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After being performed this summer at the Royal Opera House in London, Wagner’s Lohengrin by David Alden opens the season of the Flemish Opera, with Zoran Todorovich, Liene Kinča, Craig Colclough, Iréne Theorin, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Vincenzo Neri
Poets are like these lords of sky and cloud,
Who ride the storm and mock the bow’s taut strings,
Exiled on earth amid a jeering crowd,
Prisoned and palsied by their giant wings.
L’Albatros — Charles Baudelaire
In a city made up of austere and drastically leaning buildings, with only an air-raid siren as decor, lives an over-exhausted and anguished population. With his half-burned and mutilated body, the King’s herald (incarnated by a persuasive Vincenzo Neri, with a deep and touching timbre) announces the King’s arrival.
Welcomed by a crowd movement which the security forces try to contain, the King makes his entrance, covered with a long black coat and a simple golden crown, granting him a timeless air.
Coming to Brabant to mobilize troops and most importantly to find a strong man to guide them, Heinrich finds himself as the judge of the young Elsa, accused of letting her brother Gottfried die in the forest.
The girl is looking for a champion to defend her and prays to God to send it to her.
All the expectations, including those of the people (where we will notice the great commitment of the Flanders Opera Choir), who are waiting for a hero, seem to be fulfilled by the arrival of a man, barefoot and white dressed….
He therefore defends Elsa and marries her, the traitors (Ortrud and Telramund) are banished and the joyful moment is crowned by fireworks.
But all this is a doomed failure, because the stranger, who is no other than Lohengrin, knight of the Grail and son of Parsifal, is not meant to live among men.
The demi-god requires unconditional love from Elsa, while concealing his identity from her forever. It is an impossible burden for his wife who, under the influence of Ortrud and Telramund, begins to doubt him.
It is only a matter of time before she asks him the forbidden question, in their wedding room, which features the reproduction of Lohengrin’s Arrival in Brabant by August von Heckel.
Thus, Elsa loses her husband, her hero; Telramund loses his life, when Lohengrin kills him with his own sword, Ortrud loses all hope and King Heinrich loses his strong man.
With a staging that recalls the violence of war and totalitarianism, American director David Alden sets the fairytale knight Lohengrin in a world both physically and spiritually in ruins.
Although Leni Reifenstahl‘s stage images do not leave any doubt about their reference to Nazi symbolism (the Parteiadler with the swan instead of the eagle, military uniforms and black, red and white banners), their use remains sufficiently abstract not to confine the piece to Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
Wilhelm Schwinghammer, who replaces Thorsten Grümbel, suffering, successfully depicts the King and makes him a deeply tragic and helpless figure.
Liene Kinča and Iréne Theorin also made their debut, respectively as Elsa and Ortrud. Liene Kinča embodies the young woman in a compelling way and masters the nuances of her voice despite a slightly backward projection, Iréne Theorin’s voice, on the contrary, thrives and makes her, alongside Craig Colclough (in the role of Telramund), the real protagonist of the performance.
Because the villains are the most convincing characters here, in every possible way: in his secretary’s uniform, pencil skirt and pulled back hair, Ortrud is a perfect manipulator, juggling between the carrot and the stick to make Terlamund support her plans.
The tragedy of the latter is dramatically embodied by Colclough, whose voice is powerful and precise and his sound projection never forced, as in his passionate Du fürchterliches Weib, was bannt mich noch in deine Nähe?, where he throws chairs to the floor, while perfectly controlling his tone and expressivity.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Zoran Todorovich‘s Lohengrin, who, except perhaps in In Fernem Land, lacks vocal subtlety and complexity in the representation of this tortured character.
The orchestra of the Flemish Opera, under the baton of the new conductor Alejo Pérez, who led Pelléas et Mélisande in the previous season, delivered a very lyrical Lohengrin, with beautiful contributions from the woodwinds, reaching ethereal heights.
It is in Lohengrin that Wagner manages to bring his musical drama together for the first time in an infinite melody: the choral scenes and the arie are not here culminating or arrival points, but always new starting points.
Thus ends in tragedy this visually stunning Lohengrin, where the fairylike character of Wagner’s music is, by the power of contrast, underlined by the dark and sinister scenery.
The only winner here seems to be Gottfried, Elsa’s brother. After Lohengrin’s departure, the child, at last free from Ortrud’s magic, brandished the sword above his head and thus gives hope in the future, in the man the people have so long awaited.
Perhaps more than in Nazi symbolism, it is in this image that the real warning of this production is to be found: totalitarian tendencies do not begin with a tyrant, but with people desiring a strong man.