Treachery and subterfuge abound in the Australian premiere of a new production of Richard Wagner’s otherworldly romance Lohengrin. It is a big and bold work – a spectacle – headlined by arguably the world’s most in-demand tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in a lead role he makes his own.
We are introduced to the war-torn environment in which the action takes place through a gargantuan, three-tier rotating set, the stunning work of Pierre-André Weitz (who has also designed the striking monochromatic costumes). It shows the ruins of Berlin in the aftermath of WWII. Smashed windows and cavernous holes in faux concrete are its hallmarks.
A nine-year peace accord with the marauding Hungarians is about to pass and King Heinrich (Daniel Sumegi) has arrived in Brabant to prepare for war. The child Duke of Brabant, Gottfried, under the guardianship of Count Friedrich von Telramund (Simon Meadows) has disappeared. Manipulated by his scheming wife – a pagan witch – Ortrud (Elena Gabouri), Telramund accuses Gottfried’s older sister Elsa (Emily Magee) of murdering the child Duke to become Duchess of Brabant. For Telramund and Ortrud, it is all about power and control.
The king calls upon Elsa to address the accusation. She simply laments her brother’s fate. When the king determines the matter will be left to God’s judgment, Elsa channels a knight she saw in her dreams (Jonas Kaufmann), who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan. That knight champions Elsa’s innocence in a victorious battle with Telramund, who is subsequently banished, along with his wife.
The kicker though is that with marriage to Elsa now all but a forgone conclusion, the knight asks for one thing in return for his service – she must never ask him his name or where he has come from. And that is when the witch comes into her own again, plotting vengeance by again manipulating her husband. He confronts the king, declaring the knight’s victory was invalid because it was the work of sorcery. Meanwhile, Ortrud works over Elsa causing her to question the man she loves dearly and setting the scene for a tragic ending.
I found Lohengrin, an Opera Australia co-production with Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, mesmerising. French director Olivier Py has crafted something very special. It is dark and audacious. Wagner’s music, at times triumphal and including the popular Bridal March, has great appeal. Wielding the baton is the Head of Music at Opera Australia, Tahu Matheson who leads Orchestra Victoria and the Opera Australia Chorus.
Apart from its staging, which includes evocative lighting by Bertrand Killy, well capturing the mood and will long stick in my memory, several performances stand out. I already referenced Jonas Kaufmann. Mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri is a delight as evil incarnate Ortrud, a wicked smile being all but a constant bedfellow, her voice soaring to the heavens. Baritone Simon Meadows shines as the tortured and manipulated Telramund. Bass baritone Daniel Sumegi has enduring stage presence as King Heinrich. Love and loss are the domain of American soprano Emily Magee’s character. Also particularly impressive is the baritone Warwick Fyfe, who plays the herald.
The first outing of Py’s production since it premiered in Brussels in 2018 is an overwhelming success and Arts Centre Melbourne is the only place to see it until 24th May, 2022, for it is exclusive to Opera Australia’s Melbourne season. Four hours 20 minutes, including two 25-minute intervals, for me the time passed quickly, a sure sign I was thoroughly absorbed in and enjoying what I was seeing.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Madama Butterfly (Opera Australia’s Handa Opera) – opera review
- Ernani (Opera Australia) – opera review
- Idomeneo (Victorian Opera and Opera Australia) – opera review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.