The Opera Critic, 4 November 2009
Michael Sinclair
Wagner: Lohengrin, Bavarian State Opera, 29 October 2009
Music making of the highest order
There is a point in the second act of Richard Jones's Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera that the performance transforms itself back into Wagner's Lohengrin. It is not a moment too soon. This quirky production first made its debut at the Munich Opera Festival earlier this year, and now returns with some cast changes for a further run of performances. It remains as controversial as ever.

Jones's concept lies around the idea that Elsa is an architect who is building a house (clearly in Bavaria, rather than Belgium), a house that will offer strength and security for her, her husband and family. This self determination is the noble cause that drives her forward and with the arrival of Lohengrin she finds her "knight in shining armour" with whom she will "live happily ever after" in the home she is building. Of course Lohengrin is not a real knight in this production: you can tell that immediately he walks on stage in his track pants, T-shirt and sneakers. All goes well until the fateful question, at which point the house comes tumbling down.

The problem is not that Jones transports the work from Belgium to Bavaria, or that he updates the settings or even less so that he attempts to humanise this mythological work. All of these can be done successfully without diminishing the work itself. The problem lies in the fact that Jones, in combination with his designer Ultz seem to trivialise the opera by offering a rather "toy town" feel to the production; everything on stage smacks of faux Bavaria from the costumes to much of the scenery. At times it feels as if one has strayed onto the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

To be fair Jones does create some potent visual symbols: Lohengrin's simple entry holding the swan is extremely moving, while the completion of the house by adding the final roof segment at the climactic moment when Elsa and Lohengrin exchange their vows is a telling metaphor. But ultimately the dramaturgy lacks substance with too much emphasis on the building project leaving Lohengrin as a somewhat secondary figure. By upsetting the balance in this way the performance never quite has the impact it should.

The limpness of the production is a shame given the extraordinary quality of the musical performances. Kent Nagano clearly relishes this score and draws exquisite playing from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. From a finely balanced overture he brings majesty, clarity and plenty of emotion to the performance, never swamping his singers yet providing more than simple accompaniment.

Jonas Kaufmann is the undoubted star of the evening, even if Jones's portrayal of Lohengrin is somewhat at odds with more traditional productions. He sings with intelligence and beauty throughout never forcing his voice unnecessarily, but still able to deliver sufficient vocal heft when required. He sings "In fernem Land" in a mezza voce that has a Lied like intensity to it that is utterly absorbing and compelling. Whether he has the heavier Wagner roles in him remains to be seen, but in the meantime his voice is perfect for Lohengrin, Siegmund and Parsifal.

Emily Magee throws herself into the production with conviction, demonstrating the rare skill for a soprano of being able to lay bricks. Jones's interpretation of Elsa makes her a far more robust character than normal, seemingly far too single minded to have been duped by Ortrud and Telramund. Vocally she a few shrill moments, but generally she sings well, even if she is short on purity and radiance.

The other star of the evening is Michaela Schuster as Ortrud. She looks like a blond Hollywood vamp and delivers plenty of vocal venom to match. She sings rather than barks and invests the performance with the much needed drama in the second act, something that had been singularly missing up to this point. Eike Wilm Schulte sings exceptionally well, but he looks totally wrong as the brutish Telramund. His performance seems more suited to a convivial Mastersinger than to the baddy in Lohengrin.

Hans-Peter König is a suitably regal Heinrich with a large, burnished voice to match, while Evgeny Nikitin is a stern Heerrufer delivering his addresses from an umpire chair.

At the end of the day it is Wagner that triumphs through glorious music making that transcends the banalities of the production. Jone's final image of an impending mass suicide should best be forgotten leaving Wagner's sublime music as the final memory.

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