Wagner’s music has the power to stir and inspire like no other. Even an early work like Lohengrin which has its share of flaws and immaturities can be overwhelming in the right hands and the Royal Opera’s current revival gets enough right to make for a hugely enjoyable evening.
The opera’s first act suffers from an excess of teutonic bombast – worrying exhortations to the German nation to defend itself from the eastern aggressor and an almost simplistic symbolising of good, represented by the new Christian philosophy, and evil by anything that came before.
There is guilty pleasure to be had from the brassy blasts and smashing of sword on shield as clunky mediaeval rituals are played out but this first act can feel like something to be got through before the real heart of the opera is reached. It’s worth the wait; the opening of act two is writing of much greater maturity, casting forward to Parsifal and some of the darker sections of The Ring.
The delving into the murky corners of the psyche, as Ortrud and Telramund plot against the light, make for thrilling theatre. From then on, it’s a magical weaving through both psychological gloom and lush romanticism for the remainder of the four hour work.
Elijah Moshinsky’s 1977 production creaks in all sorts of places. Even since the last revival six years ago, it’s acquired some wrinkles and a stiffening of the joints. The chorus aren’t always as alert dramatically as musically and there’s an awkwardness in the big scenes. For the first half hour or so, the entire stage is frustratingly shrouded behind a grey gauze and it’s only when this mist lifts, with Lohengrin’s arrival, that we see faces clearly. The symbolism is obvious but the effect is wearing.
The line-up of principals compensates for any weaknesses. New to the house, Edith Haller is a clear, pure soprano, with a girlish tone of great beauty and Johan Botha, not the most animated of tenors perhaps, equals her in brightness and lyricism as the holy knight Lohengrin.
This is a golden-voiced couple, faced on the black side of the chess board by formidable opponents. Representing the old, pagan order, Petra Lang is a vicious and sinuous Ortrud of tremendous power. Gerd Grochowski was to have played two performances during the run, in tandem with Falk Struckmann, but the latter’s illness on the first night propelled him to the fore. His dark baritone and strong stage presence make for a compelling Telramund. These two couples’ manoeuvrings around each other all evening give us a taste of Moshinsky’s direction at its best. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn is a fine King Heinrich.
Semyon Bychkov is a very experienced conductor of this score and he brings velvety smoothness and an Italianate tenderness to this most lyrical of Wagner’s operas, which builds in power and beauty throughout the evening.
While not eradicating the memory of Mark Elder’s conducting and Waltraud Meier’s performance as Ortrud six years ago, this is a very decent revival, although it probably is time that Moshinsky’s 32 year old production was finally laid to rest.