Royal Opera House 2017-2018 Review – Lohengrin: Christine Goerke Shines Among Solid Cast As Half-Awoken Myths Stay in the (Wartime) Trenches of Reality

Credit: Clive Barda

Its preludes are themselves landmarks of beauty – but Wagner’s 1850 opera “Lohengrin” is a prelude to his future epics. Rooted in Arthurian legend, taking the son of King Parsifal as its hero, and featuring prayers to the pagan gods Wotan and Freia, it is another battle between the divine and the mortal.

In mythical medieval Brabant, Count Friedrich von Telramund plots to rule over the land with his wife Ortrud. Together they falsely accuse young Elsa of the murder of her brother Gottfried, Duke of Brabant – alleging that she did this to become the leader of the territory herself. Unexpectedly their zealous campaign clashes with an ambush: a swan draws a mysterious knight into the town by boat. Defeating Telramund in battle, he marries Elsa but he won’t reveal his name. Little does his enamored wife know that her savior is a semi-deity – his home being the Holy Grail.

An Major Misreading

The translation of this atmosphere into a setting for a feasible production is for any stage director a precarious feat. But in this particular incarnation at the Royal Opera House, director David Alden abandons a mythical whirlwind in favor of, according to the programme notes, “the turbulence of 20th-century history.” As we watch the production unfold into two halves of a bizarrely tilted castle bearing soldiers in bulky helmets, crowds in cobalt blue, mud-brown and pond-green clothes that evidently stem from 1930s catalogues, and most of all red flags depicting Lohengrin’s swan with wings spread-out in a clear reference to the Nazi eagle symbol, it’s readily apparent that the backdrop is another paradigm of the Third Reich – even if the swastika is wisely not employed.

Outside the obvious conceptual theme, the other visual elements appear lazily crafted or unjustifiable: why is the Herald’s leg in braces and his arm hung on a sling? Why is King Heinrich der Vogler’s crown seemingly made of gold party-tinsel?  Prior to his duel, why does Telramund remove his clothes to reveal attire that strongly resembles a pair of pajamas?

At the opera’s climax, it is manifest that both Ortrud and Telramund have been defeated: their dominion over Brabant is no more and they are left to wallow in their impotence. We discover that Ortrud herself killed Elsa’s brother Gottfried – though he wasn’t really dead; merely, transformed into a swan. Lohengrin returns the creature to his former human state and Gottfried is again the Duke of Brabant.

Yet while the visual motif of the swan has been in Ortrud’s deadly hands, primarily the water bird is Lohengrin’s symbol: the story is plucked from the medieval tales of the Knight of the Swan. Wagner compared his protagonist’s use of the swan to the Greek myth of Zeus’s seduction of Semele, in which the god enticed his amatory bait by coming to her in a human form. For, if a mortal could espy a god in his true semblance, he or she was bound to perish. It was law. Just as it is the Holy Grail’s law that the knights do not reveal themselves to mortals. Lohengrin’s love of Elsa is a lapse of judgment; hers – a fatal error.

Although Ortrud and Telramund are tyrants in this land, contrary to Alden’s mostly colorless, grim staging of the piece, not much in the libretto is suggestive of the concept that the people of Brabant (except for Elsa) feel oppressed. The battle for power is traditional fiefdom in-fighting; closer in its politics to Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” than to Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” Neither Ortrud nor Telramund is any kind of Führer. To imply they are – especially by maladroitly using Lohengrin’s symbol of the swan – is to label all fictional enemies “Nazis.”

The analogy devolves into a trivialization of both the Second World War and of “Lohengrin,”  striving to reduce obstinate Ortrud – the Brünnhilde of this work – into some cartoon-strip Hitler caricature.

When one remembers likewise that of all composers it is this one who’s accused of almost being a Nazi propagandist on account of his own anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century, a whole new shade is thrown on how much this director’s choice is ill-informed.

Solid Leads

In the role of the titular character is Klaus Florian Vogt: a tenor with a high-pitched and ethereal instrument. The natural timbre is an ideal sound for such a role. Unfortunately, Vogt’s attempts at tenderizing Lohengrin’s persona sometimes do disservices to his top register – chafing at the credibility of notes by making them unstable; occasionally souring them to the extent that they emerge off-key. Whilst both his aesthetic and physical approaches are suitably gentle and tentative, select lyrical phrases abruptly become outbursts of parlato – especially when he reveals his true self in “In fernem land” and finally declares “Mein Vater Parzival trägt seine Krone (“My father Parsifal is he who wears the crown”).”

As the lovelorn, nubile and nebulous Elsa, Jennifer Davis aptly moulds the silvery vibrato in her voice so that it shimmers alternately with anxiety, consuming rapture or compassion. Occasionally her choices for accentuation are typical – releasing crescendi on words such as “Gott” (“God”) and “Klagen” “(“Grief”) in a foreseeable way. But while there are some sneaky and unnecessary breaths, her throbbing vibrato plays well in her favor. As she attempts to persuade enemy Ortud in Act two that “Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu! (“There is a happiness without regret”),” we hear anticipation, wonderment, and daydreaming both through her penetrative instrument and the accomplished choices that she makes to paint its opulence.

The Star of the Night

It is the radiant harmony evoked by Davis and fellow soprano Christine Goerke in the second act that most effuses the despondency and longing of most Wagner characters. Over the course of a ten-minute duet, Ortrud persuades Elsa that she envies her happiness, pretending to spill out her soul. The music carries so much pathos – as does Goerke’s performance – that we’re persuaded there’s at least a little truth in what fierce Ortrud “spuriously” confesses.

With the kind of voice that takes no prisoners, Goerke knows very well how to apply her instrument to character and to abrupt changes in either mood or attitude. As well as overflowing with bloodlust, her Ortrud is one who seems almost ready to throw herself into the proverbial fire: power-hungry to the point of being masochistic. A dramatic soprano laced with a thick and pulsating vibrato, the character is at once victor and loser; vanquished and vanquisher. Goerke’s unexpected experimentation with timbre – thinning and thickening her voice according to various vocal lines, most prominently in Act two in her scene with Telramund – layer her black venom with a surreptitious, calculating cunning. It’s a psychological interpretation that extends beyond the customary blunt expressions and large movements.

Mired in Grief

Making his Royal Opera debut as Telramund, Thomas J. Mayer – perhaps under directorial influence – mires his interpretation in unending grief. Mayer’s is a slender timbre for a baritone; throaty and naturally ridged with a very apparent vibrato. Although it might be better suited to comedic roles, it is the singer’s unstable vocal control which at times chips away at the villain’s conviction. There are sudden drops in dynamics; certain phrases are not emphasized enough. The first time that Telramund accuses Elsa of fratricide (“des Brudermordes zeih ich sie”) – the revelation is performed with little more accentuation than the previous words. More variety throughout his musical enunciation would most likely serve him better.

Despite the relatively small size of the role, Kostas Smoriginas lends his bombastic voice to the declamatory Herald in a way that always emanates portentousness. With no change in stability across his registers, not one command seems weaker than its predecessor. If there is the equivalent to a Greek Chorus in this piece, he seems to step into those shoes.

Glaringly fearsome in his lowest notes, Georg Zeppenfeld pumps the near-unreachable register with a dismal solemnity in the role of King Heinrich der Vogler. A clean-cut approach to the rhythms and tempi ensure that his might does not ebb.

Tasteful & Simplistic

In a tasteful but simplistic reading of the score, conductor Andris Nelsons summons the orchestra to play with finely nuanced rhythms. For the most part entrances and exits are well-timed and no one lags behind the singers. But occasionally the instrumental sections appear blatantly unfinished. Not always together, there are moments when the strings fall out of place, cascading separately like pebbles being kicked down stone steps of a beach. While there are certainly attempts in which the strings attempt to soar just like the wings of the symbolic swan, the effervescence and the languor are half-captured. Brass are clumsy to the point that sometimes, in a disarray, they are reflective of a clan of messy car hoots during rush hour. It is respectable attempt but an incomplete reading.

Like most other elements in this production, the orchestra prefers to linger near the mundane and stay clear of the immortal realm which Wagner strived to vivify. With many technical defects – vocal and instrumental – and the visual bleakness that enshrouds the cast, these stubbornly undying myths are only half-awoken. It is easy to forget the opera is an allegory.

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About the Author

Sophia Lambton
Sophia Lambton became a professional classical music critic at the age of seventeen when she began to be published in "Musical Opinion", Britain’s oldest magazine centred on classical music. One-and-a-half years later she embarked on a long pathway of research for an opera-related non-fiction book. In 2015 she graduated from Oxford with a 2:1 in Classics and Modern Languages. Sophia is currently working on both her non-fiction work and the second volume of her third novel, "The Crooked Little Pieces".

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