Sometimes you do win the lottery. When Opera Australia subscribers first signed up for tickets to Wagner’s Lohengrin, little did they know that the great German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, would be singing the title role – one for which he is justly famous. As charismatic as any Romantic knight in shining armour, his performance was astounding in its expressive range, power and beauty.
Other elements of this Australian premiere of a co-production with Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie were perhaps less obviously thrilling, but director Olivier Py’s concept was visually striking and offered considerable food for thought. And that is in addition to what the composer himself presented. Numerous questions arise. Why did Py set this production in a window-shattered theatre with a backstage array of decaying artefacts of German culture, transposing the action from mediaeval Brabant to the post World War II ruins of Berlin? Why did Elsa insist on asking the forbidden question? At least it is a short distance between Py’s concept and the way Wagner’s music and ideas have been used by the Nazi propaganda machine. The volume and intricacy of Py’s ideas also have their counterpart in Wagner’s fertile musical imagination.
During the orchestral Prelude, a looming, four-tiered theatre building with jagged broken windows slowly revolved, somewhat distracting from the fragile upper strings of the Grail motif and some superb wind playing. Similarly visually attention grabbing, the Prelude to Act 3 was accompanied by an acrobatic display performed by what could be interpreted as a representation of the perfect Aryan male – no disintegrating features there! A vision of perfection before a collapsing future, reinforced by slowly descending flakes of ash-like confetti as Lohengrin and Elsa make their way to the marriage altar?
From the outset, the singing was outstanding. Warwick Fyfe’s declamatory style and strong, gathered tone were well-suited to his role of Herald. His call for a champion to defend Elsa against the charge of fratricide was given even more impact by the trumpets placed at the front side of the dress circle. It was stirring stuff and part of fine work by the expanded brass section throughout the evening. Daniel Sumegi’s resonant bass baritone voice and stately presence made him an imposing King Heinrich.
An expanded Opera Australia Chorus, which included several familiar soloists, sang softer sections with warm, perfectly blended tone and gave vibrant, full-bodied weight to the more exuberant passages. The many male choruses were particularly impressive with the opening chorus a shining example of mellow, unified voices. Even when separated in their little opera boxes or window frames, both tenors and basses projected well and continued to be satisfactorily integrated.
Making his debut in a main stage principal role for Opera Australia, baritone Simon Meadows achieved great personal success as Telramund. Rejected as a husband by Elsa and manipulated by his wife, the evil pagan sorceress Ortrud, Telramund is a focus of evil. Meadows captured much of the strength and menace of the character, seeming at ease with the vocal demands. He gave the chess game duel with Lohengrin an intensity that helped listeners suspend disbelief and accommodate conflicts between what they were hearing and what they were seeing.
As Ortrud, French-Russian soprano Elena Gabouri was in her element vocally and dramatically, providing some of the most riveting moments as her opulent mezzo-soprano soared to passionate heights. Her colourful emotional and vocal range, from seductive urgings to vindictive rage, supported what Wagner wrote to his brother, namely, that Ortrud is the principal role in the work.
Despite the wonderful music Wagner wrote for her, Elsa is destined to come across as a little pale in comparison. After a sometimes edgy start with an intrusive vibrato on the top notes, American soprano Emily Magee sounded increasingly at ease as the opera progressed, her softer singing in particular becoming smoother, rounder and more alluring. Her duets with Gabouri in Act 2 and with Kaufmann in Act 3 were most appealing.
If you were wondering whether the swan would sail off without the Grail Knight, don’t worry – the swan is symbolically represented by a pile of feathers. On the face of it, that may seem like a bizarre idea, and yet I know that I was not alone in finding the moments with the “swan” incredibly moving. The magical Grail music had a lot to do with it, of course. And then there were Kaufmann’s superlative powers of persuasion as he tenderly sifted through the feathers.
Whatever reservations there might be regarding Py’s concept, it is certainly fascinating. Combined with Pierre-André Weiz’s monumental sets, Bertrand Killy’s atmospheric lighting design, and, above all, the excellent realisation of Wagner’s music under the masterful baton of Tahu Matheson, this performance of Lohengrin was an unforgettable experience.
Photo courtesy Opera Australia.
Heather Leviston reviewed Opera Australia’s performance of Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, presented at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May14, 2022.