review of Lohengrin – a powerful and prescient production strips Wagner’s opera of its romance | Opera
IIt’s only four years since the director David Alden placed Wagner’s Lohengrin firmly in an oppressive and feverish war setting for the Royal Opera. Today, Alden’s approach, now in the hands of Peter Relton in this first revival, seems ominous and prescient in light of current events in Europe; the opera’s setting in a divided society threatened by war from the east shed its historical trappings and instead became startlingly contemporary.
Not everything works entirely convincingly in Alden’s visceral presentation of Lohengrin Brabant as a quasi-fascist society, its public square dominated by an Albert Speer-style swan monument. Notably Lohengrin’s own music, particularly in the third act, which shows he is anything but a fascist leader, and the production’s militarism and red-and-black flag feel overdone as a result.
But the pervasive darkness of Adam Silverman’s lighting and the expressionistic angularity of Paul Steinberg’s claustrophobic sets make for an unusually powerful revival. The only concession to romanticism that made Lohengrin so popular at the start of the 20th century is a reproduction on the wall of the bridal chamber of a mural of the swan knight from one of the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The message that the old Lohengrin played to himself was clear.
Musically, the revival is built on extremely solid foundations. Jakub Hrůsa has an infallible sense of the structure of the work, never trying to force the score. The playing of the Royal Opera Orchestra in the grand scene between Lohengrin’s two enemies, Telramund and Ortrud, in act two was captivating. But in this most choral of all Wagner operas, it was a night when the Royal Opera Chorus seized a chance to shine. They were magnificent.
Like Lohengrin, Brandon Jovanovitch has the presence and heroic tenor ring that much of the score demands, though in some of the more intimate passages of act three there were signs of vocal pressure. Jennifer Davis repeated the expressive, well-judged Elsa who made such a mark in 2018. Craig Colclough stormed the ill-fated Telramund with gusto, and Gábor Bretz brought vocal nobility to King Heinrich. But as often in Lohengrin, it was Ortrud, here sung with incessant fire by Anna Smirnova, which caught the eye. The malevolent heathen stranger from the north seems to have ventured into opera from the yet unwritten Ring cycle, and Smirnova seized the opportunity with both hands.