Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.
Lohengrin is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…
In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:
The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.
In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.
Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.
It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.
As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.
Lothar Koenigs is a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? – which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.
Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.
I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.
It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!