United Kingdom Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 23.05.2013. Premiere. (GPu)
Heinrich der Vogler: Matthew Best
Friedrich von Telamund: Claudio Otelli
Ortrud: Susan Bickley
Elsa von Brabant: Emma Bell
Herald: Simon Thorpe
Noblemen: Alastair Moore, Philip Lloyd Holtam, Laurence Cole, Simon Crosby Buttle
Bridesmaids: Anitra Blaxhall, Fiona Harrison, Louise Ratcliffe, Amanda Baldwin
Gottfried: Thomas Rowlands
Director and Designer: Anthony McDonald
Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter
Movement Director: Philippe Giraudeau
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
The ‘fable’ of Lohengin is in some respects a compendium of motifs and themes familiar from folk and fairy tale and their literary descendant, the Romance: the false accusation, trust and betrayal, the test of faith, the swan as the messenger of divine light, the restoration of a figure lost and presumed dead, magical objects (such as a horn, a sword and a ring), archetypal antitheses such as light and dark, innocence and experience, the importance of prophesy and dream, guilt and repentance, the contest between different kinds of magic, the princess in need of a rescuer, the rewarding of suffering borne patiently and humbly, the importance of names and social rank and much else. The patterns are familiar – from Greek Romance, from Shakespeare’s comedies and romances and from medieval romances of precisely the sort that Wagner read and adapted in preparing the text of his opera.
Northrop Frye, in a brilliant essay, ‘The Mythos of Summer: Romance’ in his seminal book Anatomy of Criticism (1957), observed that romance is “nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfilment dream”. In the case of Wagner’s opera, of course, the realisation of the dream is not merely a description of the genre to which the work belongs, but a ‘fact’ of its narrative. It is by the fervour and intensity of Elsa’s dream-wishing that her redeemer figure materialises (and when she is unable to sustain her absolute trust in him he disappears). As this may suggest, Lohengrin is as much about romance as it is itself a romance. It is medieval romance viewed and possessed through the eyes and mind of a German romantic sensibility, a sensibility which for all Wagner’s great individuality, has more than a little in common with that of German Romantic painters such as Philip Otto Runge, Gerhard von Kügelgen and Johann Friedrich Overbeck and, indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites in Britain.
Such affinities were acknowledged by the setting of the opera in nineteenth-century Germany and by echoes of /allusions to particular paintings. Particularly effective was Emma Bell’s resemblance, especially as dressed in Act One especially in colour, style of hair and profile to Elizabeth Siddall, one of Rossetti’s favourite models. If Bell was in Pre-Raphaelite terms, one of the ‘Holy Virgins’ (Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women: Images of Femininity in Pre-Raphaelite Art, 1987), then Susan Bickley’s Ortrud was definitely amongst the ‘Sorceresses’ (another of Marsh’s categories), with her black and scarlet costumes (Elsa’s predominant colours were white and grey).
For all the fuss about the hero’s name and the fact that the opera is named after him (thus ensuring that the audience is put in a position of knowledge superior to that of any of the figures in the story, save Lohengrin himself), there is a very real sense in which the two women, Elsa and Ortrud, are at the heart of the opera and that the struggle between them is the centre of the work’s issues. It was thus valuable that in those two roles this production had the benefit of top-class performances by Bell and Bickley and that the two should have been such contrasting figures in physique, voice and costume. Where Bell was every inch Wagner’s heroine, who moves “langsam und mit grosser Verschhämteit” (slowly and with great modesty) when accused, Bickley, on the other hand, maintained, in the same scene, what Wagner’s stage directions call a “kalte, stolze Haltung” (cold, arrogant attitude).Throughout the libretto images Elsa is associated with images of purity and naivety, Ortrud is most often referred to in terms of poison and the magical control. Indeed Elsa’s devout Christian faith is contrasted with Ortrud’s worship of Wotan and Freia. These contrasts were articulated in many ways in the production, not least vocally, in the contrast between the radiance of Bell’s soprano and the heavier, richer qualities of Bickley’s mezzo. Both gave memorable performances.
If the two female leads were especially outstanding, it should be stressed that none of the men let the side down at all badly. Matthew Best, as King Heinrich, was affected by a throat infection, but performed manfully and with, for the most part, proper regal authority (and a nice line in puzzlement where appropriate). Throughout, however, there were signs of vocal strain and there was often a closed quality to the voice; in Act III there were moments of unintentional fading away. None of this is intended as criticism of a fine singer. Indeed to sing as well as he did in such a demanding role, when obviously suffering, deserves only praise.
What was presumably the same infection had already laid low the intended Friedrich, John Lundgren. His place was taken, at a few day’s notice by the Austrian baritone Claudio Otelli, who gave a well-conceived performance, especially impressive in the Act Two confrontation with Ortrud, which had more than a little of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth about it. Just occasionally one felt the lack of the sheer heft a true bass can bring to the role. Peter Wedd gave an intelligent and largely compelling performance as Lohengrin, though lacking the absolute charisma to persuade one quite what a ‘special’ figure the Grail Knight is. His voice was perhaps a little on the light side for the role and he was occasionally a little underpowered, but the intelligence of his phrasing and treatment of sung text very largely made up for this. Simon Thorpe was in good resonant voice as the herald.
The work of both chorus and orchestra was outstanding. The quality of the choral singing, in this as in many other productions, owes much to the work of chorus master Stephen Harris. This was by no means the first time that Lothar Koenigs has shown himself to be an excellent Wagnerian conductor – on top of every detail and with a profound understanding of the spirit of the music. The applause given to the conductor at the beginning of the final act of an opera can sometimes seem to convey little more than politeness. The intensity and length of the applause given to Koenigs on this occasion spoke of something altogether warmer than mere politeness, of respectful affection and sincere gratitude for his contribution to a very special experience.
And this was, in many respects, a very special experience. A difficult work (even if more obviously accessible than much of Wagner) had been sung, acted and played with a coherent vision that made sense of it and that did something like justice both to its peculiarly resonant story and to the power of Wagner’s extraordinary music. This was and is a production of which Welsh National Opera should be very proud. Convinced Wagnerians should make every effort to see it and, who knows, it may very well be a production able to ‘convert’ some of those presently suspicious of Wagner.