Henry the Fowler – Christof Fischesser
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa of Brabant – Elza van den Heever
Friedrich Telramund – Martin Gantner
Ortrud – Petra Lang
King’s Herald – Michael Kraus
Four Brabantian noblemen = Spencer Lang, Iain Milne. Bastian Thomas Kohl & Andri Björn Róbertsson
Director – Andreas Homoki
Sets & Costumes – Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus – Jürg Hämmerli
Dramaturgy – Werner Hintze
Zurich’s new season at the opera got off to a cracking start with a splendid new production by Opera Intendant Andreas Homoki of Lohengrin (shared with the Staatsoper Vienna). Homoki stripped the opera of all its usual militaristic and medieval trappings and updated the action to somewhere around the turn of the century: it was set in a small village in Bavaria (although the opera is set in Antwerp, a city in the province Brabant, which is now part of Belgium, bordering on Holland: clogs would have been more apposite). The set was the wood-panelled village hall where funerals, marriages and all other major events in the village took place (it also served, much less successfully, for the bedroom where Lohengrin and Elsa fail to consummate their marriage). The costumes were stunning: all the village-folk were in traditional Bavarian dress: the men in Lederhosen, green hunting jackets and hats (only the King had a feather – Henry “the Fowler” was indeed a hunter), leather hiking boots and stout walking socks; the women wore Dirndls in matching colours.
The front curtain was emblazoned with two giant red hearts and the slogan “Es gibt ein Glück” which might translate to “There is happiness” or “There is luck”. Elsa has luck in that her champion appears on the third and last call and tries to achieve happiness. During the Overture the audience looked through the “curtain” to witness young Elsa grieving at her father’s (the late Duke of Brabant) coffin with her young brother Gottfried, and a second glimpse is of Telramund proposing (unsuccessfully) to Elsa some years later, Gottfried, by her side, is now a teenager. Ortrud then offers herself (successfully) to be Telramund’s bride. I found these visual interjections a distraction to the wonderful music of the Overture and puzzling unless the opera-goer had really done their homework with the synopsis.
The opening of the opera, sadly, was a vocal disappointment: although four trumpets blasted majestically from a side box, the Herald (Michael Kraus) was too old for the part, his singing lacking both virility and volume; his voice was constricted and dry, he was, I suppose, the ageing town clerk, complete with leather briefcase.
Soon, things were looking up. Christof Fischesser cut a dash as the King and impressed with his rich, sonorous bass – particularly in the low register. Michael Gantner won the prize for best actor, Petra Lang as Ortrud for best actress, a vision of evil though, in her comic costume, I kept thinking of the Witch in Hansel & Gretel. Gantner has a rich, loud baritone and was a favourite with the audience. Petra Lang thrilled and chilled as she intimidated Elsa and frightened everyone on stage, even including the King who visibly recoiled from her. Lang caught the eye and the ear whenever on stage. It was a pity so much underwear was evident; at the beginning Elsa is in a nightdress presumably to signify her innocence and naïvety, later Ortrud and Telramund are reduced to their underwear to signify humiliation and defeat.
Lohengrin’s entrance was unconvincing. Elsa enters holding a ceramic (or plastic) swan. At the appropriate time, when King Henry asks for the third time whether she has a champion to hand, the villagers dance about with hands in the air to then reveal a figure shivering on the ground in a white shift, his face obscured. In an interview on the opera house website Homoki reminded us that Wagner had been a revolutionary, in the turbulent years around 1848 when this opera was written, and had been on the barricades in Dresden. His intervention and resistance to the current political climate forced his exile to Zurich. He was seeking change to the political system (ultimately not very successfully). Lohengrin has come from a far-away place to assist in the change of a system – this time successfully. I’m sure this tested the comprehension of most opera-goers.
In the same interview, Simone Young told us that Klaus Florian Vogt’s tenor was almost unique in being able to sing quietly and beautifully above the stave, and this was especially required in Lohengrin, as in the aria “Du lieber Schwan”. And so it was: a truly wonderful performance from Vogt, also looking the part. A tear came to the eye as he was forced to reveal his true identity.
South African soprano Elza van den Heever was a sweet-toned, more than acceptable Elsa. The minor parts were all competently sung, the chorus were splendid. Zurich’s opera house is small and the volume would have thrilled at the Met, Covent Garden or in Bayreuth: in Zurich it was overpowering. Their ensemble faltered when not watching the conductor, although some screens placed around the stage and auditorium tried to assist them.
The orchestra was in fine fettle (one or two trumpet fluffs apart), Simone Young a most expert Wagnerian. She shaped the long melodic lines with elegance, controlled the dynamics with skill, and extracted much detail from the glorious score.
At the end, another twist from the production team: Elsa shows no sign of dying, as her returned brother, whom she had presumed dead, hugs her; Ortrud also does not sink to the ground but stands forlornly at the side realising that her dream of power has now vanished.
There were a few vociferous boos at the final curtain for the production team, but wild cheering for the singers – for the most part the audience was very taken by what they had seen and heard.