This romantic opera from the end of Wagner's early period, just before embarking on his more mature work, is rather more conventional and accessible than, for example, the romance of Tristan und Isolde, but by the same token Lohengrin doesn't have the conceptual weight of later Wagner dramas. The characters are rather one dimensional, divided quite clearly as being on the side of light or darkness, and the score is not as refined as later Wagner. On the other hand, there are some wonderful singing roles, some dynamic scoring that colours the difference between the physical and the spiritual, a terrific drama, and of course the opera is of great interest for the thematic links it has with the composer's more celebrated works, to say nothing of the fact that the traditional Wedding March originates from this opera.
Lohengrin starts off like a courtroom drama, but it's one that, being a Wagner opera, is dressed up in regal grandness, heroic declamations and with a strong element of ancient Teutonic mythology underlying it all. On the eve of going to war against Hungary, King Heinrich calls a tribunal meeting to settle a dispute that has arise over the territory of Brabant. Friedrich von Telramund has accused Elsa, the daughter of the late Duke of Brabant, of murdering Gottfried, her brother and the rightful heir to Brabant. Elsa defends her position and calls on a heroic knight of her visions to take up arms and defend herself in combat against Telramund. Her knight in shining armour (quite literally) cannot reveal his name, and begs her not to ask of it, but it transpires - no surprise here since it is the title of the opera - that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, guardian of the Holy Grail, who is himself the subject of Wagner's final opera. The themes of this opera deal similarly - if not quite as abstractly - with questions of virtue, purity and innocence, but above all here with the noble virtues of complete love and unconditional trust.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 2006 production for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, conducted by Kent Nagano, brings a new dimension to those themes. His use of the stage, as ever, is simply magnificent, the use of props minimal, the sets nonetheless majestic and impressive, yet simple and not overly ornate. The stage is immaculately lit, balancing light and shade, foreground and background, using colours to highlight and give appropriate emphasis. Whatever angle you look at this from - and the cameras do a fine job in their coverage - the stage and the positions of the characters within achieves maximum impact. At the same time, by making the period non-specific, although certainly more modern than its middle-ages origins, Lehnhoff downplays the fairytale trappings of a heroic knight borne on a chariot drawn by a wild swan (as well as leaning it well away from any troubling National Socialist conceptions that could be applied to the themes), while still remaining true to the opera and its purpose, without over-emphasising or lessening the impact of its musical strengths.
Solveig Kringelborn's Elsa doesn't have quite the power of the other singers, nor indeed does Klaus Florian Vogt's Lohengrin, but the nature of their characters is purer than the others, with a bond of trust between them that their counterparts Ostrund and Telramund do not possess, and consequently their voices are softer - more angelically toned than the more typical Wagnerian heldentenor in the case of Lohengrin - but clear, ringing and forceful where required. Tom Fox, as Telramund and Waltraud Meier as Ostrund are however terrific, playing their baddies to the hilt and with delightfully over-the-top almost pantomime eye-rolling madness in the case of Meier's sorceress - both perfectly appropriate nonetheless for this particular opera and for roles that shouldn't be underplayed. Kent Nagano conducts the Deutsches Symphonic-Orchester of Berlin for similar dramatic force, but the dynamic and subtle tones are there also, brought out in the fine PCM surround sound mix that comes on the Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray quality cannot be faulted either on its image quality, or the manner in which it is filmed. It captures perfectly the qualities of the stage sets and the lighting and allows you to get right up close with the performers. A 68 minute documentary is also included on the 2-disc set which looks at the opera and its staging in some detail with interviews from most of the principals involved, but it is overlong in its walk-through description of the plot, extensively illustrated with scenes from the opera. Kent Nagano however provides interesting analysis on the tone and complexities of the score, particularly in the preludes to each of the three acts.