Jhe has swastika banners, boots and guns in Wagner’s 2018 staging at the Royal Opera Lohengrin, though brilliantly done, had an air of theatrical platitude when new. Now back for its first revival, with an outstanding, watertight cast led by Jakub Hrůša, David Alden’s production has a sharp immediacy. The empty facades of burnt-out buildings, which previously looked like dark but elegant examples of constructivism in Paul Steinberg’s designs, now reflect the images we see daily in the news. A herald in a splint, his face bloodied, holds up a mirror to our tarnished world.
Lohengrin (1850), a transitional work for Wagner on his long journey to the ring and Parsifal, takes place against a backdrop of war. This tumult moves away in the face of the entanglement of the main relationships, in the forefront of which Elsa von Brabant (Jennifer Davisreprising the role in a sparkling voice) and its hero-savior of the title, performed with expressive scope, and without fear of singing softly, by Brandon Jovanovitch. As a Knight of the Holy Grail, he is forced to travel by Swan Boat. He also must not reveal his name, even to his naturally frustrated new bride.
He arrives as a liberator from Elsa, the city walls open at the breathtaking climax of Act 1, with a flapping of wings (video by Tal Rosner) suggesting a swan in flight. Take out the mysterious knight, in this war zone, an outsider in a loose white linen suit (take your mind back to BBC correspondent Martin Bell entering Bosnia). Lohengrin, however, is also an aggressor, showing an aptitude for violence when he and Elsa fall on the marital bed, and ready to kill his fearsome adversary Telramund. When the stranger finally speaks his name, it is, all over the place and after four hours of high-intensity opera and many blazing trumpet fanfares, on stage, curtains.
The vital crowd scenes in Lohengrin act as sonic and dramatic interruptions to the dominant exchange between the lead couple and their pagan adversaries, Ortrud and Telramund – the explosive and steely Anna Smirnova and Craig Colclough, powerfully effective as dark accomplices. On Tuesday’s first night, the choral outbursts had a particular urgency and attack, strenuous high tenor lines belted with precision, tone and assurance, a wall of glorious sound hitting the back of the auditorium. It’s a chorus in great shape.
Alden’s direction (repeated by Peter Relton) is meticulously choreographed, not just for the multitudes but in each individual’s movement, shaped by stage position and use of color (red, white, black, underscored by Adam Silverman’s lighting and use of shadow). This stylized approach could have been stifling. Instead, it helped clarify. Gábor Bretz as weak king and Derek Welton, deluxe cast as Herald, led a strong supporting ensemble. Hrůša’s shrewd conducting ignited the fiery playing of the ROH orchestra, violins sinking into their strings as if electrically charged, clarinet and oboe eloquent in the solos, brass on fire and ready to risk Security. It’s not Wagner’s best, but it was Lohengrin to his favorite.
Applying the lightest touch, the team of composers Errollyn Wallen, with director Jenny Sealey and co-librettists Selina Mills and Nicola Werenowska, created a cabaret-style opera about the life of Maria Theresia von Paradis. This Austrian musician and contemporary of Mozart lost her sight as a child and was subjected to invasive cures and unwanted sexual attention. Wallen’s innovative work has been staged by rigs theater company, founded in 1980 to champion deaf, disabled and neurodivergent talent. The opera’s central relationship is between Paradis and her mother, the Baroness, who only sees her daughter’s flaws, not her extraordinary gifts.
Paradise Files jumps through Theresia’s story, a mix of fact and fiction, in fast-paced scenes, using six singers and five musicians who perform Wallen’s airy score, a kaleidoscope of 18th-century riffs and catchy beats in style pop. Music provides vocal range to Bethan Langford, notable in the central role, with Maureen Braithwaite, as her mother, and Ella Taylor, as the good Gerda, leading the cast. With on-stage signatures as part of the action and wittily crafted supertitles, Paradise Files enables a new audience to discover opera. The response at Queen Elizabeth Hall was joyful and euphoric.
Star ratings (out of five)
Paradise Files ★★★★