Johannes Erath’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin sets the story in a stark fantasy world, balancing between fantasy and reality, questioning the nature of power and love. The result is a beautiful production, outstandingly well-sung and brilliantly thought-provoking.

For his production of Lohengrin, director Johannes Erath places the town of Brabant in a German Romantic fantasy world, with Kaspar David Friedrich’s painting The Monastery Graveyard in the Snow creating the backdrop. The starkness of the painting clearly inspired the monochrome sets of Kaspar Glarner. The pervading blackness of the sets was only broken up by the arrival of Lohengrin, dressed in a floor-length white robe covered in swan feathers. With his arrival in a white, feather-clad box, he is cast as an enlightenment figure, come to free the people of Brabant.

For considerable parts of the production, the chorus is blindfolded. During the prelude, they sit atop a platform, audience-like, seemingly listening to the music, some members more ecstatically than others. Ortrud removes her blindfold and does the same to Telramund’s; they are the only ones aware of what is actually going on. As King Heinrich appears, the chorus, still blindfolded, is whipped into a nationalistic fervour, a literal blind nationalism, swords held aloft as they sing of the glory of Germany. Only when Lohengrin appears, do they take their blindfolds off.

The largely black and white sets were reflected in the costumes by Christian Lacroix. The chorus was dressed in all black, the men in dinner jackets, the women in evening gowns. In many ways, black is used in this production as the colour of the status quo, Lohengrin’s mysticism and eventual enlightenment being represented by white. Indeed, before the wedding, at the end of Act II, the chorus don what can only be described as haute-couture white paper bags, which are taken off when Lohengrin leaves at the end of Act III, forming an abstraction of a swan.

Erath casts Elsa as the most central character of the opera, portraying her as a neurotic character who builds up a fantasy world around herself, presumably to cope with the loss of her brother. The prelude opens with her crouched on the front of the stage, dressed in a grey tracksuit. She runs off only to re-emerge in a pristine, white gown. When she is left by Lohengrin, her world comes tumbling down around her, literally, as stage technicians flood the stage, rolling out and pulling down the scenery. This reduces Elsa to the crying, tracksuit-clad figure of the prelude, and the opera ends as Ortrud forces the crown onto the head of the returned Gottfried. The chorus members, again dressed in black, put on their blindfolds. Things have seemingly returned to their usual state.

The singing in the production was uniformly strong, with the possible exception of the title role. Paul Groves, making his role debut (as did all other cast members), sounded rather underpowered throughout, especially in his top register. His Mozartian credentials were clearly evident, but he was unable to bring sufficient power to the role, and the two monologues in the third act, “Mein lieber Schwan” and “In fernem Land” were rushed. Still, his conflicted portrayal of Lohengrin was convincing. Nina Gravrok, one of the many central cast members pulled from the opera house’s own soloist ensemble, was an interesting Elsa. It was clear that Erath had attempted to flesh out the character somewhat, but she sadly ended up a mentally unstable wreck, seemingly unable to fend for herself. Still, the singing was impressive, although it sounded like she held back for the first two acts. By the third act, however, she was firing on all cylinders, her steel-edged soprano cutting effortlessly through the orchestra, and with a wonderfully blooming top.

Ole Jørgen Kristiansen proved a magnificently conflicted Telramund, creating a Macbeth-like character, egged on by an ever more sinister Ortrud. He truly believes that he is entitled to Elsa’s hand and that he is supposed to be the ruler of Brabant. Where Telramund went for nuance, Elena Zhidkova’s Ortrud went for all-out, magnificent evil. She was utterly terrifying in “Entweihte Götter”, her enormous, steely voice soaring above the orchestra. Her commanding stage presence, made even more so by Lacroix’s brilliantly poison-green dresses, was a sight to behold. Magne Fremmerlid’s King Heinrich was suitably stentorian, his powerful voice becoming more comfortable with the higher notes of the part as the evening progressed.

John Helmer Fiore, conducting his final production as musical director of the Oslo Opera, produced some utterly glorious sounds, especially in the prelude to Act III, the horns sounding wonderful. There were intonation issues with the off-stage trumpets throughout the evening, but thankfully they improved somewhat as the performance went on.

Johannes Erath’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin is an astoundingly beautiful one, with striking use of colour and evocative sets. While the treatment of certain characters felt on the too simplistic side, it was still an evening very well spent.