Sun, 30. May 2021, 18:00
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Kasper Holten stages Wagner’s Lohengrin as a timeless political power play: Putin arm-wrestling, Putin excavating an ancient vase, Putin as fire-fighting pilot. And, of course, the image of him with a Siberian tiger! Putin diving, climbing, behind the wheel of a racing car and attempting to crush a frying pan. We are not privy to whether he succeeded with the frying pan, and it is irrelevant anyway, because the pose is what is important, the presentation of Putin as hero. And the message is clear: if you want a radiant winner as your head of state, do not ask where he came from or how he came to power; he is on a mission to rescue the nation. A number of politicians who were captured on camera beaming confidently into the lens have been removed from their posts. Why? Because we were inquiring about his past and lifting the lid on unpleasant truths. “If you recognise him, he will have to withdraw from view”.
If we think of Lohengrin as the type of politician who is adept at harnessing the media, someone who surrounds himself with glorious images and grandiose myths to create a legend of himself as messianic figure, it is not hard to see him as a smoke-and-mirrors merchant, spying an opportunity to set up a new state, a new system, a new ideology in a region of disordered, dislocated German territories. Wagner’s words and music are packed with references that allow interpretations of this kind. One instance would be the ban on asking questions. Charged with the murder of her brother, Gottfried, Elsa’s life is in danger. Lohengrin offers himself as her champion, but there are conditions: before he agrees to defend her, he offers her a quid pro quo: she will marry him and never ask him who he is. Unsurprisingly, she agrees; what other action is open to her? A real cavalier would have inverted the sequence of events. And there is another occasion when Lohengrin betrays himself as an unfair partner for Elsa – when he placates her in her fear that he will leave her, saying that everything will be fine so long as she keeps her part of the bargain. Shortly afterwards he reveals that he was planning to leave after one year and return to his homeland. He was not interested in the woman but in the position that he could secure through her. Politics underpinned his actions; Elsa was the stage on which he would stamp and gesticulate. He was conducting an election campaign in Brabant, pure and simple.
Granted, Lohengrin’s political acumen, or Machiavellianism, hardly makes him the kind of devious plotter that we find in an Iago; that role goes to Ortrud, whose aim in thwarting the youthful pretender is to shore up the old order, with her husband Telramund as head of state. But seeing the Swan Knight as a consummate politician, idolised in spite of his manifest tricks, just goes to show that manipulation to political ends is often taken to be a necessary part of statecraft. A nervous, easily-led citizenry may even place far more value on overtly hypocritical parades of resilience, vitality and strength than on integrity, virtue and utopian do-goodism.
We might be tempted to consider Lohengrin, the media hero, attractive and to deem the tussle for power a sporting one, were it not for a looming war and a gathering call to arms. In the face of the bloodthirstiness running through Wagner’s work, and given the fact that whoever prevails in the showdown will lead thousands of men off to war, making widows of their wives, and considering the phoney insistence that war is an honourable undertaking and a worthy adventure for young men, any gesture that seeks to make light of such well disseminated propaganda instantly loses any semblance of authority. In a society where war is declared and men are called to fight on the basis of mottos such as “Death or glory” and “Those not for us are against us”, the mettle of principles of political reason and discernment is being tested, whether the establishment in question is a democracy or an authoritarian state claiming to be acting in the interests of its citizens.
Elsa has grasped all this. She has seen through Lohengrin and asks penetrating questions, revealing his egoistic drive for power, even though the disappearance of Gottfried has left no successor to the Duke of Brabant and she sees no alternative for her country. If the unmasked hero wishes to remain in power, he will have to get serious and show himself to be the self-appointed people’s protector or, in other scenarios, an “unimpeachable democrat”, because from now on people are watching him. He will have to assert himself without the myth as a shield, will have to renounce the charisma of someone purporting to be guided by a higher power. Then we will look at what remains.
Romantic opera in three acts
First performed on 28th August, 1850 at Weimar
Premiered at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 15th April 2012