It seems that not even Jonas Kaufmann likes the title character in Lohengrin. In a publicity video for Opera Australia, the star tenor dubbed him “the false symbol of a hero” and, aside from his voice, there was nothing heroic about his portrayal of this mysterious stranger who arrives in 13th-century Brabant. Director Olivier Py works against the sense of awe which Wagner intended to greet the title character from his entrance, so that instead of a knight in shining armour towed by a swan, we saw him playing airplanes with a young boy. Re-situating the action to the ruins of post-war Berlin add to disenchantment of this production. Has the Wedding March ever before been sung by a chain gang of women passing buckets of rubble down the line?

Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin)
© Jeff Busby

So far, so standard. The notion of a godlike military leader who is (or ought to be) above question rightly grates with contemporary sensibilities, and stagings which deliberately work against Wagner’s heroics are legion. But re-situating operatic scenarios to the period around World War 2 is a tired cliché. It can still be done brilliantly (for instance, in Barrie Kosky’s 2017 Meistersinger), but it seems to be Py’s automatic go-to, to judge by the fact that his version of Halevy’s La Juive, seen earlier this year in Sydney, adopts the same strategy. But while a story of persecuted 19th-century Jews overlays easily and convincingly onto the Holocaust, here it seemed gratuitous.

Daniel Sumegi (Heinrich) and the Opera Australia Chorus
© Jeff Busby

In the present case, Py's updating is further complicated with a thick, if hardly coherent, layer of symbolism. Lines from the poem Todesfuge by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan are daubed on one wall (in German, without any context), while mysterious emblems and devices are shown on banners or scrawled by characters onto the backcloth. Most strikingly, the duet between Lohengrin and Elsa in Act 3 takes place on a multi-level museum display case, in which various artefacts (a horse, a ship, a clock) are juxtaposed with iconic names from German literature and arts (Goethe, Schiller, Carl Maria von Weber).

Emily Magee (Elsa) and Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin)
© Jeff Busby

Again, there are precedents for heavily symbolic or imagistic productions of Wagner: the stagings of Parsifal by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg or Stefan Herheim jump to mind. Even the gesture of assembling images of German culture heroes has been done before; for instance, in the frontcloth of Richard Jones’s 2017 Meistersinger for ENO. But while in these cases, the purpose of the symbolism was usually clear, even if the details required further study, here it was puzzling and distracting to the point of upstaging the singers.

And it was a shame to have one’s attention taken away from the singing and orchestral playing, which at times was truly outstanding. The Act 1 Prelude had the requisite ethereal quality, and Tahu Matheson conducted Orchestra Victoria with sureness of touch and sensitivity to the needs of the singers. From the first sung notes, it was clear we had an excellent herald in Warwick Fyfe, his stentorian delivery of announcements so forceful that it was plausible Lohengrin might have heard him in far-off Montsalvat.

Emily Magee (Elsa) and Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin)
© Jeff Busby

Every story needs a good antagonist, and here we had two. Simon Meadows’ focussed tone and clarity of pitch made his turn as Telramund one of the evening’s big successes. The huge-voiced Elena Gabouri played his partner in life-and-crimes, Ortrud, and the sheer thrill of sound when she opened up on her top notes was enough to make me forgive her over-ample vibrato elsewhere. Emily Magee’s Elsa was not quite at this level, but she acquitted herself creditably in her duets with both villainess and hero. Daniel Sumegi exuded nobility as King Heinrich, and both male and female choruses, busier here than in most other Wagner operas, were excellent.

Emily Magee (Elsa), Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin), Simon Meadows (Telramund) and Elena Gabouri (Ortrud)
© Jeff Busby

But ultimately this production will be remembered for Kaufmann. With the top tickets an eye-watering $799 each (more than twice the price of premium seats at other OA productions), the pressure was on him to deliver the goods. In the event, his operatic stage debut in Australia was a triumph. Whether cutting through the textures with his burnished top notes, or showing his sensitivity at the soft end of his dynamic range, this was a five-star vocal performance from one of opera’s biggest stars today. The magical thread of sound he produced near the start of his monologue “In fernem Land” was the thrill of the evening. So often associated with loudness and bombast, Wagner may in fact be most moving when most restrained. Directors take note: perhaps this could be the starting point for a truly innovative take on the composer?

****1