Limelight, 16 May, 2022
by Patricia Maunder
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
Lohengrin (Opera Australia)
The stunning Jonas Kaufmann and his gifted colleagues rise above a problematic production.

When Opera Australia announced just before Christmas last year that Jonas Kaufmann would be their Lohengrin in 2022, the news was a surprise festive gift for Melbourne – and indeed Australia, as this Wagner epic would be the German tenor’s first fully staged opera in this country. There was a persistent fear that the man regarded as the world’s greatest tenor might not make it here in the end, however, and in the weeks and days before opening night the question on many opera lovers’ lips was: has Kaufmann arrived yet?

During Lohengrin’s first act, as Elsa and the people of Brabant anxiously wait for the knight she believes will defend her honour in a trial by combat, those fortunate to attend opening night had figured that Kaufmann had indeed arrived. The sense of life imitating art was delicious, however, as we keenly waited, then finally beheld this celebrated singer, who proceeded to embody the heroic, superhuman knight with every note, look and movement.

He walks around the stage with the casual confidence not merely of one who has interpreted this role many times, but also of an incredibly talented (and handsome) superstar. With a naturalness that’s rare on the operatic stage, his Lohengrin gently romances, comforts and admonishes Elsa, and exerts an unquestionable authority over the bad guys. Even more remarkable is the way Kaufmann makes singing seem as easy as talking, displaying effortless power, gorgeous tone, legato smooth as cream and controlled, delicate pianissimo that’s awe-inspiring. The latter is the most obvious aspect of his expressive artistry – reaching its zenith in Act III’s climatic aria, In fernem Land – but he also throws in subtle, exquisite embellishments like no other tenor can: a few lilting notes here, a tiny trill there.

It’s worth noting that Kaufmann shielded a little cough in Act III’s duet, and his soft, high notes in Act I were slightly husky. If he’s not in complete health this virtuoso performance is all the more astonishing.

His Lohengrin is indeed a gift to Melbourne, and Australia, but so are the other performances. Outstanding among them is French-Russian mezzo Elena Gabouri as Ortrud. Recalling her impressive interpretation of Amneris in Opera Australia’s 2021 Aida, her mighty, agile voice is rich with a dark menace that conveys her character’s scheming ways. Notable for her bright tone, beautifully formed notes and phrases, and ability to express Elsa’s emotional rollercoaster ride, American soprano Emily Magee got better and better through this opera’s three-and-a-half hours (excluding intervals). Her Act II duet with Gabouri is a highlight.

Three Australian singers also hold their own, particularly Warwick Fyfe who has become a go-to for Wagner in this country. Suitably stiff and vocally declamatory as the Herald, he displays a sumptuous baritone that is only getting better with age. Another familiar face and voice for local Wagner productions is Daniel Sumegi, who adds a little softness and uncertainty to his usual grand presence and bass baritone for the role of troubled King Heinrich.

Best known to local audiences for many fine performances with Melbourne Opera, most recently as the standout in last year’s Das Rheingold, in which he played Alberich, Simon Meadows makes a very accomplished leap to a principal role with the national company. As both an actor and singer, he conveys Telramund’s ambition for power and frustration when thwarted. If his hands are somewhat comically frantic when caressing Gabouri in their characters’ moments of passion, it matters little against the warmth and strength of his baritone.

While given little scope to act, appearing in formal blocks or a gallery setting, the Opera Australia Chorus are vocally stunning – particularly when the men sing as one mighty, harmonious force. Conducted by Opera Australia’s head of Music, Tahu Matheson, Orchestra Victoria is also in top form. From the strings’ ethereal shimmering, to trumpets at times blasting majestically from the sides of the balcony, the band is Wagnerian in both magnitude and drama.

Musically, this Lohengrin is a five-star performance, but Olivier Py’s production is not so satisfying. A Théâtre Royal de Monnaie/Opera Australia co-production, it’s set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II, pitting evil Nazis against virtuous Germans. This makes sense in some ways, most obviously as an expression of Lohengrin’s simple good-versus-evil theme, and also as an acknowledgement of Wagner’s antisemitism and the Nazi regime’s embrace of his work. However, this production constantly struggles against the opera as written, to the point where the two are often in open conflict.

Avoiding the fun-park-ride associations of having Lohengrin arrive in a boat pulled by a swan is understandable, but turning the swan into a little pile of feathers, visually poetic though it may be, doesn’t make sense in context. Nor does King Heinrich in Py’s new setting, while the fate of the boy Gottfried is nonsensical. Instead of having him turned into a swan by Ortrud before ultimately returning to human form as the libretto describes, here he’s murdered by her, and his corpse is scattered with feathers to no effect. Even more immediately jarring is having Kaufmann sing of giving a crown, horn and ring while handing over three cardboard crowns (which are otherwise an appealing visual motif throughout).

Pierre-André Weitz uses shades of grey for his costumes of 1940s simple elegance, and a set – artfully lit by Bertrand Killy – representing a bombed-out theatre. It’s impressively monumental yet agile and remarkably quiet in its reconfiguration, which is not limited to moving around on a revolve. The frequency with which the set is reconfigured distracts, however, most egregiously when it suddenly revolves behind Kaufmann as he sings his splendid In fernem Land, which is the most dramatically important moment of the opera.

Act III’s giant wunderkammer of nationalistic German Romanticism suggest theatre props, including a bust of Goethe, The Flying Dutchman’s ship and Lohengrin’s traditional swan. Each is labelled in big Gothic script with a mix of the obvious and the cryptic that also led Py to explain his vision on stage before every performance of this production during its initial 2018 run in Belgium. Reinterpreting heritage operas to save them from becoming historical artefacts is essential, at least some of the time, but defying the works’ essential logic to this degree that Py has does them a disservice.

While the production itself is at times annoying and inscrutable, there’s no doubt about this Lohengrin’s musical splendour – especially that of Jonas Kaufmann. Get a ticket to experience his Lohengrin if at all possible.

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