In 1845, when Richard Wagner took time away from his duties as Konzertmeister in Dresden for some serious rest and relaxation, he travelled to Marienbad, a spa in western Bohemia, taking texts about the myth of the Holy Grail with him. The story has it that the idea for his Lohengrin came to him in his bath, and that he jumped out of the water in typical Wagnerian fervour to map out the score and make notes on the staging.

Elza van der Heever (Elsa) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) © Monika Rittershaus
Elza van der Heever (Elsa) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
© Monika Rittershaus

Perhaps the most accessible of the Wagner operas, Lohengrin tells a fairly straightforward − albeit it mystical − tale of the battle between good and evil that is played against a background of pageantry and connivance. While its even temperament may lack the explosives of the Ring Cycle operas, Lohengrin's intimacy, psychology and abuse of loving trust give it tremendous emotional appeal. None the least, because an overriding morality shows that punishment is always commensurate with the deed; in this version, for example, the girl’s doubts about her defender’s background cause her to lose him for all time.

In the story, it is Telramund − guardian of the dead Duke of Brabant’s children − who accuses the Duke’s daughter Elsa of fratricide, contending she murdered her brother to ascend to the throne after her father’s death. The trial that ensues, in keeping with “May the sword not return to the sheath until justice is done”, proves her innocence, but only after the miraculous appearance of her “champion” Lohengrin, who grapples with Telramund on her behalf. Lohengrin asks little of Elsa except (the small trifle) that she marry him and never enquire after his origins. Livid about the banishment her husband has been dealt after the trial, Ortrud needles her way in to Elsa’s confidence, and plants suspicion, such that Elsa ultimately violates the no-questions rule, and pays the ultimate cost for her misgivings: her “champion” − revealed as a Knight of the Holy Grail − must leave her. 

As a rule, Zurich tends to pare down the extravagance of its opera sets, marking them by a lack of pretension or any distracting detail. Here, the full duration of the three acts plays out on a stage that resembles an oversized corporate conference room: floor to ceiling ochre-brown panelling, a few hidden doors. Yet what initially seems a drab and loveless backdrop proves a clever device to set off the tremendous vibrancy, both of the score, and the frequent, heavy spill of singers in their subtle-coloured costumes. With upwards of 60 singers in the chorus, there is energy and commotion enough. Yet the production does betray a profusion of nationalistic items: the beer steins, carved wooden chairs, crowds being swayed by the conviction that reads: “For German soil, the German sword.” Interestingly, Adolf Hitler, saw Lohengrin as his very first opera, and in Mein Kampf, was to write: “What is celebrated is… pure and noble blood, blood whose purity the brotherhood of initiates has come together to guard”.

Not everybody warms to men in shorts. Yet costumes that dress men in the cosy-folk cliché of white smocks tucked into Lederhosen, and commit the women's roles to the tight white bodices of traditional dirndls, is true to the medieval German modus. Nevertheless, I found a singularly kitschy presence in the flat painted entr’acte curtain that carries two gigantic, flaming pink hearts. Leaning into one another like amorous lovers, the hearts rise above a caption in old German script: “There is some happiness” (Es gibt ein Glück), and the same motif takes its place centre stage rear, as the cult object of protagonist Elsa’s devotion. No question that the curtain, the theatre’s version of the “screen saver”, walks a tightrope between fire curtain and saccharine teenage poster.

Elza van der Heever (Elsa) © Monika Rittershaus
Elza van der Heever (Elsa)
© Monika Rittershaus

The singing, however, was stellar throughout. As the lead, Klaus Florian Vogt’s silvery tenor was as convincing and pure a sound as one could expect from a “blessed power” in human form. Elza van den Heever − as his beloved Elsa, whose doubts about Lohengrin bring down the whole house of cards − added acting skills that also were highly commendable to her tremendous vocal range: she truly became a bride as the wedding gifts came in, as her dearest friends congratulated her. But the emotional turmoil that Martin Gantner portrayed in his Telramund and the degree of evil imparted by his conniving wife, Ortrud, sung by Petra Lang, made for the real show-stoppers. Aspiring to see her husband wear Brabant’s crown, Ortrud came on stage like a vulgar peasant, legs akimbo, hands on hips, her face fixed in a kind of tobacco-chewing grimace, and later, even upped the wicked ante with a hideous, but completely silent laughter. Her voice was spectacular, and her character’s evil – “versed in the darkest arts” − unprecedented.

The production of “Lohengrin”, new to Zurich, has very few shortcomings. Admittedly, the fight that is taken to prove Elsa’s innocence was hardly more than a lame scuffle; the swan that Elsa holds elegiacally to remember her champion looks like a plastic garden figurine. But the production was refreshing, and both the quality of the voices and superb command of the orchestra by the Australian conductor Simone Young rendered Wagner’s music passionate, spirited and full of verve. The audience was startled, sympathetic, indeed transported by the unimpeded energy Young brought to Wagner’s music, ensuring that, as Lohengrin tells Elsa, “Nie soll Dein Reiz entschwinden” (Never shall your appeal fade). In short: she and stage director Andreas Homoki, along with an extraordinary cast, gave nothing less than the most compelling Wagner that Zurich has seen and heard in a long time.