The hero of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin probably wishes he’d never set foot in a society corrupted by a power struggle that goes to the wire and beyond in Antony McDonald’s exceptional new production for WNO.
No sooner has Lohengrin revealed at the end that the swan guiding him about in a boat is not a swan at all but the brother of his thwarted lover Elsa than the brother himself turns out to be an ugly duckling.
Wagner’s heroes, Lohengrin included, are not so much driven-snow honest as lacking in street cred, and it’s no wonder that Gottfried, aka the swan, has his people cowering before him only minutes after Lohengrin has hailed him as their new protector and departed the scene.
These are neat twists in the composer’s story of inter-necine rivalry, bewitchment, compromised innocence and dreams of salvation, all sewn together with music of sometimes religious intensity.
Producer-designer McDonald, supported by his lighting designer Lucy Carter, gives the opera an impressive coherence. He’s blessed with a cast that remains focused, a fearsomely galvanised chorus and an orchestra under Lothar Koenigs that forces the pace of a work tending towards the static.
Peter Wedd in the title role is more surprised than philosophical about the fix he’s got himself into, Emma Bell’s Elsa is slightly fey but sonorous of voice, Susan Bickley as Ortrud fades a little towards the end but is otherwise the embodiment of malevolence, Matthew Best sings King Heinrich well despite a dicky throat and late replacement Claudio Otelli sings Telramund animatedly despite his sometimes exaggerated and complementary body movements.
The first night was a gala performance in the presence of the Prince of Wales.
In a piece of programme planning that looks like becoming a feature of chief executive David Pountney's arrival at the the helm of WNO, the company will be presenting Jonathan Harvey's one-act opera Wagner Dream on June 6 at the WMC.
Sung in Sanskrit, Pali (a Sanskrit dialect) and German, the opera is about the dying Wagner, who contemplates the Buddhist story he might have written and how that religion might have drawn him to a state of renunciation and surrender. Harvey was a believer in Buddhism and died last year of motor neurone disease.
WNO's summer season ends with further performances of Joachim Herz's long-running production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly.