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Welsh National Opera

In Review WNO Lohengin hdl 813
Bell and Wedd, Welsh National Opera's Elsa and Lohengrin
© Bill Cooper 2013

Welsh National Opera made its contribution to the Wagner bicentenary with a new production of Lohengrin, which opened at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on May 23, the day after the composer's two-hundredth birthday. The musical side of the evening was in the safe hands of the company's music director, Lothar Koenigs, the visuals in those of designer-turned-director Antony McDonald, who was responsible for sets and costumes as well as the staging as a whole.

To judge from the costumes, the period was around 1850 — the year of the opera's premiere — while the sets made use of a single reversible structure that resembled, in Acts I and III, a slightly dilapidated Victorian lecture theater of the type where autopsies might be carried out and be viewed from the public gallery, in which the chorus regularly sat. Act II played against the external walls of a complex of buildings, with the traditional entrance to the ladies' quarters of the palace to the left and the cathedral steps and door to the right. Traditionalists might have been especially reassured that Lohengrin appeared on a boat in whose prow stood a swan — or at least a youth clad in swansdown and with a substantial wing that he extended with distinctive, quasi-balletic grace; at the close, of course, he was revealed as Elsa's long-lost brother Gottfried, transformed into a swan by Ortrud's malevolent magic and here represented by Thomas Rowlands, a pupil from a school in nearby Bridgend. 

Notable throughout was the focused clarity of McDonald's presentation of character and narrative. Each of the acting performances achieved distinction, while the director's treatment of the many complex and structurally crucial choral scenes was exemplary in its well-managed stagecraft. The result was one of the most engrossing Wagner productions seen in the U.K. for many years.

Each of the principal roles was sung to a high standard. Almost through to the close of the evening, British tenor Peter Wedd maintained undiminished the finely textured quality of his tone; bold and incisive in attack, he presented a characterization that balanced evenly the human and the otherworldly facets of the visitor from Monsalvat. As Elsa, Emma Bell discovered a role that perfectly matched her vocal and dramatic means; her clean, substantial lyric-soprano tone channeled the musical and textual content of Wagner's phrases with superb expressive power. As Ortrud, versatile mezzo Susan Bickley pushed her voice to its limits in presenting the character's dark strength and determination; as with Wedd, there was some noticeable effort as she tired toward the close of the opera, but in her physical presentation, from Act I — in which she was highly noticeable while singing very little — onward, she compelled attention by means of her grandeur and baleful aspect. Austrian Claudio Otelli's Telramund also delivered a complex, authoritative interpretation, the cutting edge of his wiry bass-baritone deployed with intelligence and variety in his exploration of Ortrud's less than entirely willing accomplice. Suffering from a throat infection, Matthew Best struggled as best he could through the judgments of King Henry, but Simon Thorpe gave the Herald's pronouncements convincing profile and force.

The evening provided great opportunities for WNO's famed chorus — substantially reinforced for the occasion — and for its orchestra, with its extra on- and offstage contingent of woodwind and brass; highly effective spatial arrangement of the latter throughout the auditorium made the interlude leading into the final scene and depicting the muster of King Henry's forces especially thrilling. Koenigs showed himself a master of Wagnerian pacing, with the great ensembles unfolding spaciously and the piece's dramatic flow steady but firm in its momentum. The result was one of WNO's great evenings, and a further sign of the company's general renaissance under David Pountney's leadership. spacer 


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