Tuesday 28 April 2009

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 27 April 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Edith Haller
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Telramund – Gerd Grochowski
King Henry the Fowler – Kwangchul Youn
Herald – Boaz Daniel
First Noble – Haoyin Xue
Second Noble – Ji-Min Park
Third Noble – Kostas Smoriginas
Fourth Noble – Vuyani Mlinde
Pages – Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Amanda Floyd, Kate McCarney

Elijah Moshinsky (director)
Andrew Sinclair (associate director)
John Napier (designs)
William Hobbs (fight director)
Oliver Fenwick (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The good news is that, musically, this proved a strong Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov, who has recently recorded the work – a rarity indeed in these straitened times – elicited some of the best playing I have heard from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Perhaps most remarkable were the sweet-toned strings, their presence immediately signalled in a luminescent first-act Prelude; so sweet, indeed, did they sound that one could have believed oneself in Vienna. Each section, however, provided aural delight, the woodwind delectable and the brass warm-toned, never brash. Bychkov’s shaping of the work’s three acts was very fine; there was certainly none of the stopping and starting that have so disfigured a number of recent Wagner performances at Covent Garden. My only real criticism was a very small number of occasions, most notably at the end of the first act, when the tone was lightened in conjunction with a greater metrical rigidity. Claudio Abbado showed a good number of years ago that one can present a somewhat Italianate Lohengrin without cheapening Wagner in a Verdian direction. These were minor blemishes, however, upon a generally excellent account.

Johan Botha was a successful Lohengrin, at least in vocal terms. Apart from a few instances when he seemed to be tiring, during the second act, his tone was well projected and his line well moulded. It is only really by comparison with Klaus Florian Vogt’s truly stellar performance in Berlin earlier this month that one might register any vocal disappointment. The other reservation one might entertain is his stage presence. Far be it from me to suggest that one should prefer singers on accounts of their looks, or even their figure, but in physical stature, Botha is something of a throwback – and a half? – to an earlier age, with acting skills to match. A charismatic hero he is not. Edith Haller displayed considerable virtues – as well as slightly but fatally flawed virtue – as Elsa. Her occasional veering towards a slightly more Italianate form of expression might conceivably have bothered some but her attention to melodic concerns was far from out of place here. Haller has a beautiful voice but is clearly also an intelligent singer. Petra Lang proved an estimable Ortrud. If she could not banish memories of Waltraud Meier in this production six years ago, that would have been to ask the impossible. Lang may not quite possess Meier’s extraordinary stage presence but she performed her role very well, with commendable attention both to detail and to the longer line. If Ortrud did not make as strong an impression as she might have done until later on, that was largely a matter of being hamstrung by so inert a production. Gerd Grochowski was due to assume the role of Telramund later on in the run but Falk Struckmann’s tracheitis ensured an earlier Royal Opera debut for Grochowski. It was a pity not to be able to hear Struckmann who, time and again, has shown himself to be a fine Wagnerian (although only once at Covent Garden, as Amfortas). Grochowski confirmed the impression I had in the Berlin performance previously mentioned: he sings musically but can sometimes be a little overpowered by the orchestra. A certain degree of weakness might be considered in character but Friedrich needs at some level also to be a credible alternative leader. Kwangchul Youn had also appeared in Berlin, as King Henry. His performance here was more mixed; indeed, his surprising insecurity in the later stages of the first act made me wonder whether he was ill, although no announcement was made. Choral singing was of a predictably high standard, if without quite the edge of Eberhard Friedrich’s State Opera Chorus for the Unter den Linden house.

So, mostly good news concerning the musical performance. There remains to be considered, I am afraid, Elijah Moshinsky’s production. It is not only in the light of Stefan Herheim’s magnificent achievement in Berlin that Moshinsky’s effort pales; I had sought in vain to discern any dramatic insight when the production was last mounted in 2003. ‘Traditionalists’ might, I suppose, like this lifeless pageant, in which absurd Christian and pagan totems are wheeled on and off, a risible combat scene makes one wonder about – but finally decide against – comedy having being intended, and the direction of the chorus is more or less limited to walking on and off and having each member cross himself. (With respect to the chorus, Herheim’s virtuosity had been almost incredible.) However, even the notoriously unadventurous Covent Garden audience was distinctly lukewarm in its appreciation of the director when he appeared on stage. Most productions, I admit, would look tired, were they revived after more than thirty years, but I cannot imagine that this had anything to offer even in 1977.

The ‘idea’ is clear enough, that of a clash between paganism and Christianity. This is undeniably present in the text but in itself does not get anywhere near to the heart of Wagner’s dramatic concerns. It is rather as if someone were to claim that Tosca is ‘about’ the French Revolutionary Wars. One might, of course, make something rather interesting out of a clash of belief systems, especially given the undeniably nationalistic aspects of Lohengrin – more prominent than in any other of Wagner’s dramas – but there does not seem to have been made even the slightest attempt to address any issues with contemporary resonance, or indeed to explore any issues at all. I do not mean to imply that the work must be updated, or even pulled unduly in our direction; however, remnants of paganism in tenth-century Germany are not in and of themselves, I suspect, of particular interest to many audiences today. Nor were they to Wagner. Lohengrin is not an historical drama; it is a myth with aspects of historical drama attached, somewhat uncomfortably so. This Lohengrin, by contrast, appeared almost as if it were a parody of Meyerbeer. If only it had been, it might just have been a little more interesting. Let us hope that, the next time Wagner’s Romantic opera returns to the Royal Opera House, it is in a new production. The wildest excesses of Regietheater, even Calixto Bieito at his most puerile, would be preferable to this. A somewhat odd hint of the latter – not really, I know – came at the end with the return of Gottfried and a prolonged, distinctly sexual embrace between him and Elsa. I really did not know what to make of that at all, despite the references in the programme to Freud and taboo; it seemed to come from nowhere, whereas one could have predicted it only too readily with Bieito and his ilk. The totems must also, I assume, have pointed to Freudian influence, but I did not feel this reflected or explored in the action; again, I can only wish that I had.

One final matter: many of the programme essays were of a very high standard. John Deathridge and James Treadwell are always very much worth reading on Wagner. Likewise Patrick Carnegy on production history, although I thought him perhaps a little too diplomatic in his reference to Moshinsky. But if Wagner himself is to be given space – and it seems to me an excellent idea that this should be so – can it please be in a new translation? To present him even in an adaptation from William Ashton Ellis will make the composer, especially to those less versed in his prose works, seem like a raving lunatic. Ellis is often surprisingly accurate but his style is so bizarre that it is best restricted to those who know the German already.