Lohengrin at Welsh National Opera
Lothar Koenigs conducts WNO in a masterful production led by tenor Peter Wedd and soprano Emma Bell
Writing in A Communication to my Friends in 1851 Wagner explained the plot of Lohengrin thus: 'Lohengrin was in search of a woman who would believe in him to whom he did not need to explain or justify himself.'
The opera – which surely noses ahead as the most outlandish Wagner ever wrote in a competitive field – tells the story of answer of Elsa of Brabant, who when accused of murdering her brother appeals to a knight (in shining armour) she saw in a vision. And he appears – pulled by a swan to defend her name. They fall in love and Elsa offers her hand in marriage, which the mysterious knight accepts, with the proviso that she must never ask his name. It doesn't end well.
In Antony McDonald's new production of the opera at Welsh National Opera, soprano Emma Bell sings Elsa opposite an ethereal Lohengrin performed by tenor Peter Wedd.
Lohengrin opens with one of the most beautiful pieces of music Wagner ever wrote – the Prelude to Act 1, which attempts to capture the enigmatic knight's mystique in music. McDonald chose to pair this with simply a painted screen on stage – a subtly beautiful scene of thick mist hovering over fir trees. That set the tone for what was a brilliantly judged, unfussy production, set in Wagner's own 19th century.
Photo: David Massey. Thomas Rowlands as the swan, Peter Wedd as Lohengrin.
Bell plays the frankly irritating Elsa – all devout love for her husband and do-gooding. But the best moments come when she is pitted against mezzo Susan Bickley's Ortrud – Elsa's nemesis in the opera. It’s Ortrud who creates doubt in Elsa’s mind: she suggests – perhaps reasonably – that Elsa should know something about the man she’s about to marry.
The second Act is taken up with Elsa trying to walk the short distance to the church, but by the end of the Act she has only just reached the church door and the entire foundation of her faith in the inherent goodness of her knight has been destroyed. It’s a credit to Bell’s fine acting that we see the inevitable end of the opera written on her face even as she tells her husband that her belief in him is the same as ever.
In the pit conductor Lothar Koenigs does an excellent job with the orchestra of WNO and there’s a thrilling moment when the audience finds themselves surrounded by brass players positioned around the orchestra.
I could quibble with the representation of the swan – which is here played by a young boy. But I think the real problem is the swan in the first place. And Wagner’s not here to take notes.
And what would he think if he were here? His operas seem to be omnipresent in this, his bicentenary year – and I suspect he would have thought that was only right and proper – but this production at WNO should be top of your list.
Lohengrin is on in Cardiff on 8 June and at the Birmingham Hippodrome 13-15 June. Visit the Welsh National Opera website for more information.
To find out more about Wagner's life and work pick up a copy of the June issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now. As well as an 11-page feature about his music there's a recording of the Prelude from Act One of Parsifal on the free cover CD…