Royal Opera House Review 2021-22: Lohengrin
Brandon Jovanovich & Jennifer Davis Shine Amidst David Aldens’ Dark & Searching Vision of Wagner’s PoliticsBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Clive Barda)
David Alden’s 2018 production of “Lohengrin,” Wagner’s hokey fable of love, fidelity, and politics, is receiving its first revival from Peter Relton at the Royal Opera House. Alden’s setting is generic postwar Europe, all bombed out windows and bare brick, with buildings at precariously jaunty angles (sets by Paul Steinberg). In the ruins of this world Konig Heinrich struggles to manifest his authority – a weak man in desperate straits – as Telramund and Lohengrin maneuver for control.
Heinrich’s soldiers treat the people of Brabant with the roughness of an occupying force, ad the air of permanent crisis is used by the Herald – his own braced body racked by war – to rile up warlike feeling. Into these ruins, Lohengrin appears as savior, adopting a chillingly Downfall-style coat in Act two, but otherwise dressed in an immaculate white suit.
Alden’s production has no swan and and no boat – instead Lohengrin’s appearance is ushered in by lights and projections (by Tal Rosner) as if descending from above – they very same direction from which the shells and bombs that destroyed the setting did too. He and Telramund tussle in Act two for control of a podium, from which they deliver rather dictatorial perorations to try and win the people over.
Ortrud’s magic takes the form of sex and espionage – her Act two plotting takes place in a Stasi-like basement where she sits at an office desk consulting her files, like a top spy. Of course, even if Ortrud is just a great howling baddie and witch, she is right all along – Lohengrin really was going to swan off, so to speak, after a year, and the production does a good job of complicating the morality and politics of Wagner’s imaginary world.
The ban on the question, in this production, points up the links between the personal and the political in the opera, and the dangers entailed when a desperate people elevate a mythical strong man to defend from aggressors – real and imagined – without doing their due diligence. The power imbalance of their relationship figures for the Faustian pact desperate leaders make with their people when the chips are down. We see the consequences of this as the production moves forward: the red-and-black swan flag – a Swanstika, if you will – flutters over ranks of troops with Wehrmacht-esque helmets. The opera can be a warning about the very same fairytale mythic-nationalist symbolism that inspired it, signaled in the scene before by a huge reproduction of the Swan-Knight mural from King Ludwig II’s – Wagner’s famously nutty patron – above the marital bed. Sexual union and political redemption are of a piece here.
The very final tableau, with its ranks of soldiers, quasi-Fascist scenography straight out of Riefenstahl, and billowing vapors had enormous impact. It may not be subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good, and Alden’s production makes a beeline for the work’s political ambiguities. The closing image sees young Gottfried come blinking into the confusion from beneath the stage, and unsteadily wield the sword given to him by Lohengrin via Heinrich. What shape will this society’s future take? Will the new king become another militarist demagogue, or will his use of force be more circumspect?
Not everything adds up. The male dancers – movement by Maxine Braham – in working men’s jackets and caps, who set up the field of battle and act as Telramund’s goons, have an oddly cartoonish feel that jars with the gloomy aesthetic. The way Telramund bursts through the white wall in the final Act before being killed by Lohengrin also feels tonally odd. Alden’s characteristic chairs (and chair-throwing) are much in evidence.
Abhorrence of Violence
Brandon Jovanovich follows in the footsteps of the highly idiosyncratic Klaus Florain Vogt, who sang the title role in this production in 2018. Balancing the character’s tenderness – here underscored by a characterization from Alden that suggests some kind of mystical abhorrence of violence – against strength is not something Wagner makes easy for tenors, but Jovanovich offered a fine account in this regard.
There was a stentorian heft, with some baritonal tint, when needed, not least when Alden dials up the rabble-rousing aspect towards the end of Act two. The love duet with Elsa in Act three saw beautifully spun lines with enough velvet to sustain the burgeoning romance (before it all goes south at least). An exquisite “Taub” in the penultimate scene capped off a radiant “In Fernem Land.” The only sticking point came in the treacherous tessitura of “Nun sei bedankt” of Act one, where Jovanovich’s head voice was stilted and oddly plummy.
Jennifer Davis makes a triumphant return as Elsa, following her debut in the role in 2018. Since then her voice has grown in stature and intensity, and displayed a perfectly calibrated balance of lyric control, richness, and power in this latest performance. Wagner’s long lines – which need the care of Bellini or Donizetti – were spun out effortlessly, not least in the draining exchanges with Lohengrin in Act three. Her entrance in Act one, beginning with a cry of plaintive pity, showcased remarkable radiance, with growing ardor, as she called out for her savior.
Anna Smirnova makes a fearsome counterpart in Ortrud – though Davis more than held her own when it came to sheer power – and offered an absolutely volcanic performance in Act two, with special vocal power held in reserve for the great invocation of the Norse gods. For a voice of this size and force there was remarkable control, with exacting intonation and a precision blend of velvet and steel.
Craig Colclough’s Telramund was in equally fine (if marginally less colorful) voice, managing to resist the propensity for shouting baritones bend towards in the role, and navigating the nosebleed tessitura with verve. That there were some signs of tiredness towards the end of Act two is understandable. Heinrich der Vogler was sung with wounded, desperate zeal by Gábor Bretz; the Herald with brooding, uneasy intensity – scarred and traumatized by endless conflict, one imagines – by Derek Welton.
In a production that explores the nature of political community, it was apt that the opera’s substantial chorus sequences were delivered with fire and focus (The only moment that didn’t quite land was the anticipatory chorus of Act one where the Swan appears, where the complex ensemble was stymied by flashing lights and sudden blackouts). The roof-raising chorus of the end of Act one was relentlessly forward-moving, and sung with a ruthless force matching Telramund’s humiliation as he is tied to a chair and smeared with paint.
Nothing is more exciting, however, than quiet singing, and those were the most hair-raising moments – as Elsa emerged from beneath the stage in Act one the ROH chorus treated us to whisper-soft interjections and radiant, feathery wonderment at Elsa’s purity. There was impressive control, too, in the Act two finale, as the chorus moved slowly downstage, volume and weight increasing with absolutely sublime inevitability. Movement in the substantial set-pieces was cannily coordinated, and gave the various crowds a textured and naturalistic feel, though some of the choreographed gestures felt a little wooden.
This is apparently the first time Jakub Hrůša has conducted a Wagner opera. If so, he is something of a natural. In contrast with Andris Nelsons’ silky account from 2018, Hrůša is more gestural and sculpts phrases with great vivacity on a smaller scale, particularly in the opening prelude. Otherwise it is high drama throughout, with especially declamatory interventions from horns and brass, with the former in especially fine form. The accompaniment to Ortrud’s show-stealing Act two sequence matched Smirnova for wildness and spectacle, especially in her great invocation of the Norse gods. The snaking woodwind lines of Wagner’s orchestration were wonderfully characterful too.
Wagner was yet to find the propulsive continuous transitions that makes his later music so compelling, and even though “Lohengrin” is on the shorter side, hangovers from the French Grand opera can cause it to sag in performance. Thankfully Hrůša drove the orchestra ferociously to keep the thing moving. At two points in “In fernem Land” he also ushered feather-soft pianissimi from the strings – a dazzling moment of theatrical and orchestral intimacy.
Oddly, the production team didn’t take a curtain call at the end – I’m sure they would have received a well-deserved cheer for this imaginative realization.