Richard Wagner finished Lohengrin in 1848 – the revolutionary year of the Springtime of the Peoples in Europe (what an uncanny familiar ring this evocative denomination has today). He was only 34 at the time, yet something profoundly fundamental must have been happening while he composed, and unquestionably way before. His quill would only carve music again after turning 40. All six years in between would be spent furiously writing about what opera should look and sound like – advocating for the union of all arts in a single form. Moreover, he would apply his own prescriptions in The Work of Art of the Future (1849), Opera and Drama (1850-51) or A Message to my Friends (1851) to the music he wrote subsequently. Thus Lohengrin, to a certain extent, marks the end of an era – in Wagner’s life as in the history of opera. Yet in this music what is to come vividly throbs – Tristan und Isolde, for instance, the production of which at the Teatro Real earlier this year still evokes reminiscences of Bill Viola’s powerful visual proposition.
Breaking the silence of a bursting hall was the heavenly A major chord, suspended as if blithely unaware of gravity. As instrument groups joined gradually, it became evident that the orchestra was there to live the score. And so they did, both in the protagonist role given to them through the piece and in supporting the storytelling done by others. Particularly brilliant and accurate were the trumpets on stage and in the box seats, although the more discreet among the instruments were not less commendable. All in all, the orchestra provided a solid foundation to build on, which some did more successfully than others. Only two of the thirteen performances in this run fell under the baton of Walter Althammer. It would be hard, and possibly unfair, to cast a light on him too much. In any event, the overall musical result of the production was more than enjoyable, so he must have, at the very least, maintained what Hartmut Haenchen built, and perhaps added his own perspectives too; it's impossible to judge without seeing Haenchen’s version. Nonetheless, Althammer appeared confident on the podium, was clear in his gestures and overall cued accurately.
As for those on stage, let’s perhaps start with the choir, a character in its own right and the bearer of much of the dramatic – psychological – weight of Wagner’s libretto. Largely dominated by male voices, it did a creditable job of unearthing the tragedy, begging for forgiveness and despairing at fate. It displayed a truly impressive volume, a tad too loud at times, yet was particularly effective when at its most subtle. It proved especially hypnotising as the voice of torment that inoculates Elsa’s soul with the poison of doubt.
Elsa von Brabant is a quite role to play: an heiress to the throne accused of fratricide who, in trying to cleanse her honour, loses her mind and with it the only man who could have saved her. She is not a particularly easy character to bring to life and not one that Anne Schwanewilms seemed to find particularly easy to get under the skin of. She sang beautifully, and initial concerns in Act I that her voice might edge ever so slightly on the thin side were largely put to rest in the second act as she excelled musically in her scene with Ortrud. This was one of the highlights of the evening and fifty per cent of the merit was Schwanewilms’. What a tremendous shame then that her captivating singing was not matched by a dramatic work that would have enabled the character to come across as real. There was no sight of the distress, no glimpse of the descent into insanity, no sign of the oh-so-late repentance. There was just beautiful music coming out of a woman who seemed forever in trance and aloft.
Pretty much the same could be said about Michael König’s Lohengrin. His voice cut through the hall like a knife, and he could easily have stolen the show with his astonishing vocal interventions. The reason that did not happen also had to do with his dramatic inertia. The scene where he begs Elsa to trust him and not ask him what his descent is, his soliloquy before the court, his farewell to his broken wife were all as full of vocal warmth as they were void of emotion. Elsa and Lohengrin were there in words and music, but not in soul and flesh. They barely looked at each other, and the very few times they actually touched they seemed so uncomfortable in each other’s presence that it almost made things worse. Wagner demands (too) much of this couple, and conveying what they go through, alone and together, is no easy exploit. But the only way of really engaging the audience is by filling it with agony too, and in this context that cannot be achieved through wonderful singing alone.
The lack of chemistry between these two benevolent characters was made even more apparent when compared with the much darker – and real – couple comprising Thomas Jesatko's Telramund and Dolora Zajick’s Ortrud. Theirs was another of the memorable moments of the evening, their initial mutual despise and their later malevolent planning unquestionably turned Act II into the high point of the evening. Jesatko had already been more than correct in Act I, but here he took his character a step further in voice and intent. He could well have been responding, at least partly, to Zajick’s phenomenal performance. Hers was the evening. She put her gigantic, versatile voice to excellent use and added a reasonable dose of Shakespearean evil to the mix. Her Ortrud was despicable, troubling and creepy. She took things up a notch when on stage. Ironically, it was as if her witchcraft, intended to create havoc, had an effect in others and made them better singers and actors. Havoc she created nevertheless. The rest is Wagnerian history.