Monday, 11 June 2018

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 7 June 2018


Royal Opera House

Images: Clive Barda

King Henry the Fowler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa – Jennifer Davis
Friedrich von Telramund – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Ortrud – Christine Goerke
King’s Herald – Kostas Smoriginas
Brabantian Nobles – Konu Kim, Thomas Atkins, Gyula Nagy, Simon Shibambu
Pages – Katy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Dervla Ramsay, Louise Armit
Gottfried – Michael Curtis
                                        
David Alden (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Tal Rosner (video)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Elsa (Jennifer Davis) at her wedding

Since returning to London in January, I have been heartened by much of what I have seen – and indeed heard – from the Royal Opera. If Barrie Kosky’s Carmen proved something of a flop, there has been much to ponder and indeed to inspire from Krzysztof Warlikowski’s From the House of the Dead, superlatively conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, and most recently, George Benjamin’s new operatic masterpiece, Lessons in Love and Violence. David Alden is perhaps not the most obvious directorial choice for Wagner, though his ENO Tristan – the first I saw – certainly had its merits. He pretty much had the field to himself, though, given that Covent Garden’s previous staging was the lamentable fancy-dress pageant served up by Elijah Moshinsky, its final reheating coming as late as 2009. On the face of it, Alden’s move to the 1930s must have come to a shock to the more reactionary elements always present in a Wagner audience. That it does not seem to have done so suggests either a welcome opening of minds or something – at least, according to one reading, like Lohengrin – rather less substantial than one might have initially presumed.


I wish it had been the former but Alden’s production ultimately proved conventional, all too conventional: more a potential shell for something more interesting than a remotely finished – even ready – production in itself. Designs and some stage direction, notably that of the chorus, are suggestive, but where is the dramatic grit? To offer a Lohengrin come as redeemer to a society broken by war is of course to follow Wagner precisely; to shift the actual war to something closer to our modern concerns is no bad thing at all. He unifies a people in disarray through his charismatic authority, yet ultimately cannot fulfil his duty and rejects his people.

Lohengrin (Klaus Florian Vogt) and Telramund (Thomas Johannes Mayer)

Ortrud (Christine Goerke) and Telramund
Nazi parallels, or rather premonitions – like Marx, Wagner is often at his very strongest in pointing to where the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would go wrong – are obvious, yet none the worse for that. Even that level of critique will, after all, stand as a rebuke to those who follow that disingenuous old Nazi, Curt von Westernhagen, railing against the fresh theatrical wind of the 1970s: ‘Directors who deem themselves progressive when they transform the Ring back into a drama with a “message” have no idea how regressive this approach is in relation to the genesis of the work itself.’ Westernhagen’s scholarly methods are now as discredited as his ideology. Disciples remain, though, and few things get them so hot under the collar as Nazis on stage. Clue: they like it, really.


That said, simply to update is never enough. Indeed, it is to adopt the Westernhagen fraternity’s strange delusion that a production more or less is its designs (here, handsome indeed, for which great credit should be accorded to Paul Steinberg in particular). In many ways, when and where something is set, or is not, is the least interesting thing of all; at best, it is a starting-point. Save for that arresting, almost cinematic (Riefenstahl at a push) direction of crowd movement, its dramatic import obvious yet undeniably powerful, there is not much to get one’s teeth into. If the setting remains largely undeveloped, too much also seems awkwardly reminiscent of other productions. Had you never seen a German Lohengrin, you might remain, often literally, in the dark; Wagner and indeed many in his audiences surely deserve greater credit than that.

Henry the Fowler (Georg Zeppenfeld)

A King Henry whose hunched body language was a little too close to comfort to that of Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth production is one thing, but a falling of banners for war that aped the close of the second act of Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal is another again. If some point had been made about Wagner, the Nazis, and Bayreuth, it might have worked, I suppose; here, it seemed gratuitous and frankly derivative. What the point of describing the pages as ‘four women at the wedding’ may have been I do not know: if you like that sort of thing, then that will doubtless be the sort of thing you like. A sudden design apparition from Neuschwanstein seems merely a change of scene. Again, one can see why such an image might have a point in a fascist, even Nazi, setting, but it needs at some level to be made, not merely assumed. Dramatic motivation, then, largely eluded me. Such irritations pointed to a greater problem: a conceptual weakness at the heart. I suspect it can be remedied: if a shell, it is a fine shell. It will not, however, remedy itself.



Perhaps the same once had been true of Moshinsky. At any rate, this evening shared something else important with that final outing of 2009: musical excellence. Andris Nelsons, who conducted Neuenfels’s production at Bayreuth, was not at his strongest here, especially in the first act. Indeed, there both Nelsons and Alden seemed intent, consciously or otherwise, to underline what can often seem to be its rather static nature rather than to enliven the drama. However, Nelsons drew increasingly lovely playing from the orchestra, lower strings and woodwind in particular, and made often quite extreme second-act rubato – not to be confused with tempo variation – work, rather than seem merely mannered. His command of the architecture in the second and third acts impressed. Still more so did the outstanding singing from the chorus and extra chorus. William Spaulding’s work here is clearly reaping rewards, just as it did at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.


Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is a known quantity: known also, of course, to Nelsons from Bayreuth. I am less enthusiastic than once I was: the purity is less consistently apparent, the blandness more so. (Or maybe I am just tired of it.) However, it remains impressive on its own terms; one’s response to his singing will perhaps be more than usually personal. Replacing the originally advertised Kristine Opolais, Jennifer Davis impressed greatly as Elsa. This was by any standards a high-profile debut. Vocal and dramatic sincerity were matched by a security one had little right to expect. Thomas Johannes Mayer, also of recent Bayreuth fame, more than hinted at a properly complex Telramund, even if his artistry received little help from the staging. Christine Goerke’s Ortrud climaxed in properly blood curdling cries at the close, although again I had the impression a deeper production would have brought out something – well, deeper. Georg Zeppenfeld did what he could with the Neuenfels King-redux; that again was impressive indeed. Only Kostas Smoriginas, as his Herald, disappointed: often uncertain of verbal and musical line alike.
 
Ortrud waiting

The audience, part of one’s experience whether we like it or not – unless one happens to be Ludwig II, and even then… – proved something of a trial. Someone’s telephone vibrated throughout the first minute or so of the first-act Prelude, the culprit eventually shouting ‘Yes! I’m going to turn it off’. A friend heard someone else announce upon Lohengrin’s arrival: ‘I prefer it when he wears golden armour.’ Coughing, electronic terrorism, and inanity aside, they seemed to like the production: rarely a good sign. Given what they will boo… Still, there is, I am sure, room for something more to take shape within its framework; perhaps they will do so then. Moreover, there is, I assure you, a genuinely exciting prospect for the new Lohengrin at Bayreuth this year. At least on this occasion, my lips must remain better sealed than Elsa’s. The world, however, is likely to see a worthy successor to Neuenfels from Yuval Sharon, in a production that penetrates more deeply to the work’s essence and grapples with its implications.



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