What’s in a Name?

Lohengrin, by Ferdinand Leeke

What’s in a Name?

Lohengrin, Romantic opera in three acts, music and libretto by Richard Wagner, directed by David Alden, orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Andris Nelsons, Royal Opera, Thursday 7th June 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

In expressionism, the presentation of the world is distorted for emotional effect. The buildings of the tiered sets that depict Brabant, in director David Alden’s new production of Lohengrin, accordingly, are lopsided, even vertiginous, reminiscent of a recent staging of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. The military costumes of the crowd, generally grey and drab, evoke the turbulent Europe of the post 1918 era. But also the Third Reich of the 1940’s, for in Act 1, an earlier German führer, Heinrich der Vogler (Georg Zeppenfeld), is recruiting troops to resist an invasion from the east. The Nazi/fascist sub-text is unmissable. As critic Richard Morrison noted in The Sunday Times, Mussolini once staged Lohengrin with 10,000 singers on a 300 foot wide stage.

Alden is master of the subliminal image. At one point, the falsely accused Elsa von Brabant (Jennifer Davis) appears blindfolded, as in Paul Delaroche’s iconic picture of the execution of Lady Jane Grey.

Wagnerian opera, unlike belle canto with its standout arias etc, is driven partly by ideas. The pre-eminent concept in Lohengrin, bringing to mind Greek tragedy, is that God/fate ultimately decides everything, as in the trial by combat between Telramund and the Swan Knight. There are echoes here of Richard the Second (Act 1) and of King Lear (Act 3). Might, then, is right. Note also that Telramund (Thomas J Mayer) bears something akin to the mark of Cain.

Elsa von Brabant and Lohengrin (Klaus Florian Vogt), both dressed in white, make a decidedly handsome couple. Several reviewers have compared Vogt to a “pop star”. “The splendour of this man is overwhelming”, Elsa remarks. Or as boxer “Jake” LaMotta, played by Robert de Niro, says of a forthcoming opponent in Raging Bull, “I don’t know whether to f*** him or fight him”. For this reviewer, however, Vogt’s voice lacked power, or was mezza voce, according to one commentator.

“Mein Gott, this audience is so undisciplined”. My erudite Austrian companion had a point. Second acts in Wagner (notably Parsifal) can be wearying. The German submariners who sank the Lusitania reportedly received medals. So too, perhaps, should veterans of Wagner’s operas.

Lohengrin pivots on a titanic struggle between two powerful women, Elsa and Ortrud, representing good and evil. Ortrud, played by Christine Goerke, arguably delivered the night’s standout performance. In how many operas are two women to be seen on the stage for so long?

Immense credit to the chorus, for its outstanding singing. And conductor Andris Nelsons, likewise, did more than justice to Wagner’s magnificent score. One minor quibble. The arrival of Lohengrin in a boat, drawn by a swan, was done by lighting and was unconvincing. But in every other respect, this was a memorable evening.

Elsa von Brabant, by Ferdinand Leeke

Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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