Lohengrin is back!


New production promises to be an extremely majestic spectacle where two worlds, Christian and pagan, are opposed to one another in the style of a popular genre of fantasy. Its producers – director François Girard and conductor Evan Rogister – are renowned experts of Wagner’s works, and they are immersed into his music for many years. Various premieres took place with their participation on stages of the biggest European and New World theatres – the Metropolitan Opera and Canadian Opera Company Toronto (Girard), Deutsche Oper Berlin (Rogister) and others. Lohengrin production is a collaborative project between the Bolshoi Theatre and Metropolitan Opera.

Director François Girard is talking about the upcoming premiere.

— The list of operas you have staged tells us that you prefer Wagner’s operas to any others: Siegfried with which you started, then Parsifal, Der fliegende Holländer, and now Lohengrin. What can explain such special attention?

It would be more accurate to say that it was not me who chose Wagner, but he who chose me. Twenty years ago, I received an invitation to stage the RING. I declined as I was not ready for that undertaking yet, but I accepted to direct Siegfried. This is how I first got infected by Wagner’s music. And this sensation has only grown stronger for the last twenty years.

Choosing an opera is like a life choice. When I am offered to stage an opera, I ask myself a few key questions: among them is whether or not I am ready to live five or six (if not fifteen) years with this music around me. My first meeting with Jonas Kaufman on Parsifal was in 2005, the premiere at the MET was in 2013 and since then I have continued working on this opera. The material remains alive in my head, on my desk, in my computer… As for Lohengrin, the upcoming premiere is the culmination of 5 years of work.

So… when I commit to an opera, I commit to live in its music forever. It’s a little bit like choosing a house. So, the music has to enchant me. While we are rehearsing Lohengrin, there is no day when the conductor and singers and me are not looking at one another: “What brilliant, incredible music!”

There is one more reason for my passion for Wagner: I feel that in the world of legends and myths, there is space for interpretation and creativity. And for each new Wagner opera time I feel even stronger about the possibilities that the material offers.

François Girard at the center. Photo by Damir Yusupov

What does it mean to stage Lohengrin at the Bolshoi?

There is something to be said about the fact that Lohengrin will appear on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre for the first time since 1936. There are many reasons for it — historical, political… Whatever they are, the fact that the Bolshoi’s management has decided to present the piece in the historical theatre proves that they are opened to novelty. As a director, I am well aware of the importance of the event and the responsibility that comes with it.

Lohengrin is an opera which challenges every director. One of the problems lies in the scenes which involve many artists and have correlated solos and duets resounding in a small, intimate space.

It seems to me that we have found a good solution. The biggest difficulty (especially, regarding the first act) is that the choir artists are present on stage from the beginning to the end. The opera is written in such a way that small choir fragments and solos alternates constantly. It leaves us with no time to take the choir offstage. However, the whole cast wears black capes and hoodies that they can close in a few seconds which allow them to disappear completely. This way we can transition to a very easily intimate space for Elsa and Lohengrin although there are one hundred and eighty-three people next to them.

At the presentation of the production you were talking about a connection between your previous production at the Metropolitan Opera, Parsifal, and the current Lohengrin. An obvious reason for that is in the plot. As is well known, in the end of the opera Lohengrin reveals that his father is Parsifal

Yes. Which makes it possible to treat Lohengrin as the sequel of Parsifal. Parsifal and Lohengrin represent two different worlds. Parsifal takes place in the magical realm, Lohengrin is in the real world, the human world. The two productions will share two things: a knight costume for Lohengrin, identical to the knights’ costume in Parsifal; and a video cosmic sky.
The video content in both productions is the most tangible, between them. Their characters, sets and costumes are completely different. And, consequently, as our production of Parsifal is set in the present time, Lohengrin takes is set in the future; in the middle of the 21st century. We are transported forward in time, in the same number of years as the age of Lohengrin, or the singer singing Lohengrin let’s say. In a time when, the foundations of the human world are destroyed...

Is it related to your outlook in any way?

Of course. Some important changes await us, and we have already started experiencing them. Our Lohengrin is a poetic depiction of that future in a world of myths and legends.

However, there is a reference to the specific historical period in Lohengrin, to the 9st and 10st centuries, the reign of German king Heinrich der Vogler, one of the opera’s characters. To tell the truth, that time is so distant that it seems almost mythological…

I would like Heinrich to be a hero or a myth, but, unfortunately, he is a historical figure. He is one of the few Wagner’s characters who existed. Heinrich der Vogler is famous as the unifier of the Germanic lands. Alas, he was one of Hitler’s idols. That is why most directors who stage Lohengrin wonders what to do with Heinrich. Many productions resort to abstraction to hide the historical facts. However, transferring the action to the future allows us to perceive Heinrich differently. He becomes a warning that such a leader might appear rather than a celebration of controversial character. I do not know whether it will be clear to the audience, but as for me, it is more comfortable. This is how we reconciled ourselves with Heinrich intellectually, morally and politically.
In that context, Lohengrin becomes the story of Ortrud and Lohengrin. Their confrontation is a duel between paganism and Christianity. This opera is about the fluctuation of our millennial history between one and the other.

Will there be any changes in the opera’s plot other than a time shift?

I did not want to change anything. I know what it is like to be an author. I’ve written a lot of my work which allows, I would like to believe, to better serve the text of authors like Wagner. Creating something new is so intense, at times you literally write with blood. If I want to express my ideas, I just take a blank piece of paper and start writing. This time, I am staging someone else’s work. I respect the author greatly. My intention is to make Wagner’s text clear without weaving my thoughts into it.

The way the stage looks in your production is reminiscent of fantasy and modern films …

Naturally, a postapocalyptic reality often appears in modern films. That is why such an association has its place. However, we made no effort to be cinematographic…

I could argue with you here: at the presentation you talked about the duration of sound fragments measured in seconds and minutes, beginning with a pause, a silence of forty seconds, which would precede the orchestral introduction to the opera. Such precision I remember seeing, for example, in articles about Sergei Eisenstein. However, this topic has never come up during my conversations with opera directors.

Yes, Eisenstein calibrated timings in his films. For instance, he used the golden proportion to position turning points and climaxes in a film timeline. You see, Siegfried is a four-hour long opera! If there is an interval, it adds up to four and a half hours. Parsifal lasts for the whole six hours including the intermissions. When I start thinking of staging a Wagner opera, my task is to rescale time. The music does it itself and a conductor facilitates it. However, we personally can completely alter the perception of time and the flow of what happens on stage. I’m very focussed on that aspect.

There is little action and battles in Wagner’s operas. In his world, life is matter of retrospection, meditation and contemplation. We have to embrace this notion. Embrace the slow pace and make it even slower at times.

This idea, it would seem, contradicts the perception of a modern person: a two-minute video is the limit of their concentration, then the “picture” has to change. It is hard to believe that during Parsifal, a screen of a smartphone never lit up in the auditorium.

I do not remember ever seeing anything like that. Opera audiences is in general are very respectful of the great privilege of gathering in the dark for a long time. Where else do you devote four, five or six consecutive hours to one single event? It is simply incredible the effect of such gatherings have on people.

You are staging an opera in Russia, at the Bolshoi Theatre for the first time…

The Historic Stage is where so many great works were premiered. The density of ghosts is palpable. I feel it every day. I am directing Lohengrin in a two hundred and fifty years old theatre. History is felt incredibly vividly here. Russia is a country with such a rich past and great culture. It is a source of inspiration and a hard burden at the same time. In any case, I am delighted to be working here!

Interviewed by Olesya Bobrik

The premiere series of the performances will take place on February 24, 25, 27, 28 & on March 2.
Cast is here.

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Günther Groissböck and Evan Rogister. Photo by Damir Yusupov.

 The main parts will be performed by the leading soloists of the Bolshoi Theatre, as well as guest performers.

An outstanding Wagner singer and permanent participant of the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, Günther Groissböck will perform the part of Heinrich der Vogler, which he sang at the Vienne State Opera, the Zurich Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Berliner Philharmonie (the concert performance was recorded by PentaTone Сlassics, 2012, conductor Marek Janowski).
Amongst his stellar non-Wagner parts are Baron Ochs (Der Rosenkavalier by R. Strauss, the recording of the performance at the Metropolitan Opera with his participation was nominated for the Grammy Award), Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte by Mozart, he has appeared in this performance about one hundred and thirty times!) and The Water Sprite (Rusalka by Dvořák).
While performing almost all Wagner’s operas on various opera stages, in 2011 Günther Groissböck also debuted as a director by staging a production of Tristan Experiment (based on the opera Tristan und Isolde) at the Theatre an der Wien where he performed the part of King Marke.

For the part of Elsa, Johanni van Oostrum was invited, who is already known to the Bolshoi’s music lovers: in 2015, she sang The Marschallin at the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. On any stage, Elsa performed by her becomes the gem of the production. She receives rapturous applause and glowing critical reviews, be it a production at the Deutsche Nationaltheater und Staatskapelle Weimar (“The discovery of the evening is Johanni van Oostrum as Elsa. <…> She alone is worth travelling to Weimar for!”, Neues Deutschland, 7.09. 2013), the Hessian State Theatre Wiesbaden (“The South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum, makes a radiant appearance as Elsa, and has the ability to connect a touching girlish lucidity with dramatic high-altitude flights”, Allgemeine Zeitung, 17.04. 2015) or the Bavarian State Opera (“She inhabited the character of the traumatized Elsa with extraordinary commitment, and sang with even, silvery, and rich tone, insightful and varied dynamics, and beautiful intonation”, Parterre.net, 25.11.2019).

Brenden Gunnell was born and educated in the USA but performs primarily at European opera venues. They are the Glyndebourne Festival, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, the Bavarian State Opera, the Munich Opera Festival and the Semperoper in Dresden. He is famous as a performer of the title roles in the operas Peter Grimes by Britten and Idomeneo by Mozart and the parts of Jimmy Mahoney (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by K. Weill) and The Prince (Rusalka by Dvořák). Amongst Wagner’s opera parts his repertoire includes Erik (Der fliegende Holländer), Loge (Das Rheingold), David (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and Siegmund (Die Walküre). The part of Lohengrin he will perform for the first time on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Tomislav Mužek (Croatia) debuted as Lohengrin at the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo (Brazil, 2015). However, his global popularity was brought to him by the part of Erik in Der fliegende Holländer, which he first performed at the Bayreuth Festival (2013) and then, at the Munich Opera Festival, the New National Theatre in Tokyo, the Dresden Semperoper, the Vienna Volksoper as well as in Lyon, Marseilles and Zagreb.

A soloist with the Mariinsky Theatre, Sergey Skorokhodov sings the part of Lohengrin on his home stage in St Petersburg and the Aalto Theatre in Essen. He performs at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera, the Bavarian and Berlin State Operas, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein as Tannhäuser (Tannhäuser) and Erik (Der fliegende Holländer). On the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, he debuted as Pretender in the opera Boris Godunov by M. Mussorgsky in 2007 (staging by A. Vedernokov – A. Sokurov).

The part of Ortrud will be performed by Khatuna Mikaberidze, a soloist with Staatsoper Hannover. She performs the parts in Wagner’s operas – Venus (Tannhäuser), Fricka (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) and Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde). Moreover, she performs at the Staatsoper Hamburg, the Vienna Volksoper and Oper Frankfurt, the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden and Landestheater Salzburg, where she performed Ortrud for the first time in 2019.

Kammersänger at the Bavarian State Opera, Martin Gantner (a performer of the part of Friedrich of Telramund) is widely known, among other things, thanks to the video recordings of Lohengrin: the productions of the Berlin State Opera and Stuttgart State Opera (released by Bel Air Classiques, 2018 and EuroArts, 2020 correspondingly). He performs Wagner’s repertoire at the Bavarian and Berlin State Operas, the Metropolitan Opera, at the Bayreuth Festival as well as in Zurich, Dresden, Florence, Bologna, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto…

Thomas Mayer (also a performer of Friedrich of Telramund’s part) debuted at the Bolshoi Theatre at the premiere of the opera Salome by R. Strauss (Jochanaan) in 2021. Although the repertoire of the singer is vast, he currently performs mainly Wagner’s works. Amongst the central parts are Amfortas (Parsifal), Wotan/ The Wanderer (Siegfried), Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and The Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer). The part of Friedrich he sang at the Bayreuth Festival and Teatro Real in Madrid and is preparing for performances at the Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Derek Welton (The King’s Herald) is a famous interpreter of Wagner’s music and a recent soloist with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was Wagner’s parts that brought him his first success and launched his international career, later becoming his calling card. Amongst them is Wotan (the Deutsche Oper Berlin) and Klingsor (the Bayreuth Festival, the Bavarian State Opera, Victorian Opera in Melbourne). The part of The King’s Herald, he performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and this year, besides his debut at the Bolshoi Theatre, he will debut with it on the stage of the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. His performance in the stellar production at the Semperoper in Dresden (with Piotr Beczała and Anna Netrebko amongst the cast; video version was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2017) was highly acclaimed by the critics: “The role of the Herald is very difficult despite being short, and Welton carries it out with honours” (Mundoclasico.com, 7.12.2017).