There are nights where everything seems to fall into place. Last Friday’s Lohengrin at the Concertgebouw was one of those miraculous nights. Initially, it did not look too auspicious. About a week before the event, Andris Nelsons, who was scheduled to conduct the two performances planned over the week-end, cancelled on doctor’s orders, suffering from a injured shoulder; a bad omen as those performances had originally been programmed as a keenly-anticipated follow-up to his memorable and particularly tempestuous Der fliegende Holländer in 2013. Sir Mark Elder, jumping in to replace his Latvian colleague, proved an excellent replacement, leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, choirs and an inspired team of soloists into a gripping, highly-charged performance that public and aficionados of the Dutch capital will undoubtedly still remember in years to come.

Camilla Nylund © Heikki Tuuli
Camilla Nylund
© Heikki Tuuli
The semi-staged performance, directed by Caecilia Thunissen, made use of the stage, loggias and balconies, with soloists and actors (including a mimed swan) entering and exiting the Great Hall from about every possible door. Within the limitations of this type of space, Lohengrin’s entrance following his swan, while all the Great Hall’s doors slammed open in unison to let a golden light flow in, was effective. All of the soloists also proved committed actors, except perhaps for the King Henry the Fawler of Falk Struckmann, the only one carrying his score with him, which however did not really distract from his regal posture and noble sound. As his herald, Samuel Youn displayed eloquence and a handsome timbre.

I remembered a more imposing and more threatening Telmarund from Yevgeny Nikitin, especially in the first act, at Dutch National Opera over a year ago. Here, his character sounded more subtle, more complex perhaps, as if doubtful almost from the start of the manipulative lies of his wife Ortrud. He is a seasoned actor and the scene between Telmarund and Ortrud, when she tries to revive her husband’s courage and shares her plans was from both part riveting. There was anyway no point trying to resist Katarina Dalayman’s formidable Ortrud. With her opulent voice and dark colours, the Swedish dramatic soprano portrayed a particularly powerful and venomous pagan witch, putting her, rightly, at the centre of the unravelling storyline.

Camilla Nylund gave an admirable performance as Elsa von Brabant, her focused and luminous lyric instrument soaring seemingly effortlessly above the orchestra. Elsa’s dream "Einsam in trüben Tagen" was superb, only the very top sounding slightly pressed. I found her extremely moving in the bridal chamber scene, when, filled with the doubt distilled by Ortrud, Elsa breaks her promise never to ask her saviour for his name. Klaus Florian Vogt proved again he was born to sing Lohengrin.The strange qualities of his voice which combines a light, lyric timbre with the sheer power to cut through Wagner’s orchestral music just fit the otherworldly Knight of the Swan perfectly. His interpretation and singing are rich with finesse. Lohengrin’s narration "In fernem Land" was mesmerizing.

Joining their forces into a magnificent sound, the choir of Dutch National Opera and the Dutch Radio Choir were superb. Notwithstanding the excellent performances of choir and soloists, the star of the show was the orchestra. There is always something special about hearing the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra play in their own home. The balance and clarity of the textures are so impressive. On Friday night, the brass particularly shone, so did the timpani, rich and precise, never overwhelming other sections. Every note in the violins was clearly audible. The Great Hall’s famous acoustics performed their magic in blending all into that warm, golden sound. And as rare privilege, at the end of Act II, when Elsa and her knight entered the cathedral to get married, the public even got to hear the sound of the monumental organ that has pride of place at the back of the hall’s stage.