You wait ages for a swan, then a flock descends. Swiftly following the debut of Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake, here glides in David Alden’s new staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the first at Covent Garden since Elijah Moshinsky’s in 1977, a traditional pageant last revived in 2009. Alden’s drab production rejects the medieval setting for a 1930s dystopia with distinct Third Reich overtones, but under Andris Nelsons’ inspired conducting, there are musical compensations.

<i>Lohengrin</i>, Act 1 © ROH | Clive Barda
Lohengrin, Act 1
© ROH | Clive Barda

Tchaikovsky wasn’t much taken with The Ring when he attended the Bayreuth première in 1876, but he considered Lohengrin “the crown in Wagner’s oeuvre”. Indeed, the melancholy oboe theme in Swan Lake bears more than a passing resemblance to the motif where Lohengrin warns his bride Elsa never to ask his name or where he came from. But never mind, for now, where Elsa’s mystery knight comes from. In this production, where has he actually arrived? Paul Steinberg’s sets look like Lohengrin’s pitched up in a multi-storey car park with subsidence problems, its brick walls leaning precariously. The disillusioned population of war-torn Antwerp, lacking a leader, blindly adopts Lohengrin’s symbols even though they know nothing about him. Elsa is married beneath a white marble swan altar and there are references to Nazi Germany, banners unfurled displaying swastika swans in red, white and black.

<i>Lohengrin</i>, Act 3 © ROH | Clive Barda
Lohengrin, Act 3
© ROH | Clive Barda

The country is crippled in wartime exploits, symbolised by the Herald’s leg strapped in a calliper and a weak Heinrich wrapping himself in his ermine robes like a comfort blanket. Elsa is kept prisoner in a subterranean prison where she’s been subjected to who knows what punishments by her guardians, Telramund and Ortrud. When formally accused of murdering her brother, Gottfried, Elsa is blindfolded to face a firing squad, when Lohengrin swans in, wearing a crumpled white suit, to be her champion. His arrival is adroitly handled, with shadows of the swan’s wing beats projected across the stage. Brick walls part and Lohengrin is revealed, sitting with his back to the audience, thanking his swan for the ride.

Jennifer Davis (Elsa) and Christine Goerke (Orturd) © ROH | Clive Barda
Jennifer Davis (Elsa) and Christine Goerke (Orturd)
© ROH | Clive Barda

There’s some trademark Alden chair abuse in Act 2 and Ortrud slashes her wrist before appearing at the wedding in blood-red silk, gnawing away at Elsa’s doubts about her bridegroom’s heritage. You’d have thought that the giant mural in Elsa’s bridal chamber – August von Heckel’s Lohengrin arrives in Antwerp which graces Ludwig II’s fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle – might give her the tiniest clue! When the curtain rises on “banks of the Scheldt” (i.e. the multi-storey car park again), Alden suddenly plonks Brabant’s forces in cod-medieval armour while Heinrich suffers a breakdown, gripping his crown as Lohengrin reveals who he is and whence he came. The denouement works well, banners thudding to the ground as Ortrud’s spell is broken, the young Gottfried emerging to take up Lohengrin’s sword like Arthur wielding Excalibur.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) and Jennifer Davis (Elsa) © ROH | Clive Barda
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) and Jennifer Davis (Elsa)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Andris Nelsons was the champion of the evening, drawing luminescent playing from the Covent Garden orchestra. The Act 1 Prelude – an evocation of The Grail – was played with the curtain down and the house lights half up, gauzy strings shimmering and beautifully gradated dynamics. Apart from a few moments of strangulated off-stage trumpets, the ROH brass was at its most disciplined, ebullient in the Act 3 Prelude. The Royal Opera Chorus was on magnificent form, jubilant at the sighting of the swan boat.

Klaus Florian Vogt is always going to divide opinion. His tenor is a highly unusual instrument – pretty, flute-like. His timbre is more suited to Tamino than traditional Heldentenor parts. But Lohengrin is his signature role; the two big narrations are very lightly scored, so he gets away this pure white tone, yet it surprised me how, in ensemble, his tenor still cut through with strength. Despite a few nasal notes, his Gralserzählung was moving, the diminuendo on the word “Taube” beautifully controlled.

Jennifer Davis (Elsa) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) © ROH | Clive Barda
Jennifer Davis (Elsa) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Stepping in for the originally advertised Kristine Opolais, Jennifer Davis tackled the biggest night of her career creditably. After an understandably nervy start, the former Jette Parker Young Artist’s Elsa blossomed, with pearly tone and earnestly acted. Georg Zeppenfeld’s mellifluous bass suffered some early strain at the top of his register, but this suited the unregal portrayal Alden gives him. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Telramund was a real bruiser, physically and vocally, a marked vibrato troubling his delivery, but Christine Goerke’s Orturd was truly magnificent, vehement delivery sung rather than shrieked, with terrific guttural notes.  

After returning to tend The Grail at the end of this run, Lohengrin returns “home” in the autumn; this is a co-production with Opera Vlaanderen, so Lohengrin really will pitch up in Antwerp in October. How many swans it will take to lug Alden’s brickwork to the banks of the Scheldt is another matter.