actually not entirely clear how much was old and how much new. It might be more accurate to describe it as a homage to the earlier version. In any event, it was recorded, in 4K Ultra HD, no less and released as one of the very first opera discs in that format.
The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of. The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro. Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed. It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.
The 2011 production of Handel’s Alcina at the Wiener Staatsoper marked the first time Handel, or any other baroque work, had appeared in the house since Karajan’s reign in the 1960s. In mounting it they went big. There’s a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble, a large group of dancers and former Royal Shakespeare Company boss Adrian Nobel. It paid off.
The 2006 Salzburg production of Idomeneo seems to me to be just about ideal. The production is clean and consistently interesting without ever getting too far away from the core story and the pretty much unbeatable cast is backed up by the period sensibilities of Roger Norrington and the Salzburg Camerata and Bachchor. The only fly in the ointment is the utterly heinous video direction.
I guess Richard Jones’ 2009 Munich production of Lohengrin isn’t to everyone’s taste but I found it quite compelling. He’s set it in the 1930s and Elsa is building a house; a symbol for rebuilding the state and society of Brabant torn apart by the loss of her brother and general internal disorder. In the prologue we see her designing the house on a drawing board and then it gets built by stages culminating in a topping out ceremony as Elsa marries Lohengrin. At key points of the action the symbolism is manifest. Telramund kicks over half finished walls in the scene where he accuses Elsa and Lohengrin, having defeated Telramund in the duel, joins Elsa for a spot of bricklaying. After Elsa breaks her oath to Lohengrin he burns the house down so the final scene is played out on a more or less empty stage. There’s some really skilled stage handing going on to support all that! For contrast, and to facilitate the practicalities of the concept, some of the scenes are played out in front of a plain flat decorated solely with some coats of arms and a door. The alternation of very stark and very busy is intriguing. Inevitably there are times when the concept is stretching possible interpretations of the libretto right to the limit and the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund is a bit lame but mostly for me it worked.
Within the overall concept Jones has obviously given a lot of thought to the relationships between the characters. The Personenregie seems almost obsessively detailed and he seems to have taken his cast along with him because the acting is first class. Every look and gesture, especially from Wolfgang Koch as Telramund and Anja Harteros as Elsa, carry a depth of meaning. It’s very impressive.
The singing performances are very strong across the board. Again, for me, Koch and Harteros are the standouts. Harteros is really lovely to listen to even when she’s cranking out the decibels and Koch was never less than musical even in his angry outbursts where the temptation to shout or bark must be strong . Michaela Schuster as Ortrud and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role are pretty much as good. Schuster gets a bit strident but that’s not inappropriate to the role and Kaufmann has moments when he is just gorgeous to listen to. His hushed and unearthly “In fernem Land” was gripping. Christof Fischesser was a solid Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitin (a superb Dutchman in Toronto a few months later) made more of the Heerrufer than some might. All of this is very well supported by the orchestra under Kent Nagano.
The production for DVD is pretty good. Karina Fibich directs for video. She gives us a pretty good idea of the overall set and blocking and rations her closeups. It’s hard to argue with going to close up when there are just one or two singers in front of a flat. She gets a bit overambitious in the more crowded scenes and experiments with camera angles that are quite confusing. Sometimes the shot even seems to be behind the action. Overall though it’s a decent presentation and it’s backed up by a sharp 16:9 anamorphic picture and solid DTS 5.1 sound (LPCM stereo as an alternative). There are English, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles. There are no extras but the trilingual booklet (English, French, German) includes a synopsis and a short essay about the production.