Australian Arts Review, 16 May 2022
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
We aren’t Berlin but it couldn’t be said that Melbourne audiences are hard
done by when it comes to the amount of quality opera on city stages
throughout the year.
But when the world’s most acclaimed tenor
arrives to interpret one of Richard Wagner’s numerous thought-provoking and
complex title characters, it makes for something especially stratospheric.
In a new production of Lohengrin for Opera Australia (a co-production
with Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie), German tenor Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t
disappoint, bringing sublime human substance and vocal prowess to the Grail
knight who answers the prayers of Elsa of Brabant, a noblewoman falsely
accused of murdering her brother, Duke Gottfried. At least, in Wagner’s
intended 10th century Germanic setting, that is the construct. French
director Olivier Py takes another view. More on that later.
builds his performance with impeccable attention to the text, articulating
with clear intent and carefully judged emotion. Everything from burnished to
velvety, Kaufmann’s seductive timbre bends flawlessly across a broad range,
effortlessly releasing shapely high notes and creating remarkable
pianissimos as if threading his vocal being through the eye of a needle.
Kaufmann’s final act, In Fernem land, unnahbar euren Schritten, when
Lohengrin solemnly proclaims his origins, is a tingling vocal masterpiece
wrapped in humility and strength.
Kaufmann is surrounded by an
exceptional world-class cast, a credit to Artistic Director Lyndon
Terracini’s vision. American soprano Emily Magee is supple-voiced and
radiant as Elsa, persuasively shifting from innocence to anxiousness.
On the dark side of humanity, local baritone Simon Meadows impresses
immensely in his principal role debut for the company, nailing the spitfire
Telramund with hefty vocal ammunition. And French-Russian mezzo soprano
Elena Gabouri is a spectacularly formidable Ortrud, Telramund’s cunning
Supporting roles are filled equally as outstandingly, with
large, authoritative bass Daniel Sumegi in a balancing act of diplomacy and
command as King Heinrich and stentorian baritone Warwick Fyfe – following up
on several magnificent trumpet fanfares from the theatre heights – singing
with great earnestness as the Herald. Has an operatic herald ever been
assigned such imposing musical power?
All the way down to the
individual Opera Australia Chorus member who forms part of a 70-plus
juggernaut showcasing massed choral delicacies, public comment and
exaltations, the vast beauty of Wagner’s score resonated.
helm, on Saturday’s opening night, conductor Tahu Matheson never compromised
on dramatic momentum, orchestral colour and maximum expressive impact.
Matheson could take the splendid-playing Orchestra Victoria to high-decibel
levels and be confident his singers could sail on the music. It seemed
nothing could have surpassed the evening’s musical magnificence.
the opening ethereal strings settle heartbeats, Py’s far-removed setting in
war-ravaged Berlin at the end of World War II is introduced in brooding
light and majestic scale. On the stage revolve, set and costume designer
Pierre-André Weitz’s versatile 4-level structure is revealed, its broken
glass panes and ashen appearance harmonising appropriately with Py’s
Overall, taking on the form of a bombed out theatre in which
much action takes place on its stage – and precariously on chairs as if Py
wants to emphasise tensions – it sets up the question of what is real and
what is imaginary. In this sense it finds a connection to the broadly
sourced mythical tale Wagner tells.
Py boldly presents the unsung
part of the missing Gottfried as a young boy (Riley Crouch-Phan) in ‘swan
white’, having been suffocated by Ortrud using the boy’s feather-filled
pillow, and seen at various times that include playing with Lohengrin. It’s
an intriguing idea that suggests intentions that Gottfried’s life was to be
groomed to carry on Lohengrin’s legacy.
There is no swan to transport
Lohengrin through the mist. Instead, a pile of pillow feathers is all that
remain as a white overcoat-dressed Kaufmann metaphorically swans in with
suave easiness and a duty to fulfil. Kaufmann’s Lohengrin, while exuding the
charisma of a saintly leader, certainly has the air of an everyday man. An
amusing photo-shoot to record his arrival demonstrates that.
Elsa’s pressing desire to know Lohengrin’s name and heritage after having
been manipulated by Ortrud might even come across as a nightmarish encounter
– one amongst large stage props acting as symbols of German Romanticism – in
which we see Lohengrin through Elsa’s hallucinatory lens.
and full in voice, gives an utterly searing interpretation to convince as
such. Contemplating the scale of trauma triggered by war and considering
other theatrical devices used, it is plausible
Framing it all, Py
seems especially intent on extracting what he can in order to connect
Wagner’s anti-Semitic leanings to a future Germany indoctrinated by Nazism.
A Nazi-portrayed Ortrud, far from sinking in the finale, is elevated in a
most sinister and threatening manner that portends business is not done. For
this, Gabouri digs deeply and ferociously in one of many performance
On several levels, the words of the American writer and
Nobel laureate William Faulkner resonate: “The past is never dead. It’s not
Wagner’s music is equally celebrated as his beliefs are
challenged – a figure unable in death to escape his past and, in many
directors’ assessment, to be put on trial. When a white young bare-chested
soldier audaciously flexes his gymnastic expertise (an extraordinary sight
danced by Reuben James Baron) during the opera’s most recognisable music,
the Bridal Chorus, it is as if remnants of Hitler’s promotion of the false
idea of glorifying the German people as members of the Aryan race is
staining any attempt to celebrate Lohengrin and Elsa’s union.
Py’s imaginative and challenging ideas, set compellingly by revival director
Shane Placentino, Wagner’s rich storytelling – of conflict, doubt,
vulnerability and attack of faith by reason – wins through. In some uncanny
way, that marriage of watertight score and Py’s risk-taking but visually
imposing interpretation defines the strength of this production.
the price of the best seats costing almost as much as a one-way economy
airfare to Europe, world-class opera doesn’t come cheap. But I guarantee,
when the accompanying adrenaline rush goes home with you, it will feel like
that’s where you’ve been.