Let’s start with the positives. The Staatsopernorchester played beautifully and virtuosically, employing musical interest, fabulous sound and great energy. Hearty congratulations go as well to Mikko Franck who jumped in at the eleventh hour and proved himself a masterful interpreter of the oeuvre- his is a name to be reckoned with. Likewise the Staatsopernchor under the direction of Thomas Lang. Bravo, bravi, bravissimi! They all looked adorable in their dirndls and knee-high socks.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) © Michael Pöhn
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
© Michael Pöhn

Most of the problems of this production have to do with the production itself. Any time you take a four hour opera and limit it to a very confined space you are asking for trouble. Andreas Homoki’s reading of Wagner’s masterpiece is set exclusively in a tavern/hall in a late 19th/ early 20th century Germanic village far removed from the 10th Century in which the opera is set. And while one definitely wins a feeling of intimacy, identifiability and understanding of the claustrophobia of such a tight-knit society, there are significant losses. It is a huge ask of an audience to sit in the theatre and watch an epic drama enfolding in a tiny brown box. Whatever the gains in terms of interest and limits in scope, at times it just falls short dramatically. It’s hard to put up with Telramund (portrayed beautifully by Wolfgang Koch), the “drunken uncle” of this production, constantly barging into the same room, surrounded by the same mobs of people, from the same single door and making trouble. At a certain point one really starts to ask why the numerous people in the room don’t just toss him out a different door or at least give him something besides old white pajamas and hiking boots to wear.

Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa) © Michael Pöhn
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa)
© Michael Pöhn

Other dramatic weaknesses include the repetition of the swan trick at the close to reveal Elsa’s brother shivering on the floor. Her random presentation of a horn and a sword falls completely flat, as does the constant repetition of the portrait with two smoking hearts bearing the title “Es gibt ein Glück”. Elsa’s ridiculous attachment to the glowing painting is embarrassing and Ortrud breaking it over her knee is laughable. There is table moving ad nauseum over the course of the evening, which grows old, and the sword fight between Telramund and Lohengrin is the worst staged I have ever seen. If this production is supposed to bring an aspect of reality to Wagner’s story, this was quite literally a swing and a miss.

The big question with Lohengrin is always how to handle the swan. Lohengrin’s entrance and exit circle around a swan (in time revealed to be Elsa’s brother), a fact which has stymied directors for decades. This production handles the swan problem interestingly if not completely unproblematically. When the swan is first to appear, the women of the village spiral around Elsa as she holds a swan figurine until it and she are completely enveloped. When the women disperse we behold a shivering, shaking Lohengrin lying on the floor. This, a far cry from Lohengrin’s generally heroic appearance, gives a new and interesting cast to his musical entrance, appropriately piano and intimate. This fragility pairs well with the completely unusual timbre of Klaus Florian Vogt, whose voice is confounding and worthy of some discussion. Vogt’s tenor sound has aspects of countertenorial purity to it which initially seem like a disconnected, heady effect. However, he cuts through from top to bottom with complete use of his body. Though definitely a matter of taste which takes getting used to, there is no doubt that his instrument is unique and effectively portrays a different type of Lohengrin to the robust hero to which we are generally accustomed. Moreover, his control in piano is astounding.

Lohengrin © Michael Pöhn
Lohengrin
© Michael Pöhn

It was an excellent directorial choice to use a lightly illuminated screen during the overture. Through it the audience bears witness to both the funeral of Elsa’s father and her rejection of Telramund at the alter. Normally both of these key events are passed on only through Wagner’s weighty dialogue, and it was lovely to see them here pointed out visually.

Also, every singer emerges with credit, thanks to good conducting and a solid cast. As König Heinrich, Günther Groissböck's warmth though his middle and lower bass registers more than makes up for the relative weakness in his upper. He has wonderful presence and stature and is a joy to listen to and watch. Camilla Nylund is a gorgeous woman and an absolutely beautiful Elsa. Her voice is not overwhelmingly large, but she is a wonderful lyric Wagner singer. Wolfgang Koch (Telramund) is 100% comfortable in his role vocally and a commendable actor. The top of his range sounds a bit tight, likely a choice made consciously to gain volume at the expense of some warmth. He owns the role completely and is able to play with it musically and textually, creating his own, distinctive Telramund. Michaela Martens (Ortrud) is a fantastic contrast to Elsa in her dark red hair and dirndl. She matches Koch visually and vocally and is engaging to watch. Her sound is interesting and parts of her voice are absolutely stunning, though at times it sounds like she is in possession of three different voices depending on the tessitura. Detlef Roth (Heerrufer) was unfortunately miscast. Instead of the bright, ringing sound required he was forced to oversing against the larger voices around him. It would be lovely to hear him in something more appropriate for his voice type. It is, however, a shame he did not feel comfortable taking a bow. Miscastings happen regularly and the singer is not solely to blame for being in the wrong role at the wrong time.

***11