Soaring music and epic romance

Lohengrin

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

THERE is always something of an occasion around watching a Wagner opera. Maybe it is the fact that you know you will be in your seat for a good few hours, maybe it is Wagner's epic music or maybe it is the imagination of his storylines.

Or maybe it is a combination of all three but for whatever reason there was a real air of anticipation as the audience settled  in for the long haul. With the opening notes of the famous Prelude we knew we were in safe hands as the WNO Orchestra and conductor Lothar Koenigs lulled us with that sweeping sound.

Lohengrin is not Wagner's easiest opera and in many ways it is an odd mix. Set in Brabant, it is a story of ordinary people faced with an extraordinary situation.

 The opera tells of Elsa who is charged with killing her brother but decides her best defence is to call for the support of a hero who came to her in her dreams. When the mythical man appears, drawn by a swan, he and Elsa fall in love and marry.  But there is a catch – the union can only succeed if Elsa never asks the stranger's name or origins.

That is because Lohengrin is actually a Grail knight sent into the world to defend the good and he can only stay if his real identity remains secret.

Directed and designed by Antony McDonald, this production is very much in the real world. It shifts between the inside of a giant meeting hall to its outside where lofty walls loom over the characters below.

Lohengrin is so dramatically different because he clearly comes from another world. Played by Peter Wedd, he is constantly set apart from the rest of the characters – in his dress, in his demeanour and in his refusal to conform.

Emma Bell's Elsa is the character who faces the real turmoil as she battles between blind faith and love for her mystery saviour and fear of who he really is.

The couple are mirrored by a darker pairing – that of Elsa's rival for power Telramund and his scheming wife Ortrud. Susan Bickley is a brilliant Ortrud – she is vicious, vindictive and proud yet also cunning enough to hide this side of her character when she needs to. She is thoroughly believable in her desire to wreak revenge on Elsa.

There are moments, such as when she is cursing the poor girl, when you literally feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. This is not a woman you want to cross.

Simon Thorpe jumped from his usual role of Herald to take on the part of Telramund due to illness and managed it incredibly well.

The production is well over four-and-a-half hours but it never drags. As the drama takes us back and forth between the opposing couples there is a real sense of empathy for Elsa as she agonises over her loyalties and her trust – pulled in different directions by those around her.

And of course at its heart is Wagner's beautiful music which draws us all into the story happening before us.

Performed again 15-06-13.

Diane Parkes 

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