Richard Wagner’s original scores are littered with specific set descriptions and stage directions which the composer believed essential to the optimal dramatic representation of his operas. For some inexplicable reason, gaggles of self-serving, seemingly musically illiterate directors have put personal ego before partitura and willfully distorted Wagner’s detailed dramaturgy beyond recognition. Andreas Homoki appears to be a recent convert to this cult of Wagnerian iconoclasm. His Lohengrin for the Wiener Staatsoper brutally removes any semblance of mystique, mystery or spirituality and replaces 10th-century Antwerp with a boorish Bavarian beer-hall which, until the last act at least, doesn’t even have any beer. King Henry’s Judgment oak tree is non-existent – unless it has been chopped down and made into a wooden table.

Ricarda Merbeth (Elsa) and Stefan Vinke (Lohengrin) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Ricarda Merbeth (Elsa) and Stefan Vinke (Lohengrin)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The sublime Prelude which reflects the serenity and grace of mystical Monsalvat was disturbed by gratuitous flashbacks to the funeral of Elsa’s father and her aborted marriage to Telramund. Homoki seems to have got that wrong as well, for it appears Elsa reneges at the last moment when in fact it is Telramund who terminates the marriage at Ortrud’s insistence due to her own ambitions for the house of Radbod.

A supremely kitsch pink linked-hearts placard with the words “Es gibt ein Glück” (taken from the text of the Act II duet between Elsa and Ortrud) blots the front scrim and is replicated in a smaller framed version in the charmless Hofbräuhaus. This claustrophobic big wooden box is the only set and severely limits dramatic development and chorus movement. To compensate, there is constant table repositioning with people jumping onto them at every opportunity. It seems Elsa’s divinely ordained marriage was to be consummated on a tavern table-top. There are no Saxon, Thuringian or Brabantian counts, knights and nobles – just a lot of indistinguishable Bavarian yokels in Lederhosen. In Act I, Elsa is cradling a crass papier-mâché swan in the manner of a comotose Brabantine Leda. During a manic maelstrom, it transmogrifies into Lohengrin who writhes around on the floor for a while dressed in nothing but a white smock. So much for the stupendous impact of the “glänzender Silberrüstung”. No awe, no solemnity, no spirituality.

Ricarda Merbeth (Elsa) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Ricarda Merbeth (Elsa)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Apart from Homoki’s dramaturgical aberrations, things were not much better on the musical side. Klaus Florian Vogt was scheduled to sing the title role but was indisposed and replaced by Stefan Vinke, making his Staatsoper debut. Vinke has some good top notes but there is uneven breath control, overall lack of phrasing and a tendency to push above midrange. “In fernem Land” lacked nuance and sensitivity.

Günther Groissböck’s King Henry was more bourgeois Bürgermeister than Teutonic despot and although the middle-voice is impressive enough, there were projection shortcomings in the low register. Boaz Daniel sang a reliable, albeit unspectacular Herald. As Ortrud, Petra Lang seemed to relish the many opportunities for Lady Macbethian malevolence but the constant hands akimbo direction made her more like a stroppy Oktoberfest Kellnerin than a diabolic Friesian princess. As the gate-crasher from hell, she jumps up onto the wedding feast tables and kicks all the floral centerpieces to the ground with surprising dexterity. If this Ortrud ever tired of hocus-pocus, she would be a star striker in the Brabant Bundesliga. The electrifying “Entweihte Götter” curse was vocally potent with a solid sustained top A sharp on “Rache” but memories of Ruth Hesse or Dunja Vejzovic were far from erased.

Petra Lang (Ortrud) and Tomasz Konieczny (Telramund) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Petra Lang (Ortrud) and Tomasz Konieczny (Telramund)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Similarly, following Camilla Nylund as the original Elsa in this production, Ricarda Merbeth was a disappointing successor. The requisite crystalline top and purity of tone just wasn’t there and a fast vibrato often intruded to the detriment of the cantilena. Staatsoper regular Tomasz Konieczny was far more successful in his role debut as Telramund. His clarion top register effortlessly cut through the huge orchestration without loss of musicality and the “Durch dich musst' ich verlieren” monologue was terrifying.

Two further positives from this performance were the superb Staatsoper chorus and the impassioned conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Only some surprisingly tentative intonation from the legendary Vienna strings in the Act I Vorspiel marred what was otherwise a fine reading. Conversely, the lower strings opening to Act II was particularly mellifluous as was the exquisite postlude to “Es gibt ein Glück”. Flutes were occasionally slightly strident, but the brass was especially impressive. Although clearly mindful of the singers with very clear entry indications, Nézet-Séguin was not going to hold the musicians back and many orchestra tuttis were decibel shattering. The prelude to Act III was crisp and majestic with some lilting wind playing in the contrasting middle section.

For all Homoki’s directional deviations, at least we were spared the population of rodents which characterized Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin debacle in Bayreuth. Beer-swilling Bavarians are preferable to whisker-twitching Brabantians any day.

***11