Just when you thought all opera was epic and over-the-top, there's Wagner: epically epic and over the top of the top. He's like the Kanye West of opera. While Puccini chose contemporary subjects, elevating the mundane to legend, Wanger goes right for the jugular, choosing subjects that are so ancient that they almost seem to be at the cornerstone of civilization. [Or is that just what RW wants you to believe?] In Lohengrin, one of his earlier operas, it's not quite as epic as the rise and fall of Norse gods--the 4 opera, 15-hour Ring Cycle--but it's close: 4.5 hours of spectacle based on a 13th-century tale about the rise and fall of the perfect love between the purest of individuals amidst sorcery, Machiavellian power struggles, and many silly Kniggits.
When I went to Lyric on Wednesday, I was prepared, having listened to the preludes to the various acts, reading up on the history, and, almost most importantly, learning the symbolism. As I found seeing Parsifal almost 10 years ago, knowing what the music is trying to express almost makes you feel like the music is expressing it. The Prelude, for instance, represents the holiness of the Grail as it descends to Earth, and, thanks to Sir Andrew Davis and the exquisite Lyric Orchestra, I could actually feel it. [See: power of suggestion. See also: "music is powerless".]
After the exalted prelude, there's a lot more music. And it unfolds rather slowly, so be patient. The first act contains a lot of conversation--recitative on the verge of being lyrical--before gently building to a rousing climax of bombastic choruses. I found that listening to it exercises some of the same muscles as listening to minimalism. Or, rather, it requires the same relaxation of mental muscles; it's almost akin to meditation (as I'm sure Wagner would be tickled to hear). The orchestration is lush and expressive but not as smooth as his later works would become; the momentum falters slightly in the recitatives, but there are still many great musical moments. It's as if your distended attention, once slowed down, is brought to an even higher, mind-blowing climax.
All this, and I haven't even talked about the singers.
The singers at the Lyric are often some of the best in the world; these are some of the best of the best. Few can even attempt the title role. Johan Botha sang it out of the park--not with a sledgehammer but a cricket bat. His voice was plenty powerful but not in a hit-you-in-the-gut way; instead, it was a great match for the purity and single-mindedness of his role: an otherworldly knight bringing light into dark, a lightness to the heavy medieval world. His nemesis, the discredited Count of Telramund, finds a dark and soulful tone in Greer Grimsley, giving depth and dimension to the complex character.
Their female counterparts, the pure Elsa and the conspiring Ortrud, were their equals in vocal power and richness. Emily Magee, playing Elsa on March 5 and 8, had a pure, sweet voice for a Wagnerian, filling out the role. She was easily audible throughout and could maybe even give more attention to dynamics and shaping. Finally, in Act 2, her evil counterpart gets to sing. Michaela Schuster played the pagan sorceress Ortrud with zeal and cunning, making the diabolical character into someone almost likable--certainly more believably human than the pure fools. She made herself heard even when singing pianissimo high notes and infused every note with dramatic intensity: very expressive. [It's a big orchestra, but Wagner still leaves lots of room for expression.] By the end, I wasn't sure which side to root for: the naïve simpletons or the mischievous plotters
As always with Wagner, you have to be aware of what he is trying to say (lest he say something offensive). Once aware, you can judge the message accordingly. Is this opera about the title character? Should we aspire to be so noble? Or is it about love and the human psyche? The temptation of forbidden knowledge? Pagan gods versus Christianity? [Ortrud mentions Wotan et al. in her soliloquy.] Is it about Elsa and how doubt ruins love? How love is trust?
It seems like it should be about the title character. It's funny that, in the opera, "our hero" doesn't reveal his name until the final act, whereas Wagner gives to us from the beginning. It's like giving away the punchline.