Inheritance and the conflict of old and new orders are central themes of Wagner's Lohengrin so it is fitting that Katharina Wagner should be responsible for this 'new' production at The National Theatre in Prague. Originally planned as a brand new staging the limited stage facilities rendered this impractical and she decided to re-create her late father Wolfgang Wagner's 1967 Bayreuth production. This was the first season he had been in full control of the festival after the untimely death of his elder brother Wieland, whose radical vision had forged the New Bayreuth style beginning in 1951.

Dana Burešová (Elsa) and Chorus © Hana Smejkalová
Dana Burešová (Elsa) and Chorus
© Hana Smejkalová

Katharina Wagner was able to draw on the detailed production books, designs and many pictures from the archives, and adapt these for the smaller Prague stage. The stylised gestures and static choral groupings of 1950s and 60s Bayreuth are perhaps less easy to replicate in an age of live opera relays, with an emphasis on close-ups and a more naturalistic acting style. Indeed the the recent revival of Karajan's Salzburg production of Die Walküre of a similar vintage used an entirely directorial concept in the original Günther Schneider-Siemssen set designs.

What the audience in Prague saw was a historically correct period reconstruction, albeit in the living memory of at least some of us. The chorus marched on and off in a slow ceremonial manner, and were grouped in semi-circular formation around the central playing area where the soloists were deployed like chess pieces. Gestures were limited and the few moments of real action such as Lohengrin's and Telramund's sword fights were limited to perfunctory swipes with stage prop swords. The massed act finales were strictly eyes to the front. Lohengrin made his entry and exit against the projection of a swan on the cyclorama.

<i>Lohengrin</i> in Prague © Patrik Borecký
Lohengrin in Prague
© Patrik Borecký

Only in the more intimate scenes, such as those between Elsa and Ortrud, and between Ortrud and Telramund, was there a sense of character interaction and development. With her powerhouse dramatic mezzo Eliška Weissová circled her husband and Elsa like prey. In "Entweihte Götter" and her final "Fahr heim" she let fly with chandelier rattling force. Clad in sulphurous yellow with beaded jet shoulder pads she looked well able to vanquish Lohengrin in single combat with the swish of her cloak. The overshadowed cowed Telramund of Olafur Sigurdarson sang in a fluent lyrical manner in even his most declamatory moments.

As Elsa the mettlesome soprano of Dana Burešová initially seemed constrained by her characterisation as a droopy put-upon heroine, forever nervously stroking her tresses. Her diamond-edged tone was tempered in her caressingly floated "Euch Lüften". In the bridal chamber, chastely staged around a matrimonial sofa, her fatal questioning and doubts were sharply etched. Only at the very end did her rejection of the restored Gottfried give evidence of Katharina Wagner's directorial intervention.

Eliška Weissová (Ortrud), Dana Burešová (Elsa) and Ólafur Sigurdarson (Telramund) © Patrik Borecký
Eliška Weissová (Ortrud), Dana Burešová (Elsa) and Ólafur Sigurdarson (Telramund)
© Patrik Borecký

As her knight in shining armour Aleš Briscein presented a remote otherworldly figure clad in cerulean blue and silver. His bright tenor was at his best at "In fernem Land" and his greetings to the swan, not having the heroic weight of a military leader in his armoury. With cultured phrasing and diction he remained, like the character, anonymous never fully articulating his betrayal and loss. Peter Mikuláš was a venerable and dignified King Heinrich.

If the drama was muted the pageantry and beauty of the picture book sets, with Jugenstil trellis work and floor cloth more than compensated. Costumes were stylised medieval, somewhat modified in comparison with the original designs, and blessedly dispensing with the sculpted synthetic wigs.

The musical strength of the ensemble and the authority and meticulous preparation of Constantin Trinks' conducting  gave flesh and blood. With the orchestra overflowing into the stage boxes Trinks highlighted the colours of the score, like an illustrated manuscript, from the ethereal strings of the prelude, through the sombre woodwind tints to the brazen flourishes of the show-piece Act 3 prelude. The combined choruses of the State and National companies sang sonorously, equally secure in hushed awed wonder and martial belligerence.

The unique fairy-tale aura of Lohengrin with its wonderment, dark arts and enchantment were brilliantly captured in the production, without displacing memories of more textually probing contemporary productions. Personally having heard the original Bayreuth broadcast as a boy, when the prospect of a visit there was as remote as attaining the true Grail, it was a dream fulfilled to see it staged, albeit fifty years later.