Nothing probably illustrates better the abstraction in Pierre Audi’s vision of Lohengrin than the arrival of the Knight of the Swan: not a swan in sight here but instead, a bundle of oars on a wagon. Are these meant to symbolise a vessel, and by analogy the Holy Grail? I will never know. Not that this really matters: with its minimalist but grandiose sets, the imposing sound of the choir and the excellent conducting of Marc Albrecht, there is much to be enjoyed in this revival of the Dutch National Opera 2002 production.

Nikolai Schukoff (Lohengrin) © Ruth Walz
Nikolai Schukoff (Lohengrin)
© Ruth Walz

Elements are a recurring theme in Mr Audi’s productions, and in the sets conceived by Greek artist Jannis Kounelis, the use of metal takes monumental proportions. The curtain opens in Act I onto an imposing wall of steel on which members of the chorus, more than a hundred of them, are suspended in columns, four-persons high.

Clean lines and use of materials like metal and wood slightly recall Japanese sense of aesthetic. Light plays on an iron wall to make it glow as if it was covered with gold leaf. A giant screen in the bridal room, adorned with a motive of swan feathers, gets a lacquerware shine. The costumes by Angelo Figus reinforce this impression: they are all intricate and stiffly starched folds, reminiscent of Noh theatre kimonos. The static actors’ direction almost recalls Noh theatre’ stiff movements too, unfortunately not on purpose:  the monumental sets often take up so much space that there is little left for the actors to move on stage. Only in Act II does the stage open up to let the choir parade in the impressive and flowing wedding procession.

The newly appointed artistic director to the choir, Ching-Lien Wu, could not have wished for a better start in her function: Lohengrin has wonderful chorus music and the choir plays an important role in the action. The Dutch National Opera Choir certainly did her proud, singing magnificently throughout the performance.

The soloists’ singing made a mixed impression. The Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff, a seasoned interpreter of Parsifal, debuted in the title role last Monday. His voice suited the lyrical passages (Lohengrin’s entrance “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber schwan !”, that he unfortunately has to sing off stage, and the duet in the bridal room) but it lacked the power one would expect in the wedding procession scene or in his narration of the Graal “In fernem Land”.

Juliane Banse’s Elsa was disappointing, especially since Mr Audi’s staging focuses more than others on the heroine. Elsa occupies the centre of the stage at all times. She is, as a serpent winding down the drapes of her wedding dress seems to suggest, like a primal Eve: her quest for knowledge will eventually bring destruction. Alas, her voice sounded uncomfortably pushed, she had problems with pitch and the upper range was unpleasantly shrill. Elsa’s dream ("Einsam in trüben Tagen") in Act I lost its impact and, although she seemed to warm up in Act II, her vocal frailty never allowed emotion to develop.

Michaela Schuster (Ortrud) and Evgeny Nikitin (Telramund) © Ruth Walz
Michaela Schuster (Ortrud) and Evgeny Nikitin (Telramund)
© Ruth Walz

The couple of villains gave a much stronger performance altogether, and the scene between Telramund and Ortrud at the beginning of Act II became the only truly dramatic highlight of the performance. Michaela Schuster was a proud and menacing Ortrud. She tackled the sorceress’ difficult tessitura with assurance, her voice only showing a slightly too intrusive vibrato under pressure at the very top. As her manipulated husband, the defeated and vengeful Telramund, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was both vocally and visually (with his trademark tattoos on display) ideal. Günther Groissböck's warm bass made a suitably regal King Heinrich der Vogler.

Marc Albrecht’s conducting was exemplary in the way the maestro managed to balance between supporting the singing of soloists on stage while drawing intense and colourful sound from his Netherlands Philarmonic Orchestra in the pit.