Magazine article The Spectator

Wagner's Secret

Magazine article The Spectator

Wagner's Secret

Article excerpt


Royal Opera House

Nietzsche said of the prelude to Act I of Lohengrin that it was the first piece of hypnosis by music, and listening to the Royal Opera orchestra's performance of it under Semyon Bychkov tended to confirm his claim, at any rate until the climax, where Bychkov pulled out a few stops too many, and made the piece sound almost vulgar. The opening, however, was exquisite, entrancing, the divided violins playing with such piercing sweetness that Wagner's phenomenal feat of evoking the mystical by sensuous, even sensual means was as potent as I have ever heard it. This prelude, which has no predecessor in any work, retains its power to move and dazzle as much as any he wrote.

Lohengrin is perhaps the work where the gap between surface beauty and underlying significance is the greatest in Wagner's oeuvre. That means that, though its musical interpretation is not open to much variation, its dramatic direction certainly is. Is it a fairy tale, as it appears to be, with a maiden in distress, a knight in shining armour arriving in a boat drawn by a swan, a sorceress? Is it an historical grand opera, with King Henry rallying the troops to keep the 'hordes from the East' at bay? Is it a study, primarily, of taboos and even incest, with the never-explored relationship between Elsa and her brother Gottfried, who here, when he appeared in the last moments of the opera, kissed her passionately before she sank lifeless? It's all those things, but how to make it convincing in such disparate ways is a secret so far undiscovered. The most sumptuous productions, such as Wieland Wagner's in the 1960s and Karajan's in Salzburg, make it as gorgeous, almost, to look at as to hear, but leave unruffled any questions about human relationships it may raise.

Elijah Moshinsky's production, first seen in Covent Garden in 1977, is now so purged of props as to be reliant almost entirely on what the singers do, and what they carry, for any indications as to what they are involved in. There are totem poles and also Christian processional objects, and the King is surrounded by a sacred space, so his Herald largely speaks for him.

But what the nature of the two villains' plotting is remains obscure. Petra Lang, an excellent artist, though not with an Ortrud-sized voice, would chew the scenery if there were any. …

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