Melbourne Opera punch above their weight to deliver the genius of Wagner
Normally, you wouldn’t go past Shakespeare as the artist who can weave the most dramatic gold from the silliest of material, but if anyone were to give him a run for his money, it’d be Richard Wagner. Wagner’s fondness for arcane germanic mythologies and their often nonsensical logic was matched only by his compositional skill, and the result is an almost peerless musical sublimity. In The Ring of the Nibelungen he tosses dwarves, dragons, river maidens and incestuous siblings into the mix and comes out the other end with something approaching a genesis myth. If his earlier opera Lohengrin doesn’t quite reach these heights, it’s still a fine example of his transformative talent.
Lohengrin was composed just before the failed Dresden Uprising of 1849, in which Wagner played a minor but significant enough part that he was forced to flee to Switzerland. The composer Franz Liszt conducted its premiere in Wagner’s absence. While the revolutionary fervour can be evidenced in the opening scenes – most notably in King Heinrich’s calls for an army to destroy the invading Hungarian forces and bring about a unified Germany – the opera is concerned primarily with spiritual fervour, with faith and doubt.
Wagner took as his starting point the myth of Parsifal and his son, the Grail knight Lohengrin. To explain who they are is to give away the climax but also to indulge in a lot of puffery about doves and temples and magical swords and a horn and a ring and the kind of things you never find outside of a Dungeons and Dragons game circa 1987. It doesn’t matter though, because exquisite musical skill and a complete dedication to the tale’s inner meanings lends the material a ritualistic quality that is ultimately profoundly moving.
Lohengrin (Marius Vlad) enters the opera on a swan (seriously), summoned to the Duchy of Brabant by Elsa (Helena Dix) in order to defend her against the accusation of fratricide levelled by the current ruler, Talramund (Hrólfur Saemundsson). The accusation is the brainchild of Ortrud (Sarah Sweeting), herself angling for revenge and a place at the ruling table. Lohengrin agrees to take Elsa’s part, and her hand in marriage, on the condition she never asks him his origin, never asks him his name. It’s an echo of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and ends pretty much the same way.
Director Suzanne Chaundy takes a straightforward and unimaginative approach to the piece, which works well when it works and feels frankly amateurish when it doesn’t. The production is strong when there are few people on stage, but looks twee and overstuffed whenever there are many. Unfortunately, unlike The Ring, this Wagner opera has a lot of people on stage a lot of the time. It means that the wedding march, for example, comes across as an ultra-daggy pan-European rite of spring; it means a lot of poorly-dressed nuns hover inexplicably in the background. Worst of all, it means kids in cutesy dresses holding floral arrangements.
This isn’t to say that the production is a technical disaster. The video design by Yandell Walton works beautifully; the opening tableau, with the cast looking wistfully off into the landscape as the skies swirl in the background, is like a Caspar David Friedrich painting come to life, and Act II has an ecstatic sunrise timed magnificently to the music. The orchestra under the conductorship of Glenn Hocking is terrific, although the decision to elevate the horns gives them too much emphasis in an opera that really belongs to the strings.
Vocally, the piece is uneven but served well by the two leads. Vlad begins hesitantly at first but adds layers of nuance and texture to his singing with each appearance, and powers through the final act. His glorious aria ‘In fernem Land’ is sublime and moving, and he has great dramatic instincts, pulling way back on histrionics to deliver something approaching psychological realism. Dix is also very fine, with an unwavering control over the dynamics and delicacy in her upper register. Dramatically, she does a lot of eye-acting, rolling them and fluttering her eyelashes over them and darting them about. It’s unnecessary; like Shakespeare’s words, Wagner’s music does most of the work for the performer, and extraneous gesturing tends to tilt the work into melodrama.
Melbourne Opera punch way above their weight when they tackle Wagner’s major operas; fiendishly difficult to execute, exhausting in scale and significance, they’d strike the fear of God into better-funded, more established opera companies. Given that the majority of the chorus are amateurs, not to mention the company’s budgetary limitations, it’s a marvel they pull it off as well as they do. Chaundy would be better off updating her productions’ aesthetics, streamlining the visual demands and paring back her casts, but as an introduction to the genius of Wagner, this is pretty impressive.