by Rachel Beaumont

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Never mind the Nazis: Lohengrin at the ROH

Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Upper Amphitheatre U66, £13, upgraded to Stalls N29
28 June 2018
ROH page

I know it’s seriously problematic to invoke the Third Reich in productions of Wagner operas. I do. But even despite the Nurembergian swan and the long red banners, even despite knowing director David Alden’s decisions should be making me as a Wagner fan rail against him – I had a great time. I enjoyed this Lohengrin tremendously, partly because many of other Alden’s decisions work very well with the drama and the music, mainly because some of the singing was simply stupendous, and a little bit because the biggest whiffs of uneasiness in the production coincided with those parts where the opera itself goes off the rails.

And then also because the orchestra sounded magnificent, which is the primary deal-breaker. All hail Andris Nelsons for his sweeping Wagnerian sensibilities! I’m torn between knowing this isn’t an easy piece to perform and feeling that in this performance there were pure continual waves upon waves of magnificence, of sounds that are too awesome to contemplate, that beauty and wondrousness were simply unleashed and allowed to unfurl and blossom. There were times I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even the Royal Opera Chorus, who I think can be lacklustre in the musicality department, were united in glory.

Ortrud must be Christine Goerke’s dream role. It suits her so well it could have been written for her. The occasional harshness of sound which has slightly marred her Turandot or Elektra is of course here a crucial element. The immense blade of her voice slices through everything and all supernaturally, the kind of sound that it is overwhelming to think of a single human being being able to produce. She knows it – how could she not – and owns the stage and this gift of a role as a great artist should. It is a thrill to see someone perform at this level.

Of the rest of the cast I think Georg Zeppenfeld as Heinrich approaches Goerke’s level with his steely, present-in-your-ear sound which is so good for the soul, but of course he doesn’t have that much to do. Thomas J. Mayer as Telramund makes a good stab at things and possesses the stage impressively, but fundamentally I don’t think is built to be singing at these volumes; he sounded through the piece increasingly hoarse and shouty, like a good voice abused. I knew Jennifer Davis pretty much exclusively as a Young Artist at the ROH and so it is a revelation to see her hold her own against these big hitters. Her lighter voice still has a presence and truth that is ideal for Elsa, even though it occasionally sits under the note, and the clarity and intelligence of her acting carries the show through its rockier moments.

Then we come to the uncharacteristic Lohengrin of Klaus Florian Vogt. I’m sure there are Wagner fans out there who deplored Vogt’s singing, who reeled aghast at the plainness of his tone and his outrageous breaths within lines. This is all true, and he is also almost completely wooden in his stage movements. But the power of Vogt’s voice is all the more remarkable for its unconventionality, and whatever might be regarded as defects in more common contexts are here made to be central in what both Alden and Nelsons seek to achieve. Vogt’s tone is simple but his volume is a match for Goerke’s; his actions are constrained but in an otherworldly, superior way. Everything about his voice and his person reflects and enhances Alden and Nelsons’s presentation of Lohengrin as truly alien, a figure of unearthly purity. It’s all of such weirdness it’s almost enough to make sense of the ending. Not quite though.

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