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Royal Danish Opera

In Review Lohengrin HDL 416
Copenhagen’s Lohengrin, with Dahl and Fritz
© Miklos Szabo

NICOLA RAAB LAST VISITED Royal Danish Opera in 2013 as part of the company’s Verdi–Shakespeare triptych, in which three directors were offered the same sets and told to direct the chorus as if they were singing from scores. Despite those restrictions Raab won a Reumert (the Danish equivalent of an Olivier or a Tony) for her Otello, and the house wasted no time inviting her back. 

Given free reign with Lohengrin, a transitional work that treads a treacherous path between realism and other-worldliness, Raab set out even more clearly why she is a galvanizing and intelligent force. The production’s visual leitmotif was a white feather, which may or may not have prompted Alexander Vedernikov to conduct the entire performance with one in place of a baton. Despite the consistently magnificent sound of the Royal Danish Orchestra on January 22, some might have thought conducting with a feather went too far, not least when stage and pit derailed in one of Act I’s big choruses and again in Act III’s first chorus—uncharacteristic moments in a performance that was generally tight and quick if not so light or Italianesque as conductors these days are wont to suggest. If Vedernikov had been persuaded by the neat symbolism, visual clarity and avian beauty of Raab’s production, he wasn’t alone. 

The production’s Lohengrin, German tenor Burkhard Fritz, can certainly sing a legato line, but he isn’t so accomplished at projecting the quietness and intimacy of the role—those creeping, hopeless realizations underlined by the likes of Jonas Kaufmann. It’s not about the size of the voice but, rather, how it’s used, and Fritz seemed caught between the romantic and heroic natures of the character, too often settling for a middle-ground mezzo forte. Putting careful dramatic thought into Wagner’s well-positioned modulations just doesn’t seem his style. 

Anne Margrethe Dahl, on the other hand, brought Elsa to life with every inch of mind and body, capturing her combination of vulnerability, obstinacy and denial. She had to be restrained by her bridesmaids after Lohengrin’s arrival in Act I, so fierce was her misplaced ecstasy. Her naïveté in Act II’s entanglement with Ortrud was evocative and true. 

That was Dahl’s best scene, aided by the full-voiced, dramatically patient Ortrud of Tuija Knihtilä, commanding and sinister in the physical stillness with which Raab imbued her. Knihtilä is a powerful mezzo whose voice seems happiest when it’s plunging or soaring. In contrast, Dahl’s soprano is clear and light but mellow. In the context of this production, that aided Raab’s vision of an Elsa lacking worldliness. When the orchestra is hushed, as in the glowing dream sequence, the fit is just fine. Jukka Rasilainen took some time to warm up as Telramund but used his voice’s edge to sinister effect; Steven Humes was a commanding King Heinrich. 

Raab set the action in a cast-concrete galleried bunker designed by George Souglides, all neat and industrial except for some odd, dreamlike proportions and the hint of a concrete tree protruding from one wall. Lighting shifts contributed to some striking moments of theater, including Lohengrin’s arrival and an earthquake at the end of Act II. The male chorus was divided into two tribes—one in contemporary rags, the other in pristine uniforms; when King Heinrich arrived at the start of the opera, his plate armor was removed to reveal the neat black suit of a corporate boardroom. Was this some childish game, or was it reality? Raab told the story straightforwardly enough, but that gentle question felt ever-present—which is as good a starting point for Lohengrin as any.  —Andrew Mellor

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