Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Radvanovsky Sings Recital in Los Angeles

Every once in a while Los Angeles Opera presents an important recital in the three thousand seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera

This third revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore needed a bit of a pep up to get moving but once it had been given a shot of ‘medicinal’ tincture things spiced up nicely.

Samling Showcase, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1996, Samling describes itself as a charity which ‘inspires musical excellence in young people’.

La cenerentola in San Francisco

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Pesaro for great Rossini.

Rameau : Maître à danser - William Christie, Barbican London

Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers. Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there's a difference. Rameau's music takes its very pulse from dance. Hearing it choreographed connects the movement in the music to the exuberant physical expressiveness that is dance.

Le Nozze di Figaro — or Sex on the Beach?

The most memorable thing (and definitely not in a good way) about this performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade was the self-serving, infantile, offensive and just plain wrong production by celebrated Serbian theatre director Jagoš Marković.

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Should looks matter when casting the role of the iconic temptress for HD simulcast?

Maurice Greene’s Jephtha

Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.

Tosca in San Francisco

Yet another Tosca is hardly exciting news, if news at all. The current five performances have come just two years after SFO alternated divas Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette in the title role.

Antonin Dvořák: The Cunning Peasant (Šelma Sedlák)

What an enjoyable opportunity to encounter Dvořák’s sixth opera, Šelma Sedlák¸or The Cunning Peasant!

Idomeneo, Royal Opera

Whether biblical parable or mythological moralising, it’s all the same really: human hubris, humility, sacrifice and redemption.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

Opera Rara brought a rare performance of Donizetti’s first opera for the Paris Opera to the Royal Festival Hall on 4 November 2014, following recording sessions for the opera.

Luca Pisaroni in San Diego

Bass baritone, Luca Pisaroni, known to opera lovers throughout the world for his excellence in Mozart roles, offered San Diego vocal aficionados a double treat on October 28th: his mellifluous voice, and a recital of German songs.

La bohème, ENO

Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème for ENO, shared with Cincinnati Opera, sits uneasily, at least as revived by Natascha Metherell, between comedy and tragedy.

Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall - Liszt, Strauss and Schubert

Any Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau performance is superb, but this Wigmore Hall recital surprised, too. Boesch's Schubert is wonderful, but this time, it was his Liszt and Strauss songs which stood out. This year at the Wigmore Hall, we've heard a lot of Liszt and a lot of Richard Strauss everywhere, establishing high standards, but this was special.

Wexford Festival 2014

The weather was auspicious for Wexford Festival Opera’s first-night firework display — mild, clear and calm. But, as the rainbow rockets exploded over the River Slaney, even bigger bangs were being made down at the quayside.

The Met’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ a happy marriage of ensemble singing and acting

The cast of supporting roles was especially strong in the company’s new production of Mozart’s matchless masterpiece

Syracuse Opera’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ bubbles over with fun, laughter and irresistible music

The company uncorks its 40th Anniversary season with a visually and musically satisfying production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s farcical operetta

Capriccio at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Although performances of Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio have increased in recent time, Lyric Opera of Chicago has not experienced the “Konversationsstück für Musik” during the past twenty odd years.

Anna Netrebko, now a dramatic soprano, shines in the Met’s dark and murky ‘Macbeth’

The former lyric soprano holds up well — and survives the intrusive close-up camerawork of the ‘Live in HD’ transmission

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
03 Jun 2013

Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera

Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.

Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin

Photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera

 

But this production apart, Wagner’s most romantic of operas is seen all too rarely, so it was a pleasure to be able to encounter Welsh National Opera’s new production directed and designed by Antony McDonald and conducted by WNO’s music director Lothar Koenigs. The production debuted at a Royal Gala at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 23 May 2013. I saw it on 1 June.

WNO assembled a cast relatively new to Wagnerian drama rather than using seasoned Wagnerians. Peter Wedd sang Lohengrin, Emma Bell sang Elsa, Susan Bickley sang Ortrud, and Simon Thorpe sang Telramund (standing in for an indisposed John Lundgren). Bell has sung Eva at Covent Garden and has Elisabeth down on the cards, she has also been singing the title role in Fidelio. Wedd has a couple of Wagner roles under his belt (Froh, Amfortas), he has also been singing Florestan. Bickley generated many plaudits for her Brangane with WNO.

Wagner’s protagonists, Elsa and Lohengrin, are both young so having them incarnated by a pair of younger singers represents a dramatic advantage. But the title role in Lohengrin is a notorious graveyard for lyric tenors, requiring significant degrees of stamina and strength. So an exciting cast like this represents a challenge, a risk and a significant investment in the future by WNO.

As a designer/director Antony McDonald has a finely poetic eye and his production was both poetic and in many ways rather daring, mixing grim reality with magic and romance. He set it in the period of the opera’s composition in a 19th century militaristic society at war. Costumes were period, but the setting was a grim run down building, hardly a palace, this was a society on the edge, in the throes of war.

Act 1 took place in a sort of assembly hall, amphitheatre with the chorus raised above in seating, act 2 was in a courtyard of the building, with huge windows giving us a view of the interior of the building, the first scene of act 3 in a rather bleak room and the close of the opera in the same setting as act 1. The size and shape of the set not only gave space for seating for the large chorus, as well as providing focus for the voices. And, despite the grimness, McDonald and his lighting designer Lucy Carder created some moments of visual poetry.

McDonald’s act drop was a projection of romantic, misty landscape; there was another reality outside of Brabant. The two collided when Lohengrin appeared. Many directors choose to fudge the swan and the boat, but here McDonald introduced magic into his grim world. On Lohengrin’s first entry the doors to the amphitheatre swung open and a boat appeared, with a half swan, half body at the prow, Lohengrin behind him and the glimpse of a misty landscape in the distance.

Relatively slight of frame for a Wagner tenor, with bleached blond hair, and an outsize greatcoat over a linen martial arts tunic, and bare feet, Peter Wedd was every inch the enchanted outsider. The effect was magical and this was enhanced when Wedd sang his farewell to the swan, ‘Mein lieber Schwann’, producing some of the most enchanting Wagner singing I have heard in a long time.

Wedd does not have a huge voice and throughout the evening I was aware of him managing it. But he created a strong sense of ‘the other’, the strangeness of this knight from a foreign realm. At key moments his voice was suitably dramatic, the essential core of his voice has interesting dark, almost baritonal elements which are helpful in Wagner roles. In act 2, now equipped in a suit and properly fitting great-coat and shoes, he was properly authoritative. In the narration in act 3, the moment in the opera which is a true test of a tenor’s stamina, he was spellbinding. He started it as just an intimate talk with Elsa but slowly Wedd’s performance grew in power and intensity, to a thrilling climax. Wedd’s Lohengrin was not conventionally heroic and he does not have the ringing thrill of a traditional Siegfried, but intelligence and careful management of his voice ensured that his performance at the end of act 3 was as interesting as at the beginning.

Emma Bell was a warm, touching Elsa, radiant in her narration of the dream but perhaps really rather more maturely womanly than usual. She was certainly a rather stronger person than in some versions, but not less naive, Bell definitely created the impression in act 1 that Elsa was the sort of person who should really get out more. She had an almost evangelical belief in people and their goodness. In fact, in many ways both Elsea and Lohengrin were naifs, neither negotiating the complex society in ideal ways.

Certainly Lohengrin’s expectations of Elsa were unrealistic and in the long scene in act 3 when the denouement plays out, they were two people unused to personal relationships. Despite their professions of love, you just knew that had they succeeded in consummating their relationship it would have been awkward and tentative. This played out in the brilliant ebb and flow of the dialogue between Bell and Wedd, with first one then the other taking the lead and neither really understanding. The conclusion when it came was inevitable and heartbreaking.

Ortrud seems a role which Susan Bickley seems born to play. During the long act 1 proceedings, when Ortrud was present but silent, Bickley looked magnificent in a floor length coat (covering a fabulous full skirted red dress) and radiated superior disdain. This was an icy controlled Ortrud, spitting vitriol when she did let go.

WNO-Lohengrin-02.gifSusan Bickley as Ortrud

At the start of act 2, McDonald had Bickley and Simon Thorpe’s Telramund in what seemed to be a service courtyard of the building along with the rubbish. Whilst Ortrud harangued Telramund with her tongue, above we could see the shadows of Elsa and Lohengrin in the windows in public and private events in the palace. Bell sang her lovely act 2 solo from one of these windows and her dialogue with Bickley started with Bell leaning out of the window. Bickley was at her most seductive here, rarely can Ortrud’s music have been so beautifully sung, but with such control. Bickley showed us what this really cost Ortrud.

In a completely magical touch, McDonald showed Elsa in her bridal gown walking through the illuminated palace (the first floor windows now open) in a simple but lovely effect. Ortrud’s appearance in the procession, in a dark green shot silk gown with a bodice which looked like a breastplate, was a magnificent example of control and disdain. Her interruption of the bridal procession was superb in the concentrated hate and vitriol. Bickley’s voice is not of the huge dramatic mezzo type, but her wonderful laser focus ensured that every note counted.

Simon Thorpe was originally to play the Herald, but took over Telramund. He sang robustly, he was another naif, a bluff man who really did trust Ortrud. In the face of Bickley’s brilliant Ortrud, he did not stand a chance. Thorpe created a strong dramatic moment when he too interrupted the bridal procession to shout his own invective.

Matthew Best made a strong, robust King Henry, clearly shocked and bewildered at the goings on. Rhys Jenkins made a strong replacement as the Herald.

An additional palpable contribution to the drama was the chorus and they took advantage of the acoustic properties McDonald’s set to give us a superb series of chorus contributions. The people of Brabant were clearly a strong factor in the duchy. It is perhaps stereotypical to say that WNO is known for the excellence of its chorus, but excellent it was and thrilling too.

WNO-Lohengrin-03.gifCast of Lohengrin

Lothar Koenigs brought out both the beauty and the subtlety of the music and the drama. He had the many extra trumpets in the boxes, bringing thrilling drama to the ceremonial moments. The care that he took to support his cast should not be underestimated. The Wales Millennium Centre has a wide open pit but there was never a feeling of the principals having to strain to get over the orchestra. I did wonder whether tension sagged in the longer sections such as the middle of act 1, with Koenigs paragraphs not quite building to larger sections.

Despite the grim setting, there were many poetic moments with McDonald aided by Lucy Carter’s superb lighting. It is amazing how beautiful even the grimmest setting can be made to look.

I found the production to be utterly absorbing in a way that few recent Wagner productions have been. I look forward to hearing Peter Wedd and Emma Bell in more Wagner, but here with Antony McDonald’s intelligent production, Susan Bickley’s incredible Ortrud and supported by Lothar Koenigs, they brought a freshness to this most romantic of operas.

Robert Hugill


Production and cast information:

Herald: Rhys Jenkins, King Henry: Matthew Best, Telramund: Simon Thorpe, Elsa: Emma Bell, Lohengrin: Peter Wedd, Ortrud: Susan Bickley: Gottfried: Thomas Rowlands / Daniel Williams. Director & designer: Antony McDonald. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Lighting designer: Lucy Carter. Movement director: Philippe Giraudeau. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Saturday, 1 June 2013.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):