Photograph, Clive Barda

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

This first revival (directed by Peter Relton) of David Alden’s 2018 Royal Opera production of Wagner’s Lohengrin is unmissable. For a start, the staging seems tauter and more fluent than first time round, but primarily it is sublimely sung and played. The four leads are tremendous, and the Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus, as conducted by Jakub Hrůša, are out of this world.

The American tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin delivers the goods in terms of the pure knight’s mystery and chaste passion. Jovanovich used his formidable Heldentenor with subtle and lyrical intensity, his lower range seduced and caressed, and he never resorted to crooning his high pianissimos – his ‘Heil dir, Elsa’ at the end of Act II was just one of several hair-raising moments. It was possible that he was tiring at the end of Act III, but it was in keeping with Lohengrin, the secret of his name revealed, returning to his holy calling. With his wholesome good looks and in a more traditional production, Jovanovich would have been a believably parfit, gentil knight of the Holy Grail.

Jennifer Davis, the star-is-born Irish soprano who seized the day when suddenly promoted to the role of Elsa in 2018, was back as the trusting, innocent girl with fevered dreams of her saviour-knight in shining armour. Davis’s singing has all the technical facility to express Elsa’s longing, suffering and gathering self-awareness, her voice moving easily between radiant weightlessness and gleaming fullness, while her acting has a responsive immediacy that capped a great performance. And it helped that her nemesis Ortrud, as sung by Anna Smirnova, both defined and isolated Elsa’s purity with singing of unforgettable venom. The moment in Act II, her task of sowing the seeds of doubt in Elsa’s mind about Lohengrin’s big secret complete as the music surges with serene and specious radiance, was in a league of its own as an act of appalling betrayal. Ortrud’s hapless husband Telramund was sung by Craig Colclough with declamatory, near reckless violence, in sharp contrast to Smirnova’s more considered view of Ortrud’s political scheming. Gabor Bretz was impressive as the compromised King Henry the Fowler, and Derek Welton, as a seriously injured Herald, was in epic voice.

Alden’s production, with Paul Steinberg’s multi-layered set of tilting, war-damaged buildings and an Albert Speer-like monument to a glorified swan, places the opera in a totalitarian state around the 1940s. Four years on from the production’s first outing, it inevitably now comes raddled not only with references to the current situation in eastern Europe, but also, courtesy of arch-schemers Ortrud and Telramund, along with cartoon-like King Henry and his vicious Herald, much in the way of false propaganda and fake news. Lohengrin’s ‘lieber Schwan’ used as a swastika-like emblem sends out a mixed message, as does Lohengrin in bare feet and a white suit looking a bit like a cool, Silicon Valley zillionaire guru. You sort of get points about old religion versus new religion here presented as fascism versus communism, but I found myself getting sidetracked too often by the production detail. And then, Alden and Steinberg get things spot-on, as in Lohengrin and Elsa’s wedding suite as the start of Act III, dominated by the Neuschwanstein painting of Lohengrin’s mysterious arrival on a boat drawn by a swan.

So, there is as much head-scratching as there is illumination. The Prelude at once flagged up the quality of the playing, conducted by Hrůša with an astonishingly complete overview of tone, sonority and separation of Wagner’s keening orchestration, and you could hear the way he nudged motion and pace into the quietest music, then filling the house with thrilling sound from the various brass ensembles, even fuller with the Chorus on glorious form.