Wagner: Lohengrin

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 28 April 2009 3.5 stars

Lohengrin Act 1Music and drama were not really at one in this sixth revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production of Wagner's Lohengrin at Covent Garden.

In the pit, Semyon Bychkov achieved a level of refinement from orchestra and chorus which is too seldom heard in this or any international opera house. But Moshinsky's thirty-two year old staging is so horrendously inert at times as to make this almost five-hour-long piece seem like a storm in a teacup. There must be more motivation behind it all than just a drawn-out search to discover Lohengrin's name, but any sense of psychological conflict is desperately missing from this revival.

Admittedly, Moshinsky is hampered by John Napier's designs, which are so redolent of '70s kitsch as to make one reflect more on the nature of opera production at that time rather than engaging with it as a living piece of theatre today. Put simply, it looks old-fashioned, and seems caught in a time warp.

Moshinsky's main focus is in the work's religious symbolism, and there are moments where he makes something interesting out of the pomp and emptiness of the Pagan and Christian persuasions. But it's surely overstated, since this is only one aspect of the libretto. Notions of the masculine and the feminine, of heroism, of the military, and even of good and evil, help bind the opera together, but are not much explored here.

Petra Lang as OrtrudPerhaps more importantly, the physical movement of the cast is often frustratingly dull. Stock arm gestures from the soloists and a token moving from side to side of the chorus members during moments of supposed disquiet root the production even more solidly in the period when it was first created. The arrival of Lohengrin through a trap door, with a projection of a swan on a transparent curtain which covers the stage for the first seem, seriously undermines the power of the moment, while the depiction of evil is sometimes pantomimic and the sparseness of the sets is not compensated for by the chorus standing in lines and carrying religious paraphernalia. It's a bit of a shame that first Trovatore and now this 1977 Lohengrin have been revived in favour of some of Moshinsky's more beautiful and atmospheric work, such as Otello and Simon Boccanegra (which is back next season, thankfully). The Royal Opera really needs a new Lohengrin at this point.

However, Bychkov's conducting makes the trip to Covent Garden more than rewarding. Performing the work without cuts will have been unpopular in some quarters, since it makes the opera rather long, and there were a couple of brief moments in the second and third acts where I felt that detail was being picked over at the expense of momentum. The Act 3 Prelude could also have been more thrillingly executed at this performance. But the quality of the string playing throughout was extraordinary, not merely synchronised in terms of timing but co-ordinated in the search for a colour and timbre. The brass playing was as fine as I've ever heard at Covent Garden, because not only was it technically perfect (apart from one small blip from a member of the offstage band) but Bychkov also made the section shape and phrase the music with imagination and contrast. The woodwinds were also impressive, and the coherence of the overall orchestral texture was almost impeccable. (Read our interview with Semyon Bychkov here.)

The choral singing, too, was outstanding at times, especially in the climactic final scenes of the first two acts. However, I found the rest of the cast more variable. The title role could surely not be sung with better stamina than Johan Botha was able to show here. It's true that his stand-and-deliver approach robs the character of dramatic purpose, but I found his richness of tone and honesty of expression quite moving. One or two tuning moments aside, his final narrative – much extended in this long version of the text - was truly magnificent.

Edith Haller replaced the originally-announced Anne Schwanewilms as Elsa and made her Covent Garden debut in the process; on this showing, it was a premature appearance, and it's a shame that Schwanewilms withdrew from the role a few months ago. Haller's performance in the first act had much promise, with a strongly projected voice and a serenity of countenance, but as the evening wore on, her intonation problems became increasingly apparent, and the blandness of delivery belied the inner intensity of this character (one cannot imagine her interpretation working in the famous Joachim Herz staging from 1975, in which the opera was re-imagined as 'Elsa's Dream'). A cracked note at the vital moment didn't help the overall impression, but perhaps she will settle down as the run continues.

Lohengrin Act 3Due to tracheitis, Falk Struckmann had to withdraw from the role of Telramund at this performance and give way to Gerd Grochowski, who is due to play the part later in the run in any case. Grochowski has a much more beautiful voice than Struckmann, but the latter's velocity of approach – both vocally and dramatically – was missed. He was in most other respects impeccable, but it was difficult to forget Sergei Leiferkus' rendition of the role in the previous revival (2003).

Another seminal aspect of that revival was Waltraud Meier's extraordinary Ortrud – one of the finest role portrayals I've ever witnessed – which probably did a disservice to Petra Lang's undoubtedly fiery and committed performance this time around. For me, Lang gave the most completely thought-out interpretation of the night and actually managed to make her character come alive, but Meier has the edge over her in terms of voice, and Lang does not always pitch the notes with complete accuracy. (Read our interview with Petra Lang here.)

Kwangchul Youn's King Henry was superbly firm, and some of the evening's finest singing came from Boaz Daniel's elegantly-sung Herald.

On the whole, then, what was lacking from this performance was personality on the stage. But the orchestral playing, whether from the pit, offstage or from the trumpets in a balcony box, was so excellent under Bychkov's guidance that the experience was still musically expressive enough to recommend a visit.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Clive Barda line

Semyon BychkovRelated articles:

Interview: Conductor Semyon Bychkov on Lohengrin
Interview: Petra Lang on Ortrud
Concert Review: Wagnerian Rarities at Covent Garden
CD Review: Simone Young's new recording of Rheingold with Falk Struckmann