Over the last few years, conductor Semyon Bychkov and singers Johan Botha and Petra Lang have given an acclaimed series of performances of Lohengrin in Spain, Austria and Germany. They have now brought their interpretation to Covent Garden to coincide with a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1977 production.
Moshinsky’s conception of the opera is relatively minimalist. Wagner’s 10th century Brabant is mainly evoked through medieval costumes and a number of large Byzantine style crosses, although the plain walls and a sandy looking floor give the impression of a desert location rather than northern Europe.
The action initially takes place behind a gauze, which is lifted only upon Lohengrin’s arrival halfway through Act 1. Whatever this is meant to suggest, the effect beforehand is rather like watching a poor quality video screen. Combined with the lack of movement on stage, the result is dramatically torpid. Fortunately, the staging becomes more effective as the opera progresses. A mysterious swirling red moon gives atmosphere to Ortrud and Telramund’s machinations in Act 2, while the deployment of a red fabric on the floor in Act 3 allows Elsa to recline coquettishly during the initial stages of her important scene with Lohengrin.
The singing is a major strength in this production. Johan Botha has now performed Lohengrin some 150 times and brings an authority and nobility to the role alongside a vocal performance which combines strength with tenderness. Petra Lang is even better as Ortrud, her performance as remarkable for its dramatic flair as it is for her vocal prowess. Her top notes when she invokes the gods Wodan and Freia in Act 2 are thrilling.
Making her debut at Covent Garden is Edith Haller as Elsa. She has a fine soprano voice, attractive to listen to but also capable of being heard over the combined forces of choir and orchestra. Her portrayal of the character combines tenderness and strength, enabling Elsa’s questioning of Lohengrin’s identity seem a natural consequence of her love for him rather than simply a result of Ortrud’s manipulation.
Due to illness, baritone Falk Struckmann was unable to perform Telramund and was replaced by Gerd Grochowski, who was due to assume the role on 5 May. Grochowski, who was an impressive Šiskov in the recent Chreau production of From The House of the Dead, brings a youthful vigour to the Brabantian count. The bass roles of King Heinrich I and the Herald are impressively voiced by Kwangchul Youn and Boaz Daniel. There are also energetic contributions from the members of the chorus.
Whereas some opera productions involve cuts in the music, an intriguing aspect of this staging is the inclusion of some music additional to that normally heard. This comprises a passage removed by Wagner before the first performance and its restoration adds a few minutes to Lohengrin’s Grail Narration towards the end of Act 3.
Regrettably the conducting of Semyon Bychkov undermined the positive aspects of the performance. His interpretation encompasses a strongly architectural view of the score and brings refulgent playing from the orchestra. However, this was a performance which lacked emotional thrust, leaving untouched much of the spirituality and rapture which are so important in the opera. One hopes that later performances will be more involving.