Timeout, 18 May 2022
by Tim Byrne
Wagner: Lohengrin, Melbourne, ab 14. Mai 2022
This is a Lohengrin for the ages, as powerful and yet as fragile as you’ll ever see
Opera Australia often talks about “entry-level operas” – easily digestible works with familiar melodies that make ideal experiences for the uninitiated. La Traviata, currently playing in Melbourne, is often brought up as the perfect example.

It’s something you won’t hear them say about Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, which seems a shame. It’s a fairly simple tale clearly told; it has, with the Bridal Chorus, one of the most recognisable tunes in opera; and in a major coup for Melbourne audiences, it stars the greatest tenor in the world, Jonas Kaufmann.

Lohengrin comes before Wagner’s opus, his Ring Cycle, and is in many ways more accessible, relying as it does on traditional operatic structures like arias and recitative. The story of a mysterious stranger who turns up to rescue the honour of a woman wrongly accused of fratricide, it draws on medieval German myth, of knights and chivalry and holy grails. And, like most of Wagner’s work, it deals with complex universal themes in dramatically satisfying ways.

These people grapple with the grandest of ideas, with love and faith, ambition and evil. The setting, in director Olivier Py’s uncompromising vision, is post-WW II Berlin, specifically the burnt-out rubble of a theatre. As Wagner’s exquisite prelude, shimmering and delicate, fills the State Theatre, the monumental face of a brutalist structure, all shattered windows and graffitied walls, slowly revolves. It’s impossible not to think of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and then of all the blasted places on Earth. It could so easily have sprung from the mind of installation artist Callum Morton.

In this war zone, a woman named Elsa (Emily Magee) stands accused of murdering her brother. Her accuser, Telramund (Simon Meadows), has reasons of his own for wanting her pronounced guilty, and they involve his corrupt wife, Ortrud (Elena Gabouri). Elsa pleads to a knight she has seen in a vision to come to her aid, and in a piece of medieval magic worthy of Thomas Malory’s Arthurian legends, the hero (Kaufmann) appears on the back of a swan. He agrees to fight for her honour and to marry her, if only she promises never to ask his name.

He is entreating her to put her faith in his purity, to defer unconditionally to a higher power. But Elsa is human, and as soon as her champion wins the battle against Telramund and marries her, doubt sets in. Wagner could easily have simplified this dilemma for us, depicting it as a straightforward test of religious faith, but he chooses this moment to deepen and complicate the matter. Elsa cannot merely submit to this uneven relationship with the divine; she wants to be worthy of her hero’s love, and for that she must move out of innocence and into knowledge. She must know her lover’s name.

It’s a powerful dramatisation of the Edenic paradox – the idea that God forbids us to seek the knowledge of good and evil on the one hand, while providing us with the means and the curiosity to disobey him on the other – and Wagner’s extraordinary music shapes and propels this theological predicament to its thrilling conclusion. The moment Lohengrin reveals himself in all his glory is the moment he abandons Elsa and her people to a world of night.

Seeing Kaufmann in the role is quite simply revelatory. Wagner structures his opera in such a way as to draw out the hero’s entrance and then cover him in musical glory throughout, and Kaufmann’s physical and vocal performance is so commanding, so crystalline and pure, that the effect is uncanny. His upper register seems to come unbidden, to float down to us from the heavens, and his phrasing is as confident as it is delicate. The massive State Theatre audience collectively holds its breath throughout his glorious rendition of ‘In fernem Land’, enrapt. Like all people of extraordinary talent, he makes it seem utterly effortless.

The rest of the cast rise to the occasion magnificently. Magee is a beautifully fraught and elegant Elsa, her nobility no match for the malignancy of others. Meadows, an artist who has steadily built a fine repertoire in recent years, seems to finally match the breadth of his own talent with Telramund; it’s a searing portrait of thwarted ambition and envy, powerfully sung.

Fyfe reminds audiences that he’s an indispensable presence on our opera stages, making the forgettable role of the Herald seem far more central and compelling than it has any right to be. And Gabouri, so impressive recently as Amneris in Aida, completely dominates as the poisonous plotter Ortrud. Her malice energises every phrase, and while her startling mezzo-soprano can be thunderous, it’s never less than sonorous and velvety.

Py’s staging, under revival director Shane Placentino, is brilliantly lucid and attuned to Wagner’s solemnity, even if he tends to fill the stage with some questionable business when stillness would work better. Scenes with chorus members passing around buckets of rubble, or placing suitcases at the front of the stage, are more bemusing than elucidating; although a shirtless dancer posing in Leni Riefenstahl-like tableaux does reflect the production’s uneasy relationship with the Nazism that would claim Wagner for itself.

There is a palpable sense of a people flirting with the ideologies that only recently ruined them, and it feels like a warning. There is virtually no colour in this production – Bertrand Killy’s chiaroscuro lighting and Pierre-André Weitz’s stunning set and costumes are wonderfully moody exercises in greys and blacks – so all the light and wonder has to come from the music. Under the baton of Tahu Matheson, and played sublimely by the Opera Australia orchestra, Wagner’s transcendent score takes miraculous flight.

This is a Lohengrin for the ages, as powerful and yet as fragile as you’ll ever see, with a voice that seems to come from a more exalted place. Like watching the Olympics when you aren’t that into sport, seeing Kaufmann’s shining saviour is surely the best entry into the world of opera you could ever experience.

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