Lohengrin (Covent Garden)

New Statesman, Nov. 1977



Wagner created love-hate, as well as love‑death. The hands that applauded loudest hurt the most, when they hit back. Inside knowledge enabled them to strike straight at Wagner's Achilles heel, i.e. his mythology, Thomas Mann's cuts were perhaps the most brutal of all, because he stood closest. He seriously linked Wagner with Hitler, because both had infected the human conscience with the plague-germs of myth. Even the not notably squeamish Nietzsche felt that the techniques of divine lip-service had made some words unendurable in Wagner's mouth.

    Take “Grail” as a typical instance. Let the prosecution examine the case of Lohengrin, which contains representative samples. He travels for a reputable company, with a board of knights; but the policies he peddles are surely pernicious. Thus he represents the Grail as an eccentric recept­acle that flies off the handle on learning that Elsa of Brabant is being persecuted by pagans, who among other ill-natured pranks have turned her brother into a swan. The Grail's knight errant is duly dispatched in a boat drawn by this same swan – perhaps with a rather bad grace, since they arrive late and miss most of the first act. Eventually the pagan foeman is felled in unfair fight by the invincible Lohengrin, whose New Testament studies seem to have been neglected. Indeed, outrageous abuse of his supernatural powers stands high on his order of chivalry. His first words to Elsa are “Shall I be your consort if I win?” But he knows all the time that he cannot fail; it’s a con game.

      “Body and soul”, pipes up the innocent Elsa. But there are certain strings attached (Grail motif). She must never ask Lohengrin about his identity. or his origins. She agrees at once, but later instigates further inquiries. This seems no more than ordinary prudence; yet the penalty is death. The Grail is resolved to remain top sacred. Meanwhile Lohengrin has sung his autobiography and lost his invincibility. He decides to decamp before his enemies find out. But he misses the last swan, which has been taken out of service to be put back into human shape. Instead, the Grail sends its own personal Dove, and Lohengrin departs as he arrived: on tow.

    Now if we believe with Thomas Mann that myths and fairy-tales are just lies, and dangerous lies at that, Lohengrin as a political struggle between emergent Christianity and the old black arts is an absurd and odious travesty. But those who feel with Tolkien that myth is an invention about truth may well find the present production revelatory. Music consists of immediate reality, and cannot lie. The Grail should therefore have real content, e.g. whatever each separate listener holds most sacred, as meat and drink or lifeblood. The Grail motif can thus become an empty vessel made mostly of sound, yet fully open to sense. Similarly Wagner's other private obsessions, such as nationality and nobility, parenthood and power, identity and right conduct, can assume widespread and even universal validity. If you doubt that, try Covent Garden, where Lohengrin is showing itself to be a worthy forerunner of Wagner's later masterpieces.

    But no more than that, at least not on the first night. Some significance has been sacrificed for the sake of clarity. Bernhard Haitink rightly restrains the splendid orchestral playing so that every word can be heard; this is very noble of him, because the resulting sound, though surely authentic, might be stigmatised as lacking in weight.  Again, finding new beauties in the score need not mean losing track of the old ones.  The bridal chorus should be seen and heard, not sung off-stage behind gauze.  But that singing had such unattractive features that a veil was rightly drawn over them; and some of the other ensembles were a little confused in expression. Their staging, however, was consistently alert and evocative. In general Elijah Moshinsky's production and John Napier's sets and costumes were models of economy in every sense. Some effects (e.g. in the nuptial cham­ber) even benefited from being stripped bare. But the visual themes of quality were rather, overstressed, not just in duets and duels but in costumes and emblems. The continual black and white of good versus evil began to suggest a mixed doubles, especially When they changed ends. Other pairs of symbols occasionally clashed. Those horns, scales, arms, wings, hilts and cross­pieces, plus the inverted relation of sword to crucifix, were not always relevant to the wider interpretations venturesomely aimed at and often excitingly achieved. A small cavil: the Heerrufer (well sung by Jonathan Summers) surely ought not to be set so high above his sovereign. It looks precarious, and it breaches protocol. Not that Robert Lloyd as the King was at any risk of being over-trumped by the herald; he was admirably vigorous of voice and bearing. Donald McIntyre was equally convincing as Teltramund. It always seems easier to portray evil than goodness, and I found Eva Randova's Ortrud much more credible than Anna Tomowa-Sintow's Elsa; but both sang with fine style and fluency. Finally Rene Kollo's Lohengrin was outstandingly good. He has perhaps a slight tendency to soften and relax in stance, mien and voice rather more often than the characterisation requires. But really he made a magnificent Knight of the Grail, in a performance capable of converting Nietzsche himself.