OPEAR / Bad start to the honeymoon: Lohengrin - English National Opera

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The Independent Culture
There was a magisterial smile on Mark Elder's face as he acknowledged his warm welcome at Saturday's opening performance of the new English National Opera Lohengrin. If at the time it looked like self-congratulation in advance, with hindsight that was understandable. Elder was on his best form throughout the evening. The orchestra played magnificently for him, and he shaped and shaded each long act as if its form were as transparently clear as a movement from an early Mozart symphony. Musically there are big problems with Lohengrin, not least that it is almost as relentlessly four-in-a-bar as the average rock album (and rhythmically much less interesting). But, under Elder, the forward impetus held.

Thanks to his clear direction, ensembles also remained firm (after a little choral unsteadiness early in Act 1). There was strong, well-characterised singing from John Keyes as Lohengrin and Linda Finnie as Ortrud - Lady Macbeth plus the odd hint of Lady Thatcher. Malcolm Donnelly was, at least in Act 2, a believable, moody Telramund, Michael Druiett on the whole a solid King Heinrich (though the role can perhaps be more roundly eloquent). As Elsa, Linda McLeod had her moments of sweetness and light, but her vibrato - always wide - showed a tendency to wobble around the notes rather than centre on them. At times this seemed to infect others of the cast: in terms of pitch the unaccompanied ensemble towards the climax of Act 1 quickly dissolved into a pulsating mess. Surely Wagner meant those harmonic twists to tell.

As for the staging, the best that can be said is that on the whole it didn't get in the way. Much of it was firmly in the old, static, stand-and-deliver mould - which at least meant we could hear everything clearly. But the argument that minimal production is better than no production takes a bit of a knock when one is confronted with a staging that hardly interprets - apart from a few stock theatrical gestures. The promise of the opening image - soldiers prostrate in darkness, gradually arising with the music - was not fulfilled.

The sets, though a touch drab, were more interesting - even if they did savour of Bayreuths past. The movement, however, rarely seemed to make meaningful contact with them. Some fascinating business with the gauze curtain at the start of Act 3 (gradual, tremulous revelations on the honeymoon night?) turned out to be a mechanical problem. But while this Lohengrin may be short on visual thrills, it certainly has its musical strengths, and one can hardly accuse Tim Albery's production of egocentricity or interventionism. If you are not looking for new light or vibrant theatre, this could be ideal.

In rep to 29 Dec (071-836 3161)

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