fri 19/07/2024

Lohengrin, Royal Opera review - a timely return to warzone Brabant | reviews, news & interviews

Lohengrin, Royal Opera review - a timely return to warzone Brabant

Lohengrin, Royal Opera review - a timely return to warzone Brabant

Uneven casting for this first revival, but Jakub Hrůša shines at the podium

Jennifer Davis: rich and agile tone as ElsaAll images by Clive Barda

David Alden’s Lohengrin is back at Covent Garden for a first revival. The defining image the first time round, in 2018, was of the ending, a political rally for King Henry’s regime, with Lohengrin and the swan as its icons. That felt crude – a two-dimensional morality, and tangential to the story.

That still smarts, but Alden’s ideas (revived without noticeable changes by Peter Relton) are more diverse than they first seemed and repay a second viewing. Musically, the revival is quite strong, with impressive leads but a weaker supporting cast; a fitful ensemble effort where the first run was all about the star names.

Jennifer Davis (Elsa); Brandon Jovanovich (Lohengrin)Although the visual language is ambiguous, the setting is an early 20th century war zone. The first act plays out against a backdrop of tilted brick facades with huge, slanted window frames, in which the chorus appears. Sadly, the wartime imagery is more timely this time round, especially the sight of Telramund (Craig Colclough) being brutalised and humiliated after his defeat. No swan as such, but rather a complex light projection, of feathers and wings, designed by Tal Rosner, an elegant effect. The second act opens a dark bunker, where Ortrud (Anna Smirnova) and Telramund quarrel under a bare strip light. The Procession to the Cathedral reveals a huge, stylised effigy of the swan, the first suggestion of totalitarianism. That becomes explicit in the final scene of Act III, where the stage is draped with flags of the swan motif, as Brabant readies for war.

Vocally, the performance gets off to an excellent start with the arrival of Derek Welton as the Herald. He is a seasoned Wagnerian, and remarkably, this is his Royal Opera debut. His dress is imposing, the whole of the right side of his body bound in braces and supports, his walk a stubborn limp. The other low voices are less impressive. Gábor Bretz has good articulation as King Henry, but lacks the heft of voice to carry the role, especially given the heightened villainy that Alden imposes. Craig Colclough is more convincing as Telramund, but he too lacks vocal weight. Anna Smirnova brings a big, Russian sound to the role of Ortrud. This, finally, is singing on a Wagnerian scale, although she sometimes sounds forced at the ends of the long phrases in the second act.

Fortunately, the two leads are both excellent. Brandon Jovanovich has an agile and well-supported voice, up to most of the Heldentenor demands of the title role. In the first act, he swoops up to many of the top notes, but that trait disappears in the second. He struggles with some of the lower passages, especially when singing the question motif – an unusual problem for a Wagner tenor – but his top range is open and clear. He looks the part, too. Soprano Jennifer Davis (pictured above, with Brandon Jovanovich) returns as Elsa. It is her signature role, and it shows. She has a beautifully rich, alto-like tone, but her voice is agile too, and well serves the many dramatic demands. (Pictured below, Craig Colclogh, Anna Smirnova, Jennifer Davis)Craig Colclogh (Telramund); Anna Smirnova (Ortrud); Jennifer Davis (Elsa)The ROH Chorus have their work cut out, but deliver the many imposing tuttis with conviction and impressive power. Some ensemble problems in the first act were undoubtedly caused by having the chorus distributed around the complex set. But the choral singing in the second and third acts was impeccable. The second act scene in which the Herald announces Telramund’s banishment was a tour de force for the tenors and basses, and the Procession to the Cathedral is even better.

Best of all was the orchestral playing under the astute leadership of Jakub Hrůša. He is not the sort of conductor who looks for energy and excitement in every phrase, and his tempos are often slow. But he builds well to climaxes and is able to maintain the broad orchestral textures over long spans. He is good with details too, like the careful phrasing he applies to the woodwind solos and ensembles under Elsa’s lines. He communicates well with the singers, punctuating the orchestral textures in close alignment with the vocal phrases. He sometimes draws out individual lines, but always seems to know how far he can stretch the singers. And the climaxes, to the Prelude and to each of the acts, are just stunning. The Royal Opera is on the lookout for a new Music Director: could this engagement by a try-out for Hrůša? If so, he is a strong contender.


Hrůša builds the tension: the climaxes, to the Prelude and to each of the acts, are just stunning


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I wonder where critic Gavin Dixon sat in the House. On seat D77 in the amphitheater the voices of Gabor Bretz and Craig Colclough sounded majestic and powerful as appropriate.

I agree. I was in the side corner of the stalls circle, admittedly very near the stage and thought both very strong and Colclough had real emotional charge in a difficult role.

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