OPERA / Shining knight

Lohengrin Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture
The Covent Garden acoustic does not take kindly to the attenuated opening pages of the prelude. A halo of reverberance would be welcome, to heighten, to free, not scrutinise, those divisi violins as they trace out, sanctify, the motif of the Grail. Even so, on Saturday night, an atmosphere did at once prevail, and it was all in the conductor Valery Gergiev's expressive hands. He has the ethereal spirit of this music under his fingers, in his heart, by instinct, by identification with the musical legends of his own countrymen. It was as if he, too, were falling under Wagner's spell in the moment of performance. Pageantry, of course, is a Russian's birthright and Gergiev was quick to rise here to the chivalry of the score, to its vaulting ambition. Urgency without haste, an unerring feeling for the phrasal shape and sweep and climactic reach of each episode. Lohengrin was in good - and exciting - hands.

Elijah Moshinsky's award-winning production is very much of its time - 1977 - when white-box sets were de rigueur and movement very carefully prescribed along the lines of the chessboard principle. Where its statuesque tableaux work, they work well, focusing and freezing the moment in time, as it were. The big company walk-downs - like the ominous wedding procession to the minster - are effective (when are they not?). But, as a whole, the show is looking more and more now like a series of exhibits. The tottering Christian symbols - floating islands on which principal singers can be conveniently stationed for big moments - are at times something of an encumbrance, as are the gauzes. We are invited to view much of Act 1 through a haze for the sake of one feeble effect: the projection of a swan emblem which, truth to tell, looks suspiciously like the Jesus Christ Superstar logo.

And nothing should come between us and this particular cast. I have my own problems with Sergei Leiferkus (the Telramund). It's the narrow-bore sibilance of his voice that for me diminishes so much of what he does. But he does it with aplomb. Not perhaps the word to describe his "partner in shame", Ortrud - or rather the indomitable Dame Gwyneth Jones. It's rare, of course, to find her so quiet for so long (most of Act 1 is spent in glowering disapproval), and time is finally taking its toll on the vocal equipment, with a sizeable enough vibrato now to keep her options wide open on pitch (pick your note from somewhere between these two). But she's a star, a phenomenon, great value on stage, and I don't think she'll ever lose the capacity to nail us with those key notes above the stave. "Bless my deceit and hypocrisy," she cries in Act 2, and the amphitheatre shrinks in anticipation of the fall-out.

Our shining knight, son of Parsifal, is the excellent Gosta Winbergh - a heldentenor fine and true but, more than that, an elegant heldentenor, singing easily, effortlessly on the interest not the capital. To arrive at his moment of truth - the Act 3 narration - and still find it in his voice to fill the word "taube" ("dove") with the sweetest and most consoling sound of the entire evening is some measure of an artistry all too rare in this voice range. The same might be said of the radiant Karita Mattila, whose beauty on stage is, if anything, surpassed by the sound she makes. It's such an open and even and refulgent sound - and so obviously born of deep and abiding conviction. To see and hear her Elsa come alive, to see and hear the woman in her finally awaken and break through the too-virtuous-to-live exterior, is both exciting and believable. This is the Isolde we've been waiting for. She's ready.

Further perfs: 6pm tonight, Fri, then 17, 20, 22 (5pm) Feb, ROH, London WC2 (0171-304 4000)

Edward Seckerson