Covent Garden has produced a new Lohengrin for the first time in more than forty years. David Alden’s austere production nods in unison with many other directors who grasp at making opera “relevant” to our times. Wagner’s medieval romance of an enchanted knight who saves a damsel falsely accused of murder only to lose her when she asks the forbidden question of his name and origins, and the eternal psychological tropes juxtaposing faith and taboo, no longer seem enough for some, though to me such traditional approaches only highlight their timelessness. But another crowd of refugees who look like they have fled in penury from any European locale in the 1940s? Creative appetites can never be quenched. Our particular crowd of the downtrodden are intended to be the nobles and freemen of Brabant, but they seem to have emerged from a disastrous war that has shattered their society, traumatized them and their rulers, and left them at the mercy of resurgent fascism, here suggested by the third act’s black-white-and-red banners of Wagner’s iconic swan rather than the iconic swastika of one of Wagner’s later admirers.
In this populist era, we may well be vulnerable to leaders who appear magical, but there was a coarseness to this production’s reductio ad Hitlerum quality that did not quite allow the magic of the opera to work. Two acts of sets enclosed by a shattered, multistory brick building drew closely from Claus Guth’s La Scala production, which has made the rounds. But I was more taken with the unique Act III set, a basic white paneled wall beneath one of the Lohengrin-inspired paintings from the Wagnermaniacal King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Does mythology hang over our heads as we try to make sense of our lives and deeds? Alden may not share my point of view, but I hope it does, for it is, after all, what resides inside us.
Whether reminding us of the power of myth or sourly commenting on the harsh realities of the world that shaped us, a superb cast brought Wagner’s early masterpiece to life. Klaus Florian Vogt simply owns the title role worldwide. A light, lyric timbre in the voice responds with preternatural perfection to Wagner’s score—it is in fact so well matched to the part of Lohengrin that Vogt sounds unjustly out of place in heavier Wagner parts, even when singing extraordinarily well. Matched with a muscular form and gestures of heroic sweep, he could easily bestow hope on anyone. The production’s Elsa is the young and relatively untested Irish soprano Jennifer Davis. Having appeared only in smaller parts and as Adina in Donizetti’s very different L’Elisir d’Amore, she filled in for the announced Kristine Opolais, who withdrew from the whole production. Davis sang with a gorgeous, full-bodied voice that captured Elsa’s innocence while still preserving its essential dramatic power. The heavenly couple’s nasty foils, the faithless backstabbing Ortrud and the proud and defiant Telramund, fell to the superb talents of equally gifted performers. Christine Goerke’s delicious smirks and sneers dominated the stage, even in those first-act moments when the character has few words to sing. In her Act II revenge sequences, she was all charm when necessary and vicious harridan when invoking the vengeance of her pagan gods and denouncing Elsa’s champion. Thomas J. Mayer’s Telramund was appropriately snarling, though he was announced as allergy-afflicted in a performance that caught him sneaking coughs. Georg Zeppenfeld’s wounded King Henry, the historic tenth-century German ruler, gave us an idea of what a European ruler a thousand years later might have been like had there been no Marshall Plan.
Andris Nelsons is second only to Vogt in personal identification with the opera. Observing the deft precision of his gestures in the pit readily reminded one of his mastery of the score. William Spaulding’s choral work was on brilliant display, making Wagner’s choruses an extraordinary highlight of the performance.