Honest attempt at the improbable

LOHENGRIN

Melbourne Opera

Robert Blackwood Hall

Saturday August 19

                                                               Richard Wagner

The great advantage about getting to the last performance of anything is that you get the chance to garner the wisdom of your colleagues, read what they have to say about the event, retain what their findings have been while you sample the goods yourself, then have a rich backdrop of opinion on which to draw to justify your own.

Well, it could work like that except that, more often than not, the views of other writers tend to act as mental retardant; you can get distracted by too much unanimity about a singer’s worth or a generous communal appraisal of an orchestral contribution, or you can be startled into irrational action by the amount of space that fellow-writers give to ephemera – the costumes, lighting, scenery and directorial imprint.

So it has been with this Wagner work which enjoyed a three-night run in the Regent Theatre before this final performance in Monash University’s hall, rather than in its Alexander venue.

Without cavil I shared the universal approval of all six main principals, could almost go along with the approbation given to the company’s expanded orchestra, was mainly in agreement with the encomiums heaped on the chorus.  Yet it was hard to share in some of the minor enthusiasms that fleshed out several of the post-premiere notices.  Partly this was due to the change in venue.  I’ve not been inside the Regent Theatre for years; not since a younger Hugh Jackman appeared as Joe Gillis in Lloyd Webber’s one-and-a-half hit show Sunset Boulevard.  Without doubt, this Collins St. venue would have suited the opera more comfortably than did the university hall, although the latter had the asset of a long walkway from which choruses could be sung, brass ensembles could bray and even Phillip Calcagno’s Herald could carry out some proclaiming.

Here was one of the production’s unexpected surprises.  The Herald has the opera’s opening words, is the focus when Elsa’s appeal for a champion goes out, sets up the order of combat, then pronounces the changed state of affairs in Brabant before the wedding scene  –  Calcagno’s best moment,  his baritone well-pitched to the space and firm in its chain of announcements.

For the title role, Melbourne Opera brought back Marius Vlad, last year’s Tannhauser.  His tenor is a reliable quantity, only one passage in the lengthy Act 3 duet giving a short frisson of concern.  He negotiated the set pieces –  that rhapsodic self-introduction-of-sorts, Nun sei bedankt; the powerful summation of his final appeal to Elsa in Hochstes Vertrau’n; the blazoning power of In fernem Land where all becomes clear.  Accurate in intonation and, relative to some of his peers, observant of Wagner’s metre, Vlad does not power through his work; when set alongside some of the noted heldentenors who can bellow to order, his timbre is inclined to be nasal rather than gutsy.

Unlike many other observers, however, I thought that the tenor shone brightest in ensembles, notably the duets with Elsa: the first encounter beginning at Zum Kampf fur eine Magd which swept you up rapidly into their mutual, hastily organized commitment; the interchanges that constitute the last scene of Act 2 where Lohengrin turns the tables on Ortrud and Telramund; but especially the closest thing the score has to a love duet, Das susse Lied verhallt.

Of course, Vlad’s success in these segments was shared with Helena Dix’s Elsa, who established a viable character immediately from her character’s awkward entry onto the scene when you might have thought she was catatonic before launching into Einsam in truben Tagen.  By the time her desperate prayer started at Du trugest zu ihm, the soprano had contrived to move beyond the usual depiction of Elsa as more than a tad deranged, making a persuasive case for the heroine’s belief in her champion’s advent.

Later, Cox gave excellent service as the blissful beloved in Act 2 with a splendidly phrased reading of Euch Luften rising above the conspiratorial duet that interrupted its flow, and even managed to make Elsa seem less unctuous than usual during the character’s charitable adoption of Ortrud’s case.  Yet her most valuable contribution came in the later stages of the final act where her gradual progression from placid lyrical responsiveness to irrational insistence by way of self-pity brought on the inevitable tragedy.  Dix has a fine vocal armoury for roles like this with a firm projection informed by a supple command of Wagner’s semi-long phrases and a musicality that accommodates the occasional decorative inlay without over-emphasizing its presence.

Hrolfur Saemundsson initially carried all before him as Telramund, the accusations and nasty one-liners in Act 1 thrown off with exemplary energy and explosiveness.  You might have expected a continuation on the same level in the long duet that opens Act 2 but the baritone here appeared to be dramatically monochromatic, not conveying the swings between rage and depression that the action requires.  Matters improved for his confrontation at the Minster door, Den dort im Glanz, which achieved the necessary disruption of action and emotional backdrop with laudable vocal brawn.

Yet the outstanding figure in the principal quartet was  Sarah Sweeting’s Ortrud.  Not much more than an arrogant cipher at the opera’s opening with a bare six lines in ensemble work, the singer could do little but posture.  But the extended duet of recrimination and revenge that opens the second act gave this singer plenty of scope as she manipulated her husband and laid the groundwork for Elsa’s downfall.  Indeed, it is hard to recall any part of the production that succeeded as powerfully as Ortrud’s Entweihte Gotter! exhortation, launched at the audience with sense-heightening aggression.

It was complemented by Sweeting’s second bout of vituperation in this act, beginning at Zuruck, Elsa! which, like Saemundsson’s challenge a few moments later, brought a halt to the sweet self-satisfaction at work for everyone else.  Here, the impact of Ortrud’s defence of her husband and challenge to Lohengrin’s anonymity proved engrossing, the notes articulated with exemplary precision and barely leashed ferocity.

As King Henry the Fowler, bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i followed the rest of the cast under Suzanne Chaundy’s direction and gave a direct account of the part, the only problem arising during his pre-combat solo, Mein Herr und Gott, where  the top F flat sounded underdone.  But the King’s contributions to the concluding scenes in both later acts proved stalwart and comfortably handled.

This final performance was conducted by Greg Hocking who worked through the score with level-headed competence.  The tempo for the opera’s Vorspiel seemed rather hasty for a real Langsam but the principals stayed within respectable boundaries and the choir stuck to their work without ignoring the pit.  Only a fairly lengthy wind-supported passage in Act 2 threatened to come adrift but a soldier-on ethic came into play until order was resumed.   Hocking had two offstage brass quartets operating – one above the stage, the other to the rear above the stalls.  The forces involved were somewhat under those stipulated by Wagner but, like the chorus, the executants worked efficiently: on cue and on the note.

Because the Blackwood Hall has no pit, we heard the orchestra very well but there were few passages where you would have preferred a softer dynamic from the body.  The clarinets sounded unpolished next to their fellow woodwind; the trombones and horns in the main orchestra tended to drag in slower-moving tutti passages; and you would have preferred more strings at the moments of highest ferment.  But the general combination impressed as an honourable engagement with a score that bristles with difficulties, particularly dynamic contrasts and variable textures.

It’s a possibility that the chorus assembled for this production was the best that the company has presented for many years, although I haven’t seen every work from Melbourne Opera over the past decade.  The double men’s chorus made a satisfying impression across the night, notably in those stentorian swatches of fabric that the composer splashes out at festive and bellicose moments in the drama: a credit to their preparation by Raymond Lawrence.  Yes, the male singers gained markedly from the hall’s lively acoustic reaction to their combination, but the female corps also generated a full-bodied sonority in support of Elsa during Act 1 and, singing from the hall’s upper walkway, the Treulich gefuhrt processional to the bridal chamber.

The set was a minimal one: a set of stage-long steps – and this stage is very long – with video projections for backdrop.  The two appearances of Lohengrin’s swan pleased most of my colleagues, but I thought the wing-beating flurries and the animal’s actual appearance odd in the production’s down-to-earth, naturalistic setting.

Further, the appearance of the missing young duke, Gottfried, at the end – the swan turned human – also struck a mystifying note as the character looked traumatized, not that capable of taking over his realm, let alone leading his forces into battle against the marauding Hungarians.

But this opera is an improbability from start to finish.  Some commentators make much of the proposed struggle between the old gods and Christianity, between Lohengrin and Ortrud.   Others see it as a study of women’s frailty, or of the patriarchal system at its worst.  My Wagnerian guru, George Bernard Shaw, points out the fundamental flaw in the opera itself, one that bedevilled Wagner into many revisions, and that is the improbability of demanding that Elsa be held to the promise that she makes to the hero  –  not to ask his name or provenance.  To their credit, at the end of this night, both Vlad and Dix managed to attract equal sympathy, both victims and touchingly human in different ways, even the noli me tangere prude of a knight.

But I found the whole exercise very satisfying, enough of a composite entity to ensure that you glossed over problems both in music and presentation, even if you couldn’t quite forget them.  It was a long night  –  what Wagner night isn’t?  –  but it seemed to move steadily forward without any stretches of tedium, probably because the production team, cast and musicians took the work at face value and invested it with honesty and their best abilities.  You can’t ask for anything more.