Wagner’s music-drama about a knight, a swan and a damsel in distress has captivated Melbourne audiences for almost exactly 140 years. Lohengrin, in fact, was the first Wagner opera to be performed in Australia. We are told that audiences and critics hailed the opening night on 18 August 1877 at the Prince of Wales Opera House in Bourke Street as a pivotal moment in the city’s ongoing musical development. Wagner himself was informed of the performances by a German expatriate, Emil Sander. The composer responded promptly and enthusiastically to Sander’s news, encouraging his works to be sung in English, so that the audience would understand the text “intimately”.
Since that ground-breaking season, some things have changed and some have remained the same. Despite Wagner’s wish, that first season was sung in Italian. The conductor, Alberto Zelman orchestrated the work from a piano score, never having heard any Wagner before. (It was said he preferred Rossini.) While performance standards have undoubtedly improved over the years, the financial impact of mounting a production of Lohengrin remains serious. That first Melbourne season ran to 19 performances with an orchestra of about 40 players and 100 singers. It precipitated the financial, emotional and physical decline of William Lyster, the visionary impresario who had made it possible.
Marius Vlad and Chorus
Along the way, Wagner’s swan has stopped a few times in Melbourne. After a 1958 season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, there was a 27-year hiatus until the stunning VSO production directed by August Everding (assisted by Elke Neidhardt) was presented in the relatively new State Theatre. (This was about the only time Melbourne audiences have seen the entire depth of the State Theatre stage.) The most recent Melbourne production was in 2002.
Against such a historical backdrop, Melbourne Opera’s new production of Lohengrin (sung in German) is a welcome and worthy successor to Lyster’s pioneering efforts and subsequent Melbourne productions. Production and performance values are of a generally high order; all the elements working together to draw the audience into the chivalrous tale.
With an effective eye to budget, Christina Logan-Bell’s sparse set with its amphitheatre-style steps is imaginatively complemented by Yandell Walton’s video projections and Lucy Birkinshaw’s supportive lighting design. In particular, the conception of Lohengrin’s swan is evocative of the wonder and mystery that is an important facet of the story. Lucy Wilkins’ traditional costumes bring the requisite colour and movement to the stage.
Helena Dix, Hrólfur Sæmundsson, Marius Vlad, Eddie Muliaumaseali’I and Company
Acknowledging the battle between Christianity and Norse paganism that plays out in the opera, director Suzanne Chaundy places the Yggdrasil (World Oak Tree) over the set in Act I, replacing it with the image of a gothic church in Act II. So far, so good: those familiar with The Ring will appreciate the symbolism. Less successful is the return of the Act I set (with the Yggdrasil) in Act III. Scene one, the bridal scene (with its famous march) seems to take place entirely outdoors and lacks any suggestion of architectural intimacy, even as things start to unravel psychologically between Elsa and Lohengrin. There is also some awkward physical direction as the bride tries to lay close to her beloved. In the second and final scene where the advent of a Christian kingdom is celebrated, there is no attempt to refer back to the gothic imagery of the previous act. Given the strong emotions Wagner conjures up, the final moments with the return of Gottfried could have used more triumphant gestures.
Strong casting of the principals puts these production issues in the shade. Returning to the stage in her native Melbourne after an absence of 14 years, Helena Dix gives an accomplished and impassioned account of Elsa, untiring in her projection of innocence, devotion and fatal gullibility. She is well partnered with the Romanian tenor, Marius Vlad whose clear lyricism and ardour bring an appealing nobility to the title role. Vlad’s In fernem land is memorable for all its awe and anguish.
Helena Dix and Company
On the other side of the ledger the forces of darkness are well portrayed by Icelandic baritone, Hrólfur Saemundsson as Friedrich von Telramund and English-born mezzo, Sarah Sweeting as Ortrud. Together they make a suitably malevolent couple. Saemundsson impresses with an even vocal strength throughout his range, while Sweeting (a misnomer in this instance) draws on her considerable theatrical experience to revel in wickedness and give the likes of Lady Macbeth a run for their money.
Phillip Calcagno is a clear and confident Herald, supporting Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as King Heinrich, whose characterisation understandably emphasises compassion rather than regal strength. The well blended quartet of Jason Wasley, Paul Biencourt, Matt Thomas and Alex Pokryshevsky are Friedrich’s not-so-noble henchmen.
Seasoned conductor David Kram efficiently propels the musical forces through this marathon drama, always eliciting committed and empathetic playing from the orchestra, particularly in the orchestral preludes. Stationed in the boxes on either side of the proscenium, the fanfare trumpets add a thrilling sense of occasion. The vocal heft of the nearly 80-strong chorus (prepared by Raymond Lawrence) is not only impressive but necessary to fill the vast space of the Regent Theatre – a grand space for a grand opera, but not without considerable acoustic challenges.
Things have come a long way since 1877, even if government funding for opera has diminished since the glory days of the 1985 VSO Lohengrin. In bringing Lohengrin to the stage with purely private funds Melbourne Opera has done an impressive job in marshalling the necessary financial, technical and musical resources. The company has indeed “punched above its weight”. Catch this swan while you can.
Melbourne Opera’s Lohengrin plays until August 19