David Alden’s acclaimed 2018 staging of Lohengrin, now in its first revival at Covent Garden, opens to the war zone duchy of Brabant which, we learn, is preparing to face an attack by invaders from the East. Many centuries on from the era of the medieval Swan Knight immortalised in Wagner’s 1850 opera, warnings of an invasion from the East send a present day reminder of Europe once again at risk.
Lohengrin is part mystical dream – the sublime overture has a spirituality comparable to that of Wagner’s Parsifal – and part melodrama, in which usurper Count Friedrich von Telramund and his scheming sorceress wife Ortrud very nearly manage to have the innocent daughter of the recently deceased Duke of Brabant executed for allegedly killing her brother to claim his inheritance.
As the King’s Herald (Derek Welton) harangues the crowd prior to Elsa’s execution, vast swooping wings overhead signal the arrival of Brandon Jovanovich’s Knight of the Swan. Lohengrin beats Telramund (Craig Colclough) in combat, rescues Elsa, and proposes marriage to her, on one condition – that she doesn’t ask him to reveal his name. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the disgraced Ortrud of mezzo Anna Smirnova is itching for revenge, and persuades the bride that the anonymous knight must have something to hide.
Alden raises questions about fascism and leadership in the course of a powerful and totally absorbing production. The pure knight of the Grail Lohengrin has the presence of a natural leader but the marble Swan edifice of Albert Speer proportions and the massed red and black ranks of Swan symbol banners are illustrative of a fascist state. Paul Steinberg’s crazily skewed set of war-torn Brabant provides a magnificent background and the video of overshadowing wings (video designer Tal Rosner) that substitute for Lohengrin’s famously unreliable transport by swan boat, is a touch of genius.
Irish soprano Jennifer Davis, returning to the role of Elsa, is in glorious voice and beautifully captures the conflict of the traumatised girl. Brandon Jovanovich takes the title role as an ideal Swan Knight, the shining armour in the updated production being an off-white great coat as worn by military brass between the wars. Anna Smirnova’s rich mezzo brings out the evil darkness of Ortrud, with Craig Colclough as her semi-reluctant partner in crime. Catch this timely revival while you can. Till 14 May
Conductor Jakub Hruša
Director David Alden
Revival director Peter Relton
Set designer Paul Steinberg
Costume designer Gideon Davey
Lighting designer Adam Silverman
Video designer Tal Rosner
Movement director Maxine Braham
Production photographs Clive Barda