Wagner subtitled Lohengrin a “romantic opera” – with good reason. A love story that goes wrong, it is chock-full of Bellinian melodies that represent a romantic ideal in music. This calls for a special kind of conductor – one who can hold the musical lines together and create the long-limned effect essential to Wagner’s architecture. Such a conductor is Lothar Koenigs, Welsh National Opera’s music director, and it is primarily thanks to him that this new Lohengrin adds up to such an engrossing evening. Koenigs makes something dramatic out of the choral crescendos, sustains generously shaped string cantilenas and creates striking antiphonal effects in Act Three. WNO is lucky to have a conductor who, in addition to being a first-rate musician, clearly wants to challenge and stretch his ensemble.
His – their – contribution goes arm-in-arm with a staging, directed and designed by Antony McDonald, that may not probe the opera’s psychological and philosophical depths but is never less than fresh and coherent. Set within a realistic 19th-century citadel and infused with an air of Prussian militarism, it finds practical solutions to all the opera’s problems – notably the arrival of the swan, represented here by a mythical boy in a row-boat, propelled by a bird’s wing attached to his arm. It’s a goose-bump moment. There are no character-clichés: every move is directed in a way that creates absorbing theatre and respects the opera’s mystique, while clarifying the questions of trust, doubt and betrayal at its heart.
Maybe this Lohengrin, like the upcoming Ring at Longborough Festival Opera, heralds a new wave of simplicity in Wagner interpretation. It’s ideal for people who haven’t seen the opera before – and given that there hasn’t been a new UK Lohengrin for more than 25 years, that’s a lot of people. Apart from one late substitution, the cast is all-British. Peter Wedd’s white-haired swan knight emerges as a Wagner tenor of considerable promise, while Emma Bell’s pre-Raphaelite Elsa radiates vocal excitement. Susan Bickley just about measures up to Ortrud, Claudio Otelli’s Telramund declaims the German text with gusto and Simon Thorpe is the forthright Herald. All in all, a glorious night of opera, and a worthy successor to WNO’s 2010 Meistersinger.