Lohengrin in Lederhosen may not be everyone’s idea of the noble grail knight. The majestic King Heinrich reduced to the mayor of a Bavarian village is also a stretch. And it takes a substantial leap of imagination to accept the concept of a rustic inn as the sole venue for the nearly four hours of Romantic drama. Yet the performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Wiener Staatsoper transcended its curious staging, redeemed by vocal and orchestral performances that shone in their nuanced artistry.
Stage director Andreas Homoki’s intentions of modernising the work are laudable, but he goes too far. The epic music of this opera calls for grand visuals that heighten the nearly four hours of drama. Instead he reduces it to cozy dimensions more fitting to Hänsel und Gretel. That may make the production easier to stage, but it comes at a price. In a grand fairy tale for adults such as this work, bare-calved farmers' lads in Alpine hats and damsels in Dirndls are a poor substitute for knights in armour and ladies in all their finery, while an inn is a meagre replacement for castle ramparts and courtyards. It’s a joyless place, its bare-panelled walls of dark wood reminiscent of those of a basement recreation room put up in a hasty DIY weekend.
But musically there was much to enjoy. Conductor Cornelius Meister and the Wiener Staatsopernorchester gave a nuanced interpretation of the score from the first shimmering violin sounds depicting the Holy Grail descending to earth to the low cellos and menacing woodwinds introducing Act 2, to the final crescendo accompanying the curtain’s fall. Wagner famously described himself as “a musician who wrote music which is better than it sounds”. But it is difficult to imagine anything better than the inspired performance of Meister and his players.