Last night’s performance of Lohengrin by the Welsh National Opera was my first experience of a professional opera. Though at university I’d seen friends direct and perform The Magic Flute, as well as having been involved in a Gilbert and Sullivan Society, this was also my first experience of what might be considered a “serious” opera. That being said, the story of Lohengrin is as silly a fairy story as you might find in any of the comic operettas with which I’m more familiar, but it’s remarkable just how easy it is to fully engage with the melodrama. By the end, I was completely emotionally involved.
I definitely enjoyed the second and third acts more than the first, and I can’t quite be sure how much of this was to do with increasing quality and ambition of the opera itself, and how much of it was just me taking a while to “get into it”, but overall I’d probably agree with the assessment of Adrian Mourby in the programme that it might be seen as a piece with “uneven promise”. It’s not universally perfect, but some of the music is breathtaking. In the programme, conductor Lothar Koenigs is spot on when he describes the “unearthly” sound of the high-register violins at the start of the overture, which is later repeated when Lohengrin makes his big revelation. It’s spellbinding – a Romantic reaching for the sublime.
I think my favourite part of the show was near the start of Act 2, when Ortrud (I always love a good villain) plots Lohengrin’s downfall with Telramud, which was engaging both musically and dramatically. Partly, of course, this was down to Susan Bickley’s great talent: she, more than anyone else, really conveyed a clear sense of her character right from the start. Plus, she definitely had the best outfits – though Emma Bell (Elsa) did look spectacular in her wedding dress, and costume was very much a strong point throughout.
The rest of the cast were generally excellent, especially Peter Wedd as Lohengrin. I was impressed by Simon Thorpe and Rhys Jenkins, both of whom had to step up to new roles at the last minute due to John Lundgren (originally cast as Telramund) being unable to sing. The orchestra were perfect, and conductor Koenigs positively radiated enthusiasm, a passion for Wagner which also comes across clearly in his programme article.
The set was incredible, particularly during Act 2, which saw Ortrud and Telramud plotting in a dingy alley at night, then transformed into a processional area before the church as Elsa walked past the windows of a beautifully constructed castle and out into the streets. Act 2 also featured some brilliant lighting, as night was turned very gradually into day.
It was an interesting to discover that the famous, traditional wedding march actually originates in what is essentially a tragedy: at the risk of spoilers for anyone who doesn’t already know the story, it all ends badly for the apparently perfect couple. That’ll be one to avoid at your wedding, then.
Lohengrin is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until this Saturday (15 June). A pre-show talk will be held on Saturday. Click here for more information or to book tickets.