Thielemann’s translucent conducting makes more of Vienna’s confusing new Lohengrin than it deserves

AustriaAustria Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Tiziano Mancini) from the Vienna State Opera, 5.5.2024. (JPr)

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s new Vienna Lohengrin © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Production – Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Set and Costume design – Anna Viebrock
Lighting design – Sebastian Alphons
Co-Set designer – Torsten Köpf
Chorus master – Thomas Lang

Cast included:
Henry the Fowler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – David Butt Philip
Elsa von Brabant – Malin Byström
Friedrich von Telramund – Martin Gantner
Ortrud – Anja Kampe
The King’s Herald – Attila Mokus
Four Brabant nobles – Juraj Kuchar, Daniel Lökös, Johannes Gisser, Jens Musger

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s Lohengrin – new to Vienna but seen at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2022 – seemed an interesting Konzept at first: what if Ortrud has right on her side and Elsa did murder her little brother in order to become the leader of the fractious people of Brabant. Here King Henry – with his armed troops in uniforms bridging the two world wars – is attempting to keep the peace, though there were disturbing allusions in the first act to the rounding up of Jews by the Nazis.

During an ethereal Act I prelude – and indeed it is the music performed by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra which saves this Lohengrin – we see Elsa on the side of what looks like the lock on a canal. Anna Viebrock’s set has three levels and lots of barriers with those at the front often being put together, taken apart or clambered over. Basically, it is only at the front of the stage where most of the action (such as it is) takes place, almost as if it is a semi-staging which was reflected in the black rehearsal clothes Ortrud seems to wear in Act II (costumes also by Viebrock).

So before the singing begins Elsa appears to be sleepwalking or at least having a mental episode and observed by Ortrud she pulls at the hand of someone in the water, recovers a beanie hat which she puts on and then lets the hand drop again. We can assume this is Gottfried, her younger brother. Elsa changes from a white top and shiny trousers into a pale blue and white dress she will wear mostly throughout – apart from a white nightdress and long wedding veil later in the opera – before changing back into the top and trousers at the end of the last act.

Ortrud hopes to expose Elsa’s crime and make her easily led husband Telramund the ruler of Brabant, as she is descended from the former rulers. Unusually during Act II Ortrud and Telramund can barely keep their hands off each other. Ortrud soon recovers Gottfried’s swan necklace from the water which she uses to manipulate Elsa, whilst invoking the help of her old gods as usual. As for Elsa, she continues to protest her innocence but never appears entirely sane.

It begs the question who is Lohengrin? Surely the Knights of the Grail have something better to do than send their emissary to save a murderer? He emerges in chain mail from a culvert looking like Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait or something on the walls of Neuschwanstein Castle and soon dons a tabard with – what looks like – the cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre; a motif which fills the stage at Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding. Often the Brabantian people will make the sign of the cross and with the arrival of the Lohengrin’s ‘swan’ there is much mass wobbling as if an earthquake was happening.

Lohengrin’s duel with Telramund is a non-event and although Lohengrin brandishes a huge sword divine judgement (?) causes his opponent to have a heart attack before a blow is struck. This Lohengrin clearly loves himself often flicking his luxurious long locks and witness the way he lounges on the bed which slides along in Act III over the canal, perhaps it is a waterbed? At the end, Lohengrin jumps into the water, before Elsa pulls a long-haired, ashen-faced, zombie-like Gottfried up and out of it. He puts on Lohengrin’s ring, his horn and picks up his sword and kills Elsa with it. [Spoiler alert] who else now thinks Lohengrin was an incarnation of Gottfried’s revenge-seeking spirit?

David Butt Philip (Lohengrin) and Malin Byström (Elsa) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

There are not enough superlatives to praise how the music of Lohengrin sounded through loudspeakers and actually – at certain times – I wished I could have just heard the sublime orchestra without all the singing because – apart from the contributions of the wonderful, expanded chorus – I have heard Lohengrin certainly better sung both in Vienna and elsewhere.

On the one hand, I think there can be no doubt that Wagnerian singers are an endangered species like never before, whilst it is good to see unfamiliar faces and hear new voices attempting these difficult roles. The current cast (respectfully) pales into insignificance with some of those in Vienna’s past. Georg Zeppenfeld remains a wonderfully reliable singer but whether Daland, Hunding, Pogner, Hans Sachs, King Marke, Gurnemanz, or as here, as a slightly enfeebled (once again!) King Henry, he always seems to be, well, Georg Zeppenfeld. Actually, Attila Mokus as a stern Herald had more gravitas and seemed to ooze more authority, though that may have been the directors’ intention. Martin Gantner – the only one of the principal cast to sing in Salzburg – was browbeaten and full of self-loathing as Telramund, I certainly heard Alberich in his performance, not a role I believe he yet sings.

Anja Kampe chewed the scenery as a convincing Ortrud; an ostracised yet proud, unyielding and conniving woman clearly in some sort of toxic relationship with Telramund. However, sometimes Kampe’s top notes sounded more like hard-edged shrieks than they could have done. Malin Byström is relatively new to the role of Elsa, and I am not sure it is proving a good fit. There was no special radiance or warmth to much of her singing and I wasn’t certain whether Byström’s frequently barefooted Elsa entirely embraced any culpability for her actions. (She seldom looked other characters in the eyes, though that may have been more due to the singer herself than the directors). David Butt Philip is equally relatively new to the role of Lohengrin and how great to have a British singer in this role in Vienna. Here he made for a rather gawky, somewhat narcissistic, wide-eyed ‘hero’ and (I repeat) we never really got the sense of who this Lohengrin was, someone ‘real’ or supernatural? Butt Philip’s singing had an easy lyricism for the most part, but he hadn’t paced himself sufficiently and the ‘Grail Narration’ tested him, to say the least.

Christian Thielemann conducts this opera – and most Wagner – these days like no one else can. The often-interminable Act II exchanges between Ortrud and Telramund had a tension few conductors realise. There were naturally flowing tempi and textures which were translucent, not overly lush, but finely detailed and with enough momentum to carry the drama forward. As ever he was supportive of his singers throughout, and I suspect every word could be heard clearly in the opera house. Passages of rapt intensity and surging excitement all combined to take a grip on me from first note till the last one: as it seemingly did for the audience at the Vienna State Opera based on the special ovation Thielemann deservedly received at his curtain call.

Jim Pritchard

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