As is so often the
case with Wagner, we’re suddenly thrown into proceedings that
have been evolving for a long time before the opera opens. Who
is this young woman Elsa, whom we see prostate and agonised
on an empty stage? How has she come to be in this position?
This production cuts straight to the heart of the drama. There’s
no need for pseudo-medieval trappings: Elsa’s position is symbolic.
She’s the pivot on which the wider forces of Good and Evil rotate.
The set is spartan, militaristic in vaguely Cold War terms,
which further heightens the tension. The trial keeps us alert
because it references things to events in the recent past. Elsa
isn’t just a dumb blonde waiting for a knight in shining armour.
Nikolaus Lenhoff brings out the stark intensity of the dilemma
facing Brabant, or any other society at the crossroads. The
simple, elegant set also means that there’s little to distract
from the music. I have never understood why people who listen
only to recordings “need” naff sets. If it’s really the music
they’re after, why clutter the experience with swan costumes
and pageantry? It’s not logical. It’s an affectation that doesn’t
The orchestral playing
here is superb, and really deserves the focus it gets in this
production. Nagano, with his modernist sensibilities, makes
the score shine with clarity and precision. Stretching the tempi
might work in more leisurely productions, but not here. This
production is powerful because it’s so immediate and alert,
and the conducting style is very much a part of the overall
concept. Nagano’s sensitivity to the inherent psychological
drama in the music makes for very tight shifts of tempo and
colour. The orchestra sounds like a powerful beast ready to
pounce, held under firm control. Watching Nagano conduct is
part of the thrill. He’s animated yet completely at one with
his players. The famous Prelude, rising as if from nowhere,
from the pit, is beautifully translucent, strings so well blended
that the overall effect shimmers. The Vorspiel to Act
Three is taken at a prancing pace, the brass packing a punch.
Yet, Nagano makes the decorations warm, so it leads naturally
into the wedding music. Later, in the Morgenröte, Nagano
and his orchestra convey so strongly in sound the images of
a sunrise, trumpet alarums, flags unfurling and so on, that
the simple, sombre set seems to disappear in the face of the
relentless forward thrust of the fanfare.
Perhaps the gentle
humour fits with the image of the happy bridegroom so engrossed
at the piano that he doesn’t notice his bride approach. He’s
not, after all, a red-blooded male but an alien from another
realm. It’s a gentle way of exploring the hero’s deeper aspects,
without probing too closely into his ultimate inability to connect
to a woman. It also makes sense of Elsa’s somewhat histrionic
personality, hinted strongly at in the First Act, where she’s
an Outsider, too, almost demented with fear. I’ve always had
a soft spot for Solveig Kringelborn, having heard her in her
first London recital years ago. Hers is not the most perfect
of voices, for it has a tendency to sharpen at the lower end.
But she can act, infusing what she sings with feeling and character.
I’d rather a conflicted Elsa than perfect but remote interpretation.
When Lohengrin shouts “Curb your madness!”, you know what he
means. Klaus Florian Vogt has a much more classically beautiful
voice, as befits a Higher Being. His shiny suit is so badly
cut, you realise that it’s deliberate – this fellow is a swan,
he isn’t used to wearing a suit, or relating to the messy emotional
world of humans. Fortunately, the sheer beauty of Vogt’s ringing,
pure tones shines out, dispelling the stiff, formal body language
that’s part of the characterisation in this production. The
orchestra comes gleaming to the rescue, reinforcing the sense
of light and radiance.
Waltraud Meier has
portrayed Ortrud so many times she’s made it her territory.
She is, of course, excellent. It’s one of those roles where
getting older enhances the characterisation, and her voice still
easily packs the heft it has always had. In the First and Second
Act, she effortlessly steals the thunder from Kringelborn ,
even though this isn’t her darkest and most inspired portrayal.
Curiously, in the end, she appears in a dress that looks more
feathery than Lohengrin’s. When she calls out to the forgotten
Gods, you wonder if they were animist and primeval, or indeed,
if they really are defeated. It’s an intriguing touch, especially
when the new Duke is revealed and looks just like a younger
version of Vogt, complete with padded suit to mimic Vogt’s solid
build. This is no wan stripling. In fact, he’s decidedly swan-like
in the sense that swans are stronger than they look. It’s a
strikingly Freudian detail, and very thought-provoking.
Tom Fox and Hans-Peter
König characterise their roles fully, Fox in particular singing
with impressive depth. Telramund is a pivotal figure too, in
that he conveys force without intellect, old loyalties that
are waylaid by short-term gains. He was the mainstay in the
First Act. I do try to warm to Roman Trekel, but he really doesn’t
do anything for the Herald, a role that could be a lot less
“minor” than it is here.
“Never shall thou ask of me” is much better than the average
bonus film. It’s actually worth watching because it tells a
lot about how a production is developed. Lehnhoff doesn’t go
for fashion or gags, everything has to fit together logically.
Contrary to populist opinion, good directors know the music
intimately. Lenhoff describes the Prelude as the “first monochromatic
music ever written … the best Philip Glass, you know”. And then
there’s a shot of Nagano and the orchestra doing just that.
Listening to the singers, in particular to the articulate Tom
Fox, is revealing.