|Klaus Florian Vogt and Thomas J Mayer, copyright Tristram Kenton, Royal Opera House|
Brabant is in turmoil, but only part of a wider struggle of cosmic proportions. Heinrich der Vogler might have been a real person but Lohengrin is opera, not history. For Wagner, Lohengrin isn't "just" a war story but the continuation (in advance, given that Lohengrin came before Parsifal) of a struggle between pseudo-Christianity and demonic forces. If Lohengrin descends (somehow) from Parsifal, then Ortrud and Telramund connect to Klingsor and Kundry, their sexes reversed. Hence the paranoia that underlies this opera and its strange, mystical resolution. And in times of extremist hysteria, the individual is suppressed. Elsa needs a super-hero, but when she gets one, he turns out not to be quite the man of her dreams. The people of Brabant are conformists, easily swayed. Not so different from the modern world. So it's nonsense to call David Alden's production "updating" or even semi-Third Reich. Grandiose manias, grandiose buildings and monotone masses have gone together since the dawn of history.
Thus the Prelude, conducted by Andris Nelsons with sublime purity, so the sounds seemed to shimmer with ethereal light. If Nelsons can do richness, he's even better at creating subtle atmosphere. Gradually, the mists give way to light, and the drama can begin. The King listens to Telramund's accusations and Elsa's strangely inert defence. But lo ! Alden's staging (sets Paul Steinberg, video Tal Rosner, lighting Adam Silverman) creates the entry of the Saviour (for that is what Lohengrin is). Huge, dark ripples projected over the stage suggested the movement of waves, concentric circles stretching outward, with flashes showing the wings of a large flying bird. In this opera, it is not the swan boat per se that counts, but the imagery of water, and the theological connotations thereof. Again, think Parsifal. The pettiness and intrigure of Court wiped clean away by the appearnce of the champion.
Significantly, Lohengrin is first seen with his back to the audience, his voice projecting to the back of the stage, intensifying the sense of mystery. This is an interpretive insight, for Lohengrin isn't here "for" Elsa but for an unknown higher purpose. Veiling Klaus Florian Vogt's magnificent voice in this way also serves to stress the character's innate humility. Unlike kings and intriguers, Lohengrin is above petty power games. When Vogt turned round, his voice grew with the strength that comes from absolute confidence. "Ein Wunder ! Ein Wunder!" indeed. Vogt has done Lohengrin so many times over the last 20 years (including with Nelsons) that his voice should be familiar to all, but yet again, I was astonished by its flexibility and beauty. Almost superhuman purity, so natural and unforced that it seems to come from within., not merely from technique. This is true artistry. Vogt is a Lohengrin for the ages: How blessed we are to hear him.
Lohengrin spares Telramund, who confronts Ortrud, who set him up in the first place. The relationship between Ortrud and Telramund suggests the relationship between Klingsor and Kundry, this time the dominant partner female rather than male (though Klingsor isn't male any more). Ortrud is the last of the ancient house of Radbod, Telramund drawn to her by his greed for power, though he blames her when he fails. They are important characters, not quite as secondary as they might seem, so deserve the attention they are given in this production. Thomas J Mayer is a good Telramund, and Christine Goerke is a magnificent Elektra amongst many others: particularly good in roles where the character is strong and proactive, if misunderstood. Ortrud is forced by fate into dangerous measures. We're not supposed to like Ortrud but Goerke develops the part so we can sense the woman behind the monster, sensuality behind piercing steel, her voice her sword. Elsa always takes centre stage, but Ortrud is a far more complex personality, and needs singers like Goerke who can express the depths in the otherwise thankless part. To some extent, sexuality is involved, as so often in Wagner. Telramund had wanted to marry Elsa, but married Ortrud instead, and sex is very much part of their alliance. But more pointedly, why does Lohengrin, a pure knight, want to marry ? The big bed, the wedding songs etc hint at the procreative purpose of marriage. Maybe it's convenient that Elsa asks the forbidden question and needs to know who he really is. Like his father, Lohengrin doesn't follow through but returns to his higher mission. Gottfried, the true heir of Brabant, will arise again at the end of the opera, resurrected from the non-dead without much explanation.
The entry into the bridal chamber was introduced with such vitality by Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra that the staging, for once, did intrude. With music as gloriously performed as this, there was no need to distract by having actors run in between the seats. In the orchestra stalls, where we were seated, it was annoying and would probably have been missed by anyone further above. Jennifer Davis sang Elsa at short notice in place of Christina Opolais (who's getting divorced from Nelsons). In the Second Act, she showed her mettle, singing with more volume and colour than she had in the First Act. While she doesn't have the depth of, say, Annette Dasch or Anna Netrebko, two fairly recent Elsas with robust personalities, she's still young and will develop over time. In this Third Act, in the bridal gown, Davis's good looks expressed the part impressively. Vogt looked genuinely protective, the luminosity of his singing taking on warmth andmasculine tenderness. As Elsa became more petulant, Lohengrin became more alarmed, and in Vogt, we could hear heartfelt regret. Telramund breaks in - symbolically breaking the hymen in this staging - Lohengrin impaling him on his sword, handed to him by his bride. (Lest anyone query the imagery, it's in the plot).
Significantly, Wagner immediately moves the action back to the armies assembled on the banks of the Scheldt, the conflict between East and West taking precedence over personal tragedy. Earlier above I described the phenomenal impact of the musical introduction to this scene. Nelsons led the orchestra with such intensity that the musical logic carried all before it. Whatever questions may be embedded in the plot, "Wir geben Fried und Folge dem Gebot!", just as Wagner intended. Intensity of a different, otherworldly kind, when Lohengrin explains what is about to happen. Vogt has sung "Im fernen Land" many times, and, if anything, his delivery glows with maturity. We forget that it's a "hard sing" testing range and heft, but Vogt illuminated it as if transfigured., yet still tinged with human suffering. The conjuction of Lohengrin, Parsifal and Christ may be theologically way off beam, but in Wagnerian terms, it's perfectly apt. The King in this opera isn't a fighter, but a judge, almost a Pilate figure, hence the excellent characterization by Georg Zeppenfeld, delivering with real authority. No glitz and gold, but a man of depth. Notice, neither Wagner's Heinrich nor Lohengrin are men of impulsive violence. Toward the end, Vogt walked quietly to the back of the stage. Gottfried appeared, and Nelsons ended the performance with a magnificent final coda.
Cast and conductor made this a memorable experience, but the production itself will be worth reviving because it’ss well thought through and true to meaning. Infinitely more conducive to inspired performance that the old production where the singers were trapped in dalek suits.