Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera

this production apart, Wagner’s most romantic of operas is seen all too
rarely, so it was a pleasure to be able to encounter Welsh National Opera’s
new production directed and designed by Antony McDonald and conducted by
WNO’s music director Lothar Koenigs. The production debuted at a Royal Gala
at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 23 May 2013. I saw it on 1 June.

WNO assembled a cast relatively new to Wagnerian drama rather than using
seasoned Wagnerians. Peter Wedd sang Lohengrin, Emma Bell sang Elsa, Susan
Bickley sang Ortrud, and Simon Thorpe sang Telramund (standing in for an
indisposed John Lundgren). Bell has sung Eva at Covent Garden and has Elisabeth
down on the cards, she has also been singing the title role in
Fidelio. Wedd has a couple of Wagner roles under his belt (Froh,
Amfortas), he has also been singing Florestan. Bickley generated many plaudits
for her Brangane with WNO.

Wagner’s protagonists, Elsa and Lohengrin, are both young so having them
incarnated by a pair of younger singers represents a dramatic advantage. But
the title role in Lohengrin is a notorious graveyard for lyric tenors,
requiring significant degrees of stamina and strength. So an exciting cast like
this represents a challenge, a risk and a significant investment in the future
by WNO.

As a designer/director Antony McDonald has a finely poetic eye and his
production was both poetic and in many ways rather daring, mixing grim reality
with magic and romance. He set it in the period of the opera’s composition in
a 19th century militaristic society at war. Costumes were period, but the
setting was a grim run down building, hardly a palace, this was a society on
the edge, in the throes of war.

Act 1 took place in a sort of assembly hall, amphitheatre with the chorus
raised above in seating, act 2 was in a courtyard of the building, with huge
windows giving us a view of the interior of the building, the first scene of
act 3 in a rather bleak room and the close of the opera in the same setting as
act 1. The size and shape of the set not only gave space for seating for the
large chorus, as well as providing focus for the voices. And, despite the
grimness, McDonald and his lighting designer Lucy Carder created some moments
of visual poetry.

McDonald’s act drop was a projection of romantic, misty landscape; there
was another reality outside of Brabant. The two collided when Lohengrin
appeared. Many directors choose to fudge the swan and the boat, but here
McDonald introduced magic into his grim world. On Lohengrin’s first entry the
doors to the amphitheatre swung open and a boat appeared, with a half swan,
half body at the prow, Lohengrin behind him and the glimpse of a misty
landscape in the distance.

Relatively slight of frame for a Wagner tenor, with bleached blond hair, and
an outsize greatcoat over a linen martial arts tunic, and bare feet, Peter Wedd
was every inch the enchanted outsider. The effect was magical and this was
enhanced when Wedd sang his farewell to the swan, ‘Mein lieber Schwann’,
producing some of the most enchanting Wagner singing I have heard in a long

Wedd does not have a huge voice and throughout the evening I was aware of
him managing it. But he created a strong sense of ‘the other’, the
strangeness of this knight from a foreign realm. At key moments his voice was
suitably dramatic, the essential core of his voice has interesting dark, almost
baritonal elements which are helpful in Wagner roles. In act 2, now equipped in
a suit and properly fitting great-coat and shoes, he was properly
authoritative. In the narration in act 3, the moment in the opera which is a
true test of a tenor’s stamina, he was spellbinding. He started it as just an
intimate talk with Elsa but slowly Wedd’s performance grew in power and
intensity, to a thrilling climax. Wedd’s Lohengrin was not conventionally
heroic and he does not have the ringing thrill of a traditional Siegfried, but
intelligence and careful management of his voice ensured that his performance
at the end of act 3 was as interesting as at the beginning.

Emma Bell was a warm, touching Elsa, radiant in her narration of the dream
but perhaps really rather more maturely womanly than usual. She was certainly a
rather stronger person than in some versions, but not less naive, Bell
definitely created the impression in act 1 that Elsa was the sort of person who
should really get out more. She had an almost evangelical belief in people and
their goodness. In fact, in many ways both Elsea and Lohengrin were naifs,
neither negotiating the complex society in ideal ways.

Certainly Lohengrin’s expectations of Elsa were unrealistic and in the
long scene in act 3 when the denouement plays out, they were two people unused
to personal relationships. Despite their professions of love, you just knew
that had they succeeded in consummating their relationship it would have been
awkward and tentative. This played out in the brilliant ebb and flow of the
dialogue between Bell and Wedd, with first one then the other taking the lead
and neither really understanding. The conclusion when it came was inevitable
and heartbreaking.

Ortrud seems a role which Susan Bickley seems born to play. During the long
act 1 proceedings, when Ortrud was present but silent, Bickley looked
magnificent in a floor length coat (covering a fabulous full skirted red dress)
and radiated superior disdain. This was an icy controlled Ortrud, spitting
vitriol when she did let go.

WNO-Lohengrin-02.gifSusan Bickley as Ortrud

At the start of act 2, McDonald had Bickley and Simon Thorpe’s Telramund
in what seemed to be a service courtyard of the building along with the
rubbish. Whilst Ortrud harangued Telramund with her tongue, above we could see
the shadows of Elsa and Lohengrin in the windows in public and private events
in the palace. Bell sang her lovely act 2 solo from one of these windows and
her dialogue with Bickley started with Bell leaning out of the window. Bickley
was at her most seductive here, rarely can Ortrud’s music have been so
beautifully sung, but with such control. Bickley showed us what this really
cost Ortrud.

In a completely magical touch, McDonald showed Elsa in her bridal gown
walking through the illuminated palace (the first floor windows now open) in a
simple but lovely effect. Ortrud’s appearance in the procession, in a dark
green shot silk gown with a bodice which looked like a breastplate, was a
magnificent example of control and disdain. Her interruption of the bridal
procession was superb in the concentrated hate and vitriol. Bickley’s voice
is not of the huge dramatic mezzo type, but her wonderful laser focus ensured
that every note counted.

Simon Thorpe was originally to play the Herald, but took over Telramund. He
sang robustly, he was another naif, a bluff man who really did trust Ortrud. In
the face of Bickley’s brilliant Ortrud, he did not stand a chance. Thorpe
created a strong dramatic moment when he too interrupted the bridal procession
to shout his own invective.

Matthew Best made a strong, robust King Henry, clearly shocked and
bewildered at the goings on. Rhys Jenkins made a strong replacement as the

An additional palpable contribution to the drama was the chorus and they
took advantage of the acoustic properties McDonald’s set to give us a superb
series of chorus contributions. The people of Brabant were clearly a strong
factor in the duchy. It is perhaps stereotypical to say that WNO is known for
the excellence of its chorus, but excellent it was and thrilling too.

WNO-Lohengrin-03.gifCast of Lohengrin

Lothar Koenigs brought out both the beauty and the subtlety of the music and
the drama. He had the many extra trumpets in the boxes, bringing thrilling
drama to the ceremonial moments. The care that he took to support his cast
should not be underestimated. The Wales Millennium Centre has a wide open pit
but there was never a feeling of the principals having to strain to get over
the orchestra. I did wonder whether tension sagged in the longer sections such
as the middle of act 1, with Koenigs paragraphs not quite building to larger

Despite the grim setting, there were many poetic moments with McDonald aided
by Lucy Carter’s superb lighting. It is amazing how beautiful even the
grimmest setting can be made to look.

I found the production to be utterly absorbing in a way that few recent
Wagner productions have been. I look forward to hearing Peter Wedd and Emma
Bell in more Wagner, but here with Antony McDonald’s intelligent production,
Susan Bickley’s incredible Ortrud and supported by Lothar Koenigs, they
brought a freshness to this most romantic of operas.

Robert Hugill

Production and cast information:

Herald: Rhys Jenkins, King Henry: Matthew Best, Telramund: Simon
Thorpe, Elsa: Emma Bell, Lohengrin: Peter Wedd, Ortrud: Susan Bickley:
Gottfried: Thomas Rowlands / Daniel Williams. Director & designer: Antony
McDonald. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Lighting designer: Lucy Carter. Movement
director: Philippe Giraudeau. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre,
Saturday, 1 June 2013.

image_description=Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
product_title=Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin

Photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera