Welsh National Opera’s contribution to the Wagner bicentenary is in the form of a summer season entitled Wagner Dream, consisting of Jonathan Harvey’s opera of the same name, a run of Madam Butterfly, and Antony McDonald’s new production of Lohengrin. Lothar Koenigs conducted an excellent performance of Wagner’s romantic opera at a packed Wales Millennium Centre.

© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper

McDonald transplants the action from a mediaeval setting to a stark, subtly industrial location in the composer’s own era. This works remarkably well and gives interesting context to the political aspects of the opera. Swords are largely replaced with guns (except for Lohengrin’s fights with Telramund) and there is a very clear class distinction between soldiers and nobles. Otherwise, things are fairly literal. Lohengrin appears and departs on a rather humble rowing boat, elegantly led by a feather-clad boy, and Lucy Carter’s excellent lighting provided good effects throughout.

The production as a whole was very good. The first two acts were highly engaging, with a thrilling finale to Act I. The intensity seemed to slip ever so slightly in the third act, though. The bedroom scene, in which Elsa asks the fatal question about her husband’s origins, seemed to dawdle, and the later parts of the act did not reach the same levels of emotional engagement as the first two acts had. The final pages of the opera were a little confusing: the restored Gottfried sends Ortrud to the ground with a Wotan-like hand gesture, takes up Lohengrin’s sword and proceeds to wave it imperiously at the whole cast, lingering quite menacingly on King Heinrich. It took little from an excellent performance, though.

The singing was superb without exception, but the WNO chorus and Susan Bickley’s Ortrud stood out. There were some almighty climaxes from the reinforced chorus, memorably in the Act II procession to the minster and Act III entry of the king.

Bickley gave an inspired performance as an uncomplicatedly evil Ortrud with incredible power throughout her range. She showed impressive stamina to match, seeming to become progressively more deranged in the latter parts of the opera. Her dramatic interaction with Telramund in Act II, plotting revenge on Elsa and Lohengrin, was outstanding. Ortrud was portrayed as so manipulative as to make Claudio Otelli’s Telramund seem a victim of his wife’s scheming. His crazed staggering around the stage very much shifted the malevolence to Ortrud. Otelli himself, replacing an indisposed John Lundgren, sang the humiliated Telramund very well, capturing his injured pride very convincingly.

Peter Wedd as the title character showed an impressive palate of vocal colours. He was most impressive in the softer moments from his very first words, tenderly thanking his swan. The more heroic passages were by no means disappointing, but the emphasis on Lohengrin’s gentler aspects was fascinating. His dismay at Elsa’s succumbing to Ortrud’s plot and asking his name was beautifully moving. He walked barefoot, perhaps highlighting his otherworldliness. Elsa, ably sung by Emma Bell, was a multifaceted character, mysterious and dreamy in her early dreams of her hero and tormented later. Bell’s rounded tone never threatened to become shrill.

Before the performance we were told that Matthew Best (King Heinrich) was suffering from a throat infection, and may need to be replaced by an understudy at some point in the opera. He sang the whole thing with imperious power, and I would not have suspected anything to be wrong with his throat had we not been told.

The WNO orchestra were on fine form. The strings were glassy and clear, not quite shimmering in the Act I prelude, but otherwise superb. The brass section was admirably noble when required, notably in the Act III prelude and the entry of King Heinrich. The latter of these featured thrilling use of offstage brass. Clusters of trumpets were stationed around the auditorium at various levels and the stereo sound provided by their fanfares was wonderful. The ensemble was impressive too, for such widely-spread forces. Lothar Koenigs’ conducting was measured and practical, constantly helpful to the singers and reserving grander gestures for a select few passages. There may have been scope for adjusting the pacing in places (Elsa and Lohengrin seemed to fall in love rather too quickly in Act I) but his mastery of a large orchestra, chorus and cast made for a hugely enjoyable performance. The slight slackening of emotional intensity in the third act did little to dampen audience spirits, and a very warm reception greeted the last notes. This is a production well worth seeing.