Bulgaria’s first Lohengrin in forty years sensationally opens the 2024 Wagner Festival at Sofia Opera

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Lohengrin: Soloists, Men’s Chorus of Bulgarian National Radio, Chorus and Orchestra of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Constantin Trinks (conductor). Sofia Opera, 13.6.2024. (GT)

Sofia Opera’s Lohengrin Kostadin Andreev as Lohengrin and Tsvetana Bandalovska as Elsa [centre]

Director – Plamen Kartaloff
Assistant Director – Yulia Krasteva
Set design – Hans Kudlich, Nela Stoyanova, Kristian Stoyanov
Vocal preparation – Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Costumes – Mario Dice
Visual director – Zach Blane
Laser effects – Michael Sollinger
Chorus director of Sofia Opera – Violeta Dimitrova
Chorus director of Bulgarian National Radio Men’s Chorus – Lyubomira Alexandrova

King Henry – Biser Georgiev
Lohengrin – Kostadin Andreev
Elsa von Brabant– Tsvetana Bandalovska
Duke Gottfried – Kalin Dushkov
Friedrich von Telramund – Ventseslav Anastasov
Ortrud – Gabriela Georgieva
Herald – Atanas Mladenov
Four Knights of Brabant – Angel Antonov, Rosen Nenchev, Nikolay Petrov, Nikolay Voynov
Four Pages – Radostina Obretenova, Yuliana Katinova, Gergana Petrova, Tsvetelina Kotseva

Plamen Kartaloff explains his conception of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin as ‘an opera of light and sublime spiritual purity. Its music is the embodiment of a religious mystery, a mystical union with the beauty of the life of its characters, passions of human weaknesses, impure forces, and the struggle for power, injustice and envy, but at odds with a world of remarkable priestly service to the ideal of justice, pure love, dedication and spiritual delight.’

In his staging of this work, the Bulgarian director suggests that ‘a few more symbolic meanings give an emotional charge to the development of the action. These are, in the first act, swan’s feathers falling from the sky, and after a while the swan’s wings descending, are the surprise provoked by the miracle, which is commented upon with rapt attention by all, and in this symbolism lies the appearance of a higher power. It comes as a victory and salvation for the unjustly accused and the innocent heroine, Elsa. Later, after the wedding ritual, during the loving yet distrustful and wary union of marriage, in the last act, the snow-white marriage bed is surrounded by a field of thorns – a symbol of the envy and curse of Ortrud and Telramund, aiming at the destruction of the light that illuminated the power of love and the happiness of Elsa and Lohengrin.’

As the Prelude began, an innovative touch was to lift the curtain briefly showing the final scene from Parsifal of the monks at prayer, and Parsifal leaving as if preparing us for Lohengrin. Constantin Trinks’s conducting was profoundly moving in the great flowing crescendo before transforming into a decrescendo embraced in bright tonal colours of A major with truly beautiful playing by the orchestra. The opening scene of Act I presented two raised levels behind the Tree of Life with the gathered knights of Brabant present, opposite the Saxon and Thuringian counts. The King and Herald assume the centre before the great Tree of Life as their entry is announced by the spectacular sonic fanfare of the four trumpeters on stage.

The King was well portrayed by Biser Georgiev in his ‘Gott grüss euch, liebe Manner von Brabant!’ and the Herald of Atanas Mladenov was also excellent. The magnificent baritone of Ventseslav Anastasov’s Friedrich in his ‘Dank, Konig, dir dass du zu richten kamst!’ led us to the tale of Elsa’s apparent fratricide, his forgoing marrying her and instead taking Ortrud as his wife, and now he was demanding Elsa’s judgement. Elsa emerged from the Tree, in a stunning white gown, and her singing of ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ was matched by her characterisation, as if she has always been in this role.

The appearance of Lohengrin was preceded by the descent of the swan’s wings upon the Tree of Life and his arrival above the tree. The sense of wonder at Lohengrin’s mysterious appearance was evident in the mixed choruses singing ‘Was fasst uns selig süsses Grauen!’ and was even more effective after Lohengrin’s declaring love for Elsa, the choruses singing, ‘Welch holde Wunder muss ich sehen?’ In the challenge from Friedrich, the choreography of the fight scene was brief and dramatic and brought rather unsportingly to its climax by Lohengrin thrusting his sword into Telramund’s girth. Act I came to a magnificent close by the two choruses, the principal singers and the superb orchestral playing at the peak of their powers, reminding one of the magnificent choral singing in this opera.

Sofia Opera’s Lohengrin Tsvetana Bandalovska as Elsa and Gabriela Georgieva as Ortrud [centre]

Act II opened with a great crucifix above the Tree of Life, and windowed panels as if illuminating the minster, and in the background, figures could be seen moving in the church windows. The offstage choral singing was magnificent in building a sense of occasion. The opening scene was distinguished by outstanding characterisation by the loveless sorceress Ortrud of Gabriela Georgieva, a magnificent singer performing as if this role was made for her, and she was matched by another singer new to me, Anastasov as Friedrich, whose singing was masterly in his characterisation of evil. Their dialogue ‘Du wilde Seherin!’ was intensely gripping, and even without surtitles, one could understand every nuance of their plotting to take down Lohengrin and Elsa. As Elsa sings ‘Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen…’ she is watched by Friedrich and Ortrud in the shadows, and the confrontation between Ortrud and Elsa becomes dramatically gripping as Ortrud tries to entice Elsa to help restore them to the favour of the court.

The characterisation of good against the portrayal of great evil was well depicted in the scenes of Friedrich and Ortrud contrasted by Lohengrin and Elsa. Georgieva’s Ortrud, lurking in the background of Lohengrin and Elsa, constantly grimaced and presented a continuing menace. Every facial expression was backed by magnificent singing. Anastasov’s Friedrich possesses a gravelly, dark baritone voice and every ounce of malevolence was portrayed by this pair of evildoers. The close of Act II was brought to a dramatic conclusion by the pages bringing garlands of flowers surrounding the two lovers. And as Elsa moved forward, the chorus sing ‘Heil dir, o Tugendreiche!’ The entire scene was terrific with magnificent orchestral playing. Yet Ortrud bursts forward and demands to know her lover’s identity, while Friedrich accuses Lohengrin of magical powers. The scene is intensely dramatic, yet ends, ‘Heil Elsa von Brabant!’

Constantin Trinks handled the Act III Prelude majestically evincing all the colourful harmonies of the Wedding March. As the curtain opened, the bedroom scene was marvellously represented by the four pages untwirling the white fabrics which were slowly lifted above the Tree of Life to create a bedroom scene where the love scene between Lohengrin and Elsa unfolded, the women’s chorus singing, ‘Treulich bewacht bleibet zurück’. In the nuptial scene, Tsvetana Bandalovska’s Elsa is supremely expressive as she sways between emotions of love and curiosity at not knowing Lohengrin’s name.

The Lohengrin of Kostadin Andreev was best in this intimate scene producing radiant singing, ‘Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte?’ Yet Elsa’s suspicions emerge questioning if misfortune would come from knowing his name. She cries, ‘Den Namen sag mir an!’ and as Lohengrin sings, ‘Weh uns, was tatest du!’, Friedrich and his men appear with swords drawn. After Friedrich is slain, Elsa is left by Lohengrin to prepare for the scene with the King.

The third scene before the Tree of Life is packed with the mixed choruses of soldiers and knights yet Lohengrin cannot lead them to battle, singing ‘In fernem Land’. The close of the opera was sensational with lightning striking and the splitting of the Tree of Life from which Gottfried appeared, and he slowly raised his arms to a powerful culmination. Kartaloff’s production created moments of magic in the amazing visual events matched by Wagner’s glorious score, and the performance was blessed by superb characterisations by the leading singers – most notably by Anastasov and by Georgieva as the two evil rivals to the crown, and the Elsa of Bandalovska – a singer of great talent and acting. Her characterisation of the tragic role of Elsa was remarkable and a highlight of this performance.

Of the principal singers, Lohengrin seemed underpowered in his singing, especially in his higher notes, giving a somewhat bleating sound, most noticeably in his ‘In fernem Land’. King Henry was a little static in his portrayal but was in fine voice. Gottfried was good at the end, with a striking personality.

Georgieva has a wonderful mezzo-soprano, which is colourful and powerful. For long periods, she lurked in the background grimacing or making fearsome gestures in her rival’s direction – she is a consummate actress, and one looks forward to hearing much more from her. Her partner Anastasov has a remarkable baritone with a wide vocal range and is a consummate actor. I was surprised to learn that this was his first major Wagner role; he and Georgieva’s Ortrud were the vocal stars of the evening beyond question.

I was very impressed by the combined choral forces of the chorus of Sofia Opera and the men’s chorus of Bulgarian National Radio. Several of the big scenes were terrific, and the stirring direction by Constantin Trinks held the whole show together magnificently. The costumes by Mario Dice were traditional as they would have been in the Middle Ages, and the scenery was beautifully colourful, generally dominated by the Tree of Life and the raised stands on either side, and the bedroom scene was captivatingly beautiful. The lighting and the visuals of Kartaloff’s staging were outstanding, and in all the magnificent choral singing together with splendid orchestral playing and magnificent solo singers brought the audience to their feet at the close – wholly justifying the staging of Lohengrin for the first time in four decades in Bulgaria. Kartaloff’s Wagner Festival is off to a terrific beginning, and after the new Ring cycle, another performance of Lohengrin with a second cast will close the 2024 Festival in Sofia.

Gregor Tassie  

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