24 May 2013
On the day after the composer’s 200th birthday, Welsh National Opera makes a major contribution to the anniversary in the shape of Antony McDonald’s self-designed new production of one of Wagner’s most popular pieces.
McDonald’s costumes reference the time of the opera’s premiere (1850), while his multi-level sets place the action in a construction rather like a dilapidated Victorian lecture theatre. What impresses most is the coherence of the action in terms of both interacting individuals and the highly involved chorus; the show is clear in narrative as well as in its use of symbolism - the swan that finally transforms into Elsa’s lost brother is beautifully realised.
Musically, the evening is a feast for Wagner fans. Both orchestra and chorus are on exceptional form, while WNO music director Lothar Koenigs sustains momentum while maintaining the finest quality tone.
Emma Bell is on her mettle as Elsa, a role that proves ideal for her voice and personality. Peter Wedd never falters in his vocally dynamic, visually other worldly Lohengrin. Ortrud takes versatile mezzo Susan Bickley right up to her limits, though she remains authoritative. Claudio Otelli’s Telramund conveys the coward relying on his stronger wife’s determination to keep him going. Suffering from a throat infection, Matthew Best nevertheless struggles manfully onwards as King Henry.
Yet it’s not just the excellence of individual performances that makes the evening unforgettable but the way in which they coalesce into a superbly integrated piece of music drama. The result is certainly one of the operatic highlights of the year.
Review by George Hall for The Stage
Lohengrin is the most mistily romantic of Wagner’s mature operas but you would never have guessed it from the way that Antony McDonald has directed and designed it for this new Welsh National Opera production.
A tale the composer imagined unfolding in Brabant during the Dark Ages has time-travelled into a milieu visually redolent of Bismarckian Germany, in which chivalric honour, blood feuds, pagan gods and nameless knights on miraculous boats drawn by swans make no dramatic or historical sense whatsoever.
But I can almost forgive McDonald his groundless flight of fancy because he has stage-managed the action cannily, kept the story free from clutter and produced richly beautiful sets and costumes, elegantly lit by Lucy Carter: the tiled balconied court where Elsa stands trial looking like Jane Eyre, baleful Ortrud in raven-black bombazine, apparitions at windows, soldiers in great coats, the palette of deep whites, browns and purples - well, it may not have meant anything much, but it looked wonderful.
It sounded pretty wonderful too. Informed opinion in this country has been bafflingly slow to acknowledge the considerable stature of WNO’s Music Director Lothar Koenigs, but his conducting of this challenging score will surely enhance his reputation further.
It wasn’t the most diaphanous or dreamy Lohengrin, and the orchestra wasn’t immaculate - the strings in the Act I Prelude didn’t shimmer and melt, and there were a few rough edges in the martial passages. But the old joke about the opera being aka Slow-and-grim fell flat here: Koenigs kept the tension electrically charged, emphasizing its robust and brilliant elements and bringing Act III to a thrilling climax.
Review by Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph
"*****" WNO’s production, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, is a glorious, engrossing evening of opera.
Wagner subtitled Lohengrin a “romantic opera” – with good reason. A love story that goes wrong, it is chock-full of Bellinian melodies that represent a romantic ideal in music. This calls for a special kind of conductor – one who can hold the musical lines together and create the long-limned effect essential to Wagner’s architecture. Such a conductor is Lothar Koenigs, Welsh National Opera’s music director, and it is primarily thanks to him that this new Lohengrin adds up to such an engrossing evening. Koenigs makes something dramatic out of the choral crescendos, sustains generously shaped string cantilenas and creates striking antiphonal effects in Act Three. WNO is lucky to have a conductor who, in addition to being a first-rate musician, clearly wants to challenge and stretch his ensemble.
His – their – contribution goes arm-in-arm with a staging, directed and designed by Antony McDonald, that may not probe the opera’s psychological and philosophical depths but is never less than fresh and coherent. Set within a realistic 19th-century citadel and infused with an air of Prussian militarism, it finds practical solutions to all the opera’s problems – notably the arrival of the swan, represented here by a mythical boy in a row-boat, propelled by a bird’s wing attached to his arm. It’s a goose-bump moment. There are no character-clichés: every move is directed in a way that creates absorbing theatre and respects the opera’s mystique, while clarifying the questions of trust, doubt and betrayal at its heart.
Maybe this Lohengrin, like the upcoming Ring at Longborough Festival Opera, heralds a new wave of simplicity in Wagner interpretation. It’s ideal for people who haven’t seen the opera before – and given that there hasn’t been a new UK Lohengrin for more than 25 years, that’s a lot of people. Apart from one late substitution, the cast is all-British. Peter Wedd’s white-haired swan knight emerges as a Wagner tenor of considerable promise, while Emma Bell’s pre-Raphaelite Elsa radiates vocal excitement. Susan Bickley just about measures up to Ortrud, Claudio Otelli’s Telramund declaims the German text with gusto and Simon Thorpe is the forthright Herald. All in all, a glorious night of opera, and a worthy successor to WNO’s 2010 Meistersinger.
Review by Andrew Clark for Financial Times
What is one to make of Lohengrin, Wagner’s last “opera” (as opposed to music drama), in this day and age? Is it a medieval romance, like Weber’s Freischütz but with a deus ex machina at the beginning rather than the end; or is it a nineteenth-century domestic melodrama in disguise, with the hero revealed in the bedroom scene as a Papal Nuncio travelling incognito. Why mustn’t Elsa ask his name? Is it, as Lothar Koenigs hints in the WNO programme, some echo of Wagner’s doubts about his own (possibly, as he thought, Jewish) parentage? Or is it rather a pre-echo of modern password culture, with Elsa as a sort of anthropomorphized phishing email?
In Cardiff, Antony McDonald disrupts it more straightforwardly by transplanting it to Wagner’s own time, with soldiers in khaki and peaked caps, Lohengrin as a vaguely hieratic figure in an embroidered tunic, and Elsa as a proto-Rossettian redhead with a visionary gaze.
Lohengrin is a true Romantic opera, scenically absurd and often (not always) psychologically vacuous, but powerful in its way for all that. Musically it’s an odd blend of the old- and new-fangled, and not without what Rossini called its mauvais quarts d’heure to punctuate the marvels, which begin with the wonderful prelude, a piece of slow unfolding that Wagner never surpassed. There are still heralds and fanfares, and thumping choruses and processions in four-four time, the sort of thing he would soon officially ban from music drama. But there are also superb stretches of dark introspection and radiant uplift that look forward to The Ring and Parsifal (whose hero, oddly enough for the celibate and woman-free land of the Grail, turns out to be Lohengrin’s father).
Review by Stephen Walsh for The Arts Desk
The hero of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin probably wishes he’d never set foot in a society corrupted by a power struggle that goes to the wire and beyond in Antony McDonald’s exceptional new production for WNO. No sooner has Lohengrin revealed at the end that the swan guiding him about in a boat is not a swan at all but the brother of his thwarted lover Elsa than the brother himself turns out to be an ugly duckling. Wagner’s heroes, Lohengrin included, are not so much driven-snow honest as lacking in street cred, and it’s no wonder that Gottfried, aka the swan, has his people cowering before him only minutes after Lohengrin has hailed him as their new protector and departed the scene. These are neat twists in the composer’s story of inter-necine rivalry, bewitchment, compromised innocence and dreams of salvation, all sewn together with music of sometimes religious intensity. Producer-designer McDonald, supported by his lighting designer Lucy Carter, gives the opera an impressive coherence. He’s blessed with a cast that remains focused, a fearsomely galvanised chorus and an orchestra under Lothar Koenigs that forces the pace of a work tending towards the static. Peter Wedd in the title role is more surprised than philosophical about the fix he’s got himself into, Emma Bell’s Elsa is slightly fey but sonorous of voice, Susan Bickley as Ortrud fades a little towards the end but is otherwise the embodiment of malevolence, Matthew Best sings King Heinrich well despite a dicky throat and late replacement Claudio Otelli sings Telramund animatedly despite his sometimes exaggerated and complementary body movements.
The first night was a gala performance in the presence of the Prince of Wales. In a piece of programme planning that looks like becoming a feature of chief executive David Pountney's arrival at the the helm of WNO, the company will be presenting Jonathan Harvey's one-act opera Wagner Dream on June 6 at the WMC. Sung in Sanskrit, Pali (a Sanskrit dialect) and German, the opera is about the dying Wagner, who contemplates the Buddhist story he might have written and how that religion might have drawn him to a state of renunciation and surrender. Harvey was a believer in Buddhism and died last year of motor neurone disease. WNO's summer season ends with further performances of Joachim Herz's long-running production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly.
Review by Nigel Jarrett for South Wales Argus
Welsh National Opera launched its summer programme in grand style giving it a right royal lift-off with HRH Prince Charles joining a packed house for a new production of Wagner’s epic work. The Company continues its move into themed seasons by focusing on a celebration of the bicentenary of the composer’s birth and director/designer Antony McDonald’s interpretation of the 10th century romance which he has chosen to place in the 1840s makes a fitting tribute.
This surreal tale blends the mythical with the military all reflected in music that is at times dreamlike and exquisitely tender; at times stirring enough to raise the roof, and perfectly captured in all its splendour by the WNO orchestra under its music director and conductor Lothar Koenigs and the rousing augmented chorus. The story unfolds in what appears to be some kind of fortress where Elsa is being accused of murder when Lohengrin, her knight in shining armour who has come to save her makes his entry in eye-popping fashion in a boat pulled by a rather elaborate swan. These two will be happy ever after as long as she doesn’t ask his name. But, of course, there are those who have other plans for them and the eerie shadows of night time which open the second act make a moody backdrop for those plotting against the happy couple.
A hugely accomplished cast including Emma Bell as Elsa, Peter Wedd as Lohengrin, Claudio Otelli as Friedrich and Susan Bickley as Ortrud all play their parts to perfection bringing out all the tension and drama to give Wagner fans a real treat.
Review by Jenny Longhurst for Wales Online
"One of the operatic highlights of the year" The Stage