Lohengrin got off to an unpromising start before the curtain even rose, when a company manager stepped forward to announce that, although no cast members were sick (cries of relief), there were serious malfunctions in the set and props (groans and laughter), and that there would therefore be no swan. Lohengrin without the swan is like Hamlet without Yorick’s skull, so we feared for the worst until Sir Donald Runnicles began the overture with glistening, feather-light strings playing the Grail music, and from that moment on the evening, in spite of technical problems, was a musical triumph.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) © Marcus Lieberenz (2012)
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
© Marcus Lieberenz (2012)

The opening set (such of it as was visible) showed a war-torn landscape with burnt stumps of trees, against which Heinrich der Vogler conducted his investigation into what had gone so wrong with Brabant that the people could not supply him with an army. The Austrian bass Günther Groissböck had stature and grandeur in the role of Heinrich, and was matched by the haughty, aggressive stance and tone of John Lundgren as Telramund. However, the two voices everyone was listening out for came from the stunning pairing of Waltraud Meier as Ortrud, singing with clotted venom, and Anja Harteros, fresh from winning the vocal category of this year’s International Opera Awards, who sang Elsa’s dream with astonishing power and purity of tone.

The question of how Lohengrin was to enter without his swan was solved (partly) by a huge cloud of stage smoke. Once it had cleared, we saw that Klaus Florian Vogt had been tricked out in clip-on swan’s wings mounted on a backpack arrangement, over a costume of flowing white. If Lohengrin is an angel from the start, and clearly more divine than human, it cuts a good deal of the potential humanity from the story, and makes Elsa’s passion for him even stranger and more self-deluded than Senta’s for the Dutchman. Vogt sang with clarity and intensity even in the most high-lying of the phrases, with a beautiful command of pianissimo and a lovely cantilena. Thankfully he has not moved into the heavier end of the Wagner Heldentenor roles, and with any luck will hold off from the Siegfrieds and the Tristans for a good while longer, while his voice still has the lyrical colour and beauty needed for the earlier, somewhat lighter roles. But what a Parsifal he’ll make, in time!

The fight with Telramund was, as it usually is, more magic manipulation than swordsmanship, and Act I ended with Elsa accepting her husband, and Ortrud and Telramund fuming in the wings.

<i>Lohengrin</i> Act II finale © Marcus Lieberenz (2012)
Lohengrin Act II finale
© Marcus Lieberenz (2012)

Act II found the evil pair sheltering under a huge horizontal platform in the shape of a cross, upon which it was clear that Elsa was to make her balcony appearance. Waltraud Meier was mesmerising as Ortrud, and called out her invocation to the old gods with enough intensity to bring them up through the theatre floor. Telramund sounded relatively feeble beside her. Once the chorus had entered, we were in safe territory until Ortrud burst forth again on the steps of the cathedral (projected in foreshortening onto a framed screen upstage) and had to be manhandled out of the wedding procession.

As the famous chorus led the bridal couple into their bedchamber, it looked doubtful at first whether Lohengrin would take off his wings even to get into bed. But the wings, lying at the side of the stage like a discarded feathery rucksack, reminded us and Elsa that his nature was not wholly human, and so when her insistent questions about what his name was and where he came from went unanswered, it was hard not to feel that this relationship would never have got anywhere, however favourable the circumstances. Voices with the power of Harteros and Vogt make it possible to quell these questions for long enough to enjoy the great duet, or vocal duel, between the two, but it was almost a relief when Telramund and his henchmen broke in to meet death and defeat, with Lohengrin once more barely bothering to raise his sword.

It was good to see, at the end of a poignant, lyrical performance of “In fernem Land”, that Lohengrin got his swan after all: etched out of a metal plate, with strong light behind it. The shock of the evening was that the final transformation did not turn the swan into a living, fully-grown Gottfried, but into the tiny corpse of the boy whose supposed death in the forest had brought down the initial judgement on Elsa. Among other questions Kasper Holten’s production left deliberately unanswered was this: was Elsa guilty all along, just as Ortrud had said?

****1