Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 23 May 2013
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director and Designer: Antony McDonald
Cast includes: Peter Wedd / Emma Bell / Claudio Ortelli / Susan Bickley / Matthew Best
In 1860, Charles Baudelaire wrote adoringly to Richard Wagner after hearing him conduct a concert of his overtures:
it seemed to me that this music was mine, and I recognized it in the way that any man recognizes the things he is destined to love … One of the strangest pieces, which indeed gave me a new musical sensation, is the one intended to depict a religious ecstasy … I experienced a sensation of … pride and joy of understanding, of letting myself be penetrated and invaded … these profound harmonies seemed to me like those stimulants that quicken the pulse of the imagination.
The ‘strangest piece’ to which Baudelaire refers is the Prelude to Lohengrin, but the supposedly narcotic effect of Wagner’s music has by no means so exhilarated all his listeners over the years. In an interview in Welsh National Opera’s programme, conductor Lothar Koenigs ‘insists that audiences should not simply allow themselves to be swept up into [Wagner’s] beguiling dreamworld’. Quite what the dangers therein might be beyond the inducement of intoxication itself is not made clear. But what is clear is that Lohengrin – albeit with passages of the most magnificently sumptuous music – is more reliant than many operas upon the suspension of disbelief (as all must ultimately be, if only through the inherent implausibility of theatre which is sung).
Indeed, the very crux of Lohengrin is the idea that belief – here entailing the leap of faith, as it were, in the stranger from afar – can offer possibilities of growth, renewal and redemption, and that tragedy ensues when that leap is not taken. On the one hand, Telramund is defeated by his lack of faith whilst, on the other, Elsa is brought down by a loss of faith; both falling prey to the interference of malign forces in the form of Ortrud rather than trusting in the purity of Lohengrin, who appears as potential saviour not just of Elsa, but of Brabant itself. Themes of innocence sullied by doubt and betrayal, the need to trust in deeds rather than words and the fatal arrogance of blind certainty as opposed to instinctive understanding; all feature in a plot which, nonetheless, relies somewhat too heavily on cut-and-dried notions of good and evil. Boorish Christianity is mixed awkwardly with Teutonic myth, fairy-tale romance is confused with grand historical drama, and all revolves around the perplexing fantasy of the Frageverbot or ‘forbidden question’.
Director Antony McDonald succeeds, however, in allowing what John Deathridge has described as the ‘[strange] medieval dualisms and theological mysteries’ of the opera to speak for themselves in a straightforward naturalistic setting and the result is an altogether convincing, and darkly moving, new production for WNO – with the exception of the faintly homoerotic swan entrance, which teeters on that treacherously fine line between innocence and kitsch – until, perhaps, when viewed in a rather different, retrospective light from the opera’s conclusion as we will see. That aside, McDonald’s decision to transport the action from the Middle Ages to Wagner’s own time broadly anchors the piece within the nationalist struggles that Wagner himself was passionately involved with in late-1840s Dresden, as well as emphasizing the sheer humanity of the characters’ various dilemmas. Placing the action within a bunker-come-council chamber makes the most of the chorus (here, on utterly splendid form) as witness to proceedings with the suggestion of burgeoning democracy – as well as, to my eyes, hints of chapel about the demeanour of the women in particular, which point to the opera’s claustrophobic social and religious codes, with ruthless punishment for transgressors. Within such a framework, Elsa’s romance with the outsider Lohengrin seems bound to fail – but, in any case, the disastrousness of their marriage certainly renders the universal popularity at weddings of the famous Bridal Chorus ironic.
On the podium, Koenigs proved a sure and steady navigator and was rewarded with some superb playing from the orchestra, who were by turns rousingly dramatic and subtly translucent, if not – albeit, perhaps, appropriately enough – transportative to realms of Baudelairean rapture. Nevertheless, they made a fine, intricate job of Wagner’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ (Carolyn Abbate); that is, his rendering of the supernatural into music through washes of apparently impossibly sustained, but actually overlapped, notes in wind and brass with divisi strings. The antiphonal brass fanfares from around the auditorium were notably impressive, but, musically and dramatically, the highlight was Act II, in which the outstanding Susan Bickley dominated the stage as an imperiously evil Ortrud.
The vocal problems suffered by some members of the cast proved the main challenge for the production but – at least for me – these were surmounted without detraction from the performance. Peter Webb began to strain at the furthest reaches of his Heldentenor role by Act III, but his depiction of an ecclesiastical rather than ethereal Lohengrin was stirringly – and tenderly – cogent nonetheless, whilst Simon Best as King Heinrich was heroic indeed in struggling on with a throat infection. Perversely, the occasional gruff patch to which he succumbed only seemed to enhance the sense of a kingdom on the brink. Claudio Ortelli performed with real passionate engagement at extremely short notice as Telramund, making for an excellent co-dupe to the central character – who, dramatically speaking, is Elsa rather than Lohengrin; for it is she whose actions and decisions drive the narrative and set the tragedy in motion. Emma Bell sang wonderfully throughout and made a dignified, rounded character of a potentially insipid victim, whose inherent naïvity can further hamper any sense of psychological credibility.
Lohengrin itself can be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, to hover in a kind of netherworld in Wagner’s oeuvre between number opera and fully-fledged, through-composed music-drama, and the years he spent in political exile after its composition were to prove transformative. Wagner later expressed embarrassment at the work to the literary scholar Adolf Stahr, writing, ‘If I could have everything my way, Lohengrin … would be long forgotten in favour of new works that prove, even to me, that I have made progress.’ However, the fact that he was happy for it to continue being produced – and that it was the first of his works never to be extensively revised – perhaps belies this claim, and many of the cornerstones of his mature artistic preoccupations are present in some form. Interestingly, it is the only work of his not to offer a final redemption – and McDonald’s production goes even further by closing on a strangely ominous note; when the murdered Gottfried is restored by Lohengrin before the Knight returns to his place with the Grail, the set darkens, Elsa falls lifeless and the inhabitants of Brabant cower in terror before their new, supposed ‘protector’, whose sword casts a threatening ‘spell’ over them. What McDonald is implying seems deliberately ambiguous, but redolent enough of demonic leadership to be powerfully suggestive in terms of German future history, as well as seeming to cry out for the sequel which, in terms of Wagner’s own oeuvre, may, in a sense, have eventually been provided by the Ring, and indeed, Parsifal – of which the hero is, of course, Lohengrin’s father.
Banner photograph – Gottfried (Thomas Rowlands), Lohengrin (Peter Wedd) Photo by: David Massey