Classical review: Lohengrin - Love means never having to say who you really are


Love is seldom simple in Wagner's operas. There is always a curse or a price, some impossible condition to be met, some sacrifice to be made. In Lohengrin ("the favourite opera of all sensitive ladies", according to one 19th-century critic), sensitive Elsa stands falsely accused of the murder of her brother, Gottfried. The dreamboat hero who arrives to defend Elsa's honour is quick to say those three little words that she longs to hear, and quick to march her to the altar to the lily-scented strains of Wagner's wedding anthem, with the proviso that she should never ask his name. Alas, Elsa has three little words of her own to say, burning like chili pepper on her sensitive tongue: who are you?

Thoughtfully lit by Lucy Carter, Antony McDonald's poetic, painterly, measured production of Lohengrin advances the rebranding of Welsh National Opera under its new artistic director, David Pountney. Thematic programming features highly in Pountney's vision. Here Wagner's medieval fantasy is paired with Jonathan Harvey's oneiric meditation on the dying composer's fascination with Buddhism, Wagner Dream, which opens this week. The combination marks Wagner's bicentenary imaginatively, while reminding the audience just how high the standard of WNO's musicianship can be under conductor Lothar Koenigs.

The milk-white skeins of the Prelude uncurl over a scrim of grey-blue skies and distant tree-tops. Clad in top-coats and heavy-petalled silks of emerald, heliotrope, claret and Prussian blue, McDonald's 19th-century Brabantines gather in a damp and decaying Brialmont fortress, vivid ghosts from an embattled Antwerp 900 years later than the one of Wagner's imagining. Trumpet fanfares dazzle from one, then two, later four corners of the auditorium. Though Heinrich der Vogler (Matthew Best) has called this conference, it is Emma Bell's Elsa who commands our attention, her soft-grained singing immaculately shaped and developed. The swan that pulls the boat on which Peter Wedd's slender, Assange-blond Lohengrin arrives is a single-winged half-seraph, dangerously beautiful.

Danger comes in many forms, some signalled rather too bluntly by Wagner. McDonald avoids any pantomime villainry in his direction of Telramund (an excellent Claudio Otelli replacing an indisposed John Lundgren) and Ortrud (Susan Bickley) in the dank courtyard of Act II. Only Sir John Tomlinson does embittered silence more powerfully than Bickley, whose malevolently glittering eyes are as eloquent as her biting delivery. Wedd has a light, curiously androgynous voice for the role of Lohengrin, but his fatal conversation with Elsa is beautifully timed and his Act III monologue persuasive. The movement direction throughout strikes a fascinating balance between ritual and naturalism. There will be more glamorously cast productions of Lohengrin in this bicentenary year but few in which stage and pit are so closely united.

London Contemporary Orchestra (Aldwych Underground, London *****) celebrated its fifth birthday with a programme of works by Thomas Adès, Morton Feldman, Cage, Stockhausen and others in the former Aldwych Underground station, the Piccadilly Line's appendix until 1994. The centrepiece was Claude Vivier's magnetic Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do You Believe in the Immortal Soul?), a work for 12 singers, narrator, percussion and synthesisers left incomplete when Vivier was murdered in 1983, under circumstances eerily similar to those in his text (he was stabbed by a young man he picked up on the Paris Métro).

Beguiling from the first dying falls of Adès's Darknesse Visible in the ticket hall to the blanched homophony of Jonathan Harvey's The Angels in a rubble-strewn tunnel, the ghostly fragments of the Vivier on the tracks, and the dialogues of bowed, blown, banged and electronically altered sounds in the carriages and lift-shafts between, the event was both an invigorating start to LCO's "Imagined Occasions" series, and, with 160 steps to climb, a much-needed work-out for this sensitive lady.

'Lohengrin', in Cardiff to 8 June, then touring

Critic's Choice

Opera Holland Park's summer season opens with Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at Holland Park Theatre in west London (from Tue). Welsh National Opera's first UK staging of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream opens at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (Thu, Fri), touring to Bristol Hippodrome (12 June)