To be a Wagnerite is to enter the theatre in a state of paranoia. Mainstream culture has decided that Wagner was uniquely wicked; that’s just how it is, and it’s futile to retort that we seem comparatively relaxed about, say, Richard Strauss’s membership of the Reichsmusikkammer, or Stravinsky’s post-1945 anti-Semitism. Or that within recent memory Prokofiev’s October Cantata was presented in the UK as a bit of kitschy fun. (Never mind the dead kulaks: enjoy those accordions!) True, Wagner was an immeasurably greater artist, so he should be held to higher standards. No quarrel with that, at least not here and not now. But it does mean that in any given production of a Wagner opera, you sit waiting to be clobbered with totalitarian symbolism as the director reaffirms that the man who created this artwork was Literally Hitler.
So, the swan monument that towers over Act Two of David Alden’s production of Lohengrin – is that simply generic neoclassical bombast? Because it does look awfully like Albert Speer. Then in Act Three, the armies of Brabant assemble beneath stylised red and black banners. The point clunks home and – glug! – you swallow your medicine. Curiously, it all feels a bit half-hearted, as if these are simply elements that Alden feels obliged to tick off from an all-purpose Wagner-staging checklist. There’s little connection to the meaning of the drama. The vaguely Soviet-looking soldiers in Act One brutalise and menace their own people, because that’s what soldiers do in contemporary opera productions. But the (offstage) war in Lohengrin is between a vulnerable Brabant and an invading eastern power, and the notion that armed resistance is morally equivalent to violent conquest hasn’t aged well since this production first appeared in 2018.
Still, our greatest living Wagnerite, Michael Tanner, counsels against reading too much into the plot of Lohengrin and –these (largely non-functional) aspects apart – Alden’s production actually tells the story as clearly as any updated staging can hope to. Wagner called Lohengrin a ‘Romantic Opera’, and it’s Romantic in that fantastical, E.T.A. Hoffmann sort of way: presenting a consciously idealised past, and a narrative in which reality can be transformed without rational explanation by the supernatural or sacred. This Brabant (the sets are by Paul Steinberg) is a sombre, disjointed mid-20th-century cityscape; the irruptions of the otherworldly are accompanied by disorienting video projections. Lohengrin (Brandon Jovanovich) is a barefoot guru in a white suit, and in proper fairy-tale style there’s never any doubt that he and Elsa (Jennifer Davis) are on the side of good or that Ortrud and Telramund (Anna Smirnova and Craig Colclough) will get their deserts.
Jakub Hrusa conducted, and from the first phrases of the Prelude – with the inner voices subtly emphasised to suggest the active intellect at the core of Wagner’s diaphanous enchantment – he demonstrated a formidable long-range command, coupled to an intensely poetic sensibility. The trumpets and triangles of the fairy-tale foreground sparkled and strutted, but Hrusa is a master of the pregnant pianissimo too, and in the score’s quietest moments he opened out (and sustained) a vast, shimmering stillness. I never had Hrusa down as a Wagnerian: I do now. The chorus wasn’t quite on its recent Peter Grimes form, but still made a mighty noise in the big crowd scenes.
As to the cast; well, the women have a habit of walking away with Lohengrin and Davis’s sweet-voiced, luminous Elsa made a persuasive contrast to Smirnova’s gloriously malevolent Ortrud: a voice that coils and glints blackly in the depths before rearing up, cobra-like, to spit fire. Colclough’s forceful Telramund conveyed a dignity that had been eaten away from the inside, while Jovanovich built slow-burn climaxes of glowing power, even while his translucent tone and spacious phrasing conveyed an unnerving sense that his character was not fully of this world. This is a fine cast, superbly conducted, and the production is generally effective. Worth a detour, as long as you don’t overthink it.
Welsh National Opera has revived Katie Mitchell’s 1998 production of Janacek’s Jenufa. When I last saw it in 2008 I thought it was one of the greatest Janacek stagings I’d ever seen. Having seen it again (the revival is directed by Eloise Lally), I still think that: its naturalism, its lack of sentimentality, and its subtly observed characterisation combines with Janacek’s score to generate an overwhelming weight of pity and compassion. In Birmingham, the title role was sung by Tanya Hurst; a touchingly gentle performance to set against Eliska Weissova’s imperious, all-too-human Kostelnicka and the earthy, bristling sounds of the orchestra under Wyn Davies. Neither Davies nor Hurst are among the headline cast for this tour, but both are worth watching out for. The Hippodrome looked as though it was less than a quarter full: Birmingham’s opera lovers should examine their consciences.