When I told my friends that I was going to be exposed to almost 5 hours of Wagner on Thursday evening, they looked at me as if I was completely mad. This is with me having no previous Wagner experience and my German knowledge limited more or less to ‘wunderbar’. However, I can now happily say that:
1) I survived the experience
2) I did enjoy the experience
3) The experience prompted some thoughts
4) It was actually 3 hours and a bit – I had underestimated the power of intervals
Lohengrin was written by Wagner in 1850, inspired by his fascination with medieval German literature. It takes place at the legendary time of Parsifal and the Grail, and tells the story of Elsa, unjustly accused of murdering her brother, and Lohengrin, the mysterious knight that comes to her rescue promising her a happy-ever-after, on the condition that she never asks for his name. Spoiler alert, Elsa resists for two acts, but eventually (as one would expect) capitulates to curiosity, losing Lohengrin forever.
Anything can be said about Lohengrin, but not that it’s got a slow narrative, or that it lacks momentum. This is why in spite of its length, the overall experience is far from being a dull one. With a charge of fratricide 17 minutes into the first act, Lohengrin’s declaration of love four minutes after meeting Elsa, and duels lasting but a few seconds, the opera proceeds apace – looks like Wagner didn’t have time to waste. As well as relatively easy to follow in terms of events (even for someone without German), Lohengrin is at once eerie, triumphant, sweet and tragic, in true romantic style. This is an intense, tumultuous opera, with bags of pathos and potential.
While the original libretto is set in medieval times, director David Alden transposes it to a bombed-out city, in initially unspecified modern times. The choice strikes as a bit incongruous, and not necessarily justified in the opera as a whole. The slanty set design by Paul Steinberg, vaguely reminiscent of the dystopian architecture of the film Inception, is gorgeous, but it’s hard to understand what purpose it serves in this production. We see a bizarre juxtaposition of kings, crowns and swords with rifles, metal desks and prosecco flutes. The second act is perhaps the most credible in terms of setting, and the clash between fairy-tale and contemporary environment is less noticeable. As the opera progresses, though, the approximation with the Nazi regime becomes more and more evident, from movements reminiscent of the Nazi salute to banners turning the Wagnerian swan into eagle-like standards. In all this, the production ends up being neither fully in-period (whatever that period that might be) nor elevating to any atemporal dimension – it remains a bit of a hybrid whose rationale seems difficult to explain.
Admittedly, modernity enters the show also in rather productive ways. The 3D-looking lights by Adam Silverman, which herald the arrival of the magical swan, are just enthralling, and do things I wouldn’t have thought possible to do in a theatre. Here, the free spirit of the opera takes concrete shape in a truly visionary fashion, which I’m sure Wagner would have approved of. I believe this is the kind of things that modern opera should be aspiring to, bringing to life the magic of tales and tunes from the past in new, innovative ways.
Compared to the shaky setting, the performance of the singers of the opening night is a solid one. Klaus Florian Vogt playing Lohengrin, who on his first appearance sings with an angelic voice, and later on is able to make his singing heroic, forceful, or melancholic, as the plot demands, impressed me. Hats-off also to Jennifer Davis (replacing previously announced Kristine Opolais), who is tender, down-to-earth (literally), and sensual as Elsa. Thomas J. Mayer as Friedrich von Telramund complements his arias with forceful, passionate acting, while his wife Ortrud (Christine Goerke), who in Wagner’s opera is a powerful, spirited sorceress, embodies the role quite aptly, singing with an acidic quality.
If I were to improve anything in this performance, it would be the movements on stage, which as they are appear oftentimes clumsy and stiff. Pulling people falteringly by the hands, unclear or imprecise gestures, and awkward sitting and kneeling pop up repeatedly, especially in the third act. The cast seems almost unaware of the physical presence of the other actors on stage. I found this lack of fluidity in movement a bit distracting from the otherwise admirable singing and acting, and I thought this rigidity went against the musicality and smoothness of Wagner’s score.
As an opera, Lohengrin is well-executed and inspiring, though at times feels like it’s still looking for its identity. But to make Wagner this engaging and stimulating, I guess counts as a success for any production.
Lohengrin is playing at the Royal Opera House until 1 July
Photo: Clive Barda