Instead of disaster, a narrow escape

So I just got out of the Lohengrin prima at the ROH and I’m itching to share my thoughts. This staging was relatively standard for a contemporary production, set in a drab timeless European locale with vaguely 30s fascist vibes, a kind of spears plus rifles aesthetic. The swan boat as well as fireworks for the act two festivities were depicted with projections. While taking few risks in terms of concept, on the whole it worked quite well for me. 

One touch of director David Alden‘s I particularly admired was the start of act 3, where the bridal chamber was a gigantic white room decorated only with the bed on which things go so wrong as well as a gigantic, gigantic color mural on the wall showing Lohengrin’s arrival in the style of an 1850s or 1860s engraving, perhaps the art even comes from an original production from that era though someone more clued in than I may be able to correct me.

I love how this decor not so subtly shows that the relationship is already doomed; the Swan thing is a too constant reminder that for Elsa the relationship is never going to be on an equal footing, like any relationship quibble is going to end up with Lohengrin thinking if not saying, hey babe, check that swan out, remember the time I appeared on it? Good, because you now owe everything to me.

That terrible pressure Elsa is under is give even more emphasis in the next scene, where the Brabantians are assembled under a set of striking and highly fascist looking swan banners, and it becomes clear that not only for Elsa but for the entire country too, this swan guy is gonna be the absolute ruler ( king Heinrich is depicted as a guy trying to do the right thing, but physically weak throughout and too easily manipulated by Telramund.)

Of course, though the banners fall down by the end of the show, they’ll be able to reuse them under Gottfried’s leadership as of course he was a swan the whole time… Clever, innit? The kid ends the opera hefting a big two handed sword like Arthur wielding Excalibur and the staging seems to play it straight, like this is going to be a good thing for Brabant, maybe even better than if Lohengrin had stayed, since Heinrich’s rule won’t be based on this impossible romantic ideal of absolute perfection that would make working for, or bring married to, Lohengrin a very one-sided experience.

Elsa is distraught at the end, at least verbally, but she doesn’t expire as per usual, and this is just my interpretation, but that staging decision left me with a hint that maybe instead of causing a disaster, she actually had a narrow escape!

If Lohengrin and Elsa can’t make it work because they’re too wrapped up in romantic absolutes, Ortrud and Telramund have the opposite problem, being way too compromised by the real world to where they’ve lost sight of basic human decency, yet they still have emotions too.

Telramund appears tortured by his shame, while Christine Goerke plays Ortrud not like a religious fanatic but as a serious lawyer or executive (in act 1 she’s seen passing out memos to T’s vassals), as if maybe the reason they’re so good at manipulating the legal system in Brabant is that she was Telramund’s legal counsel beforehand. Their relationship is clearly physical too, not at all remote, so you get the impression she can use honey as well as vinegar to get him to do what she wants.

Okay now on to the good stuff, the singers! Let me start by saying that as parterre readers may know I am a big, big Goerke fan. I won’t say she was perfect, the voice took on a certain shrillness at the top and towards the ends of phrases, but ultimately that’s a quibble for me as she delivered in spades on her trademark lush, gigantic, gorgeous sound.

I think this may be her first time since the Foreign Princess that she’s played such an unpleasant character, yet she didn’t do the 100 percent evil ice bitch thing, but brought a multidimensional interpretation, switching from surprising tenderness to extreme chilling hatred. This is a great role for her!

Thomas J Mayer as Telramund I liked a little less well. His is a thankless enough role to begin with, and in act 1 his voice sounded somewhat fuzzy and scratchy, your basic park and bark with plenty of enunciation but little in the way of legato. However he seemed to improve markedly for act 2 and once his character stopped declaiming and started suffering I was fully on board and enjoyed it much more. Like Goerke he succeeded in portraying a well rounded, complez character.

The Herald, Kostas Smoriginas, sang with a lovely rich timbre, and both he and King Heinrich, Georg Zeppenfeld, had powerful voices with extremely crisp diction. Hard to pick a favorite between them. Herald wore a leg brace as if perhaps he was a combat veteran. As for the King’s outfit, it seemed to belong to Neo from The Matrix Reloaded. Perhaps his infirmity was due to a bullet he didn’t manage to dodge?

By now I suppose Klaus Florian Vogt‘s Lohengrin is a known quantity to some parterrians, but I’m not one of them, not only have I never heard him do a complete performance of this, I’d never heard him live before. What an extraordinary sound, so “white” and pure, yet easily cutting through the orchestra. Though I caught a few whiny nasal notes they were not many and for the most part I was just stunned at how much better he sounded live than on broadcast, which itself was already darn good.

His Gralerzaehlung was especially superb with precisely controlled dynamics (especially a pianissimo on “Taube” – just gorgeous) and I can see why this is his signature role. I have to say I have doubts about his plans to sing Siegfried though – such an angelic sound just doesn’t seem like it could work for a casually cruel Nietzschean Superman. Apparently he has sung Siegmund already, anyone catch that?

Ok now finally tonight’s einspringer, Jennifer Davis replacing Kristine Opolais.  She was the wildcard going into this… and she killed it! There were a few tiny pitch problems at the very beginning but after that it was incredibly good. The voice is clear, gleaming, seems to be effortlessly produced (which despite my love for Goerke is not something I can say of her), has volume to spare, and cuts through the orchestra.

She got the biggest ovation of the night and deserved it, an amazing Wagner debut. I foresee Sieglindes and Evas in her future, not sure if Senta is right for her (isn’t that tessitura super high?) and it’s hard to judge based on just one role but as far as I can tell she is the real thing.

Congrats also go to Nelsons who led a great reading of the score – vocalists never got covered except Telramund in act 2 when he has to compete with horns. ROH chorus also in fine form, musically faultless, though in this stahing they sometimes did silly things like throwing out unison gestures or bringing the King’s throne into the battle ring. To ask a usually forbidden question, “Why?”

Photos: Clive Barda / ROH

[Editor’s note: This is the first review published on parterre box by Nick Tramdack, who is familiar to all of you under his commenter’s alias “swordsnsolvers.” — La Cieca]