A series of Wagner operas presented in a relatively short time span is a challenge to any opera house. It is impossible to have new productions for every title and I wonder how much time for rehearsal the orchestra is actually getting. In circumstances like that, the choice of conductors is the key element for success. Those are difficult works and, when things are uncertain, the musicians should know that there is someone in charge able to give clear directions to keep things minimally functional. Now an opera house of the reputation of the Deutsche Oper should want to show its audience something far more ambitious than “functional”. In order to do that in circumstances of insufficient rehearsal time (as seems to be the case), this someone should be more than clear – he has to be a genius. Yesterday’s Meistersinger was a patient with a serious disease, and its doctor, Maestro Donald Runnicles, had to use all his abilities to save its life. The convalescent could hardly say anything – but one has to acknowledge the doctor’s ability in keeping it breathing.
This evening’s Lohengrin was less lucky. Although this is a less formidable score, it requires a stronger pulse to rescue it from the sameness that afflicts performances led by unimaginative conductors. The issue of Michael Schønwandt’s imagination is secondary in the context of subpar music-making. I have rarely heard the Deutsche Oper orchestra in such poor state. From the first bars, one could guess that this would be a long night. Violins could not float the necessary pianissimo, while the whole string section failed to produce legato during the prelude. I have been pressing too often the key of “poor brass playing”, but today the results were particularly faulty. The orchestral sound was rather recessed and could be surprisingly messy, especially in the prelude to act III. If I had to say something positive, the large ensembles in the end of act I and II had well-balanced soloists and chorus. I could even hear Ortrud – and this is something worthy of mention.
Although Ricarda Merbeth’s lyric soprano is large enough for the role of Elisabeth, it lacks slancio for the more dramatic passages. As a result, her voice was often hard-pressed, afflicted by an unpleasant metallic, almost Slavic vibrato. She was also ill at ease when required to produce mezza voce. Although she did not spoil the fun, it was one of the less endearing performances of this role in my experience. Waltraud Meier’s voice has seen better days, but she remains a compelling Ortrud. Her expert tone coloring makes her particularly subtle and seductive in this role too often reduced to bitchiness. Even if volume is not exactly generous, she can focus her voice and flash some penetrating top notes, as in her invocation of the Wodan and Freia in act II. Ben Heppner started his performance with the wrong foot – his farewell to the swan was poorly tuned and he cracked a couple of notes, problems he would display whenever he tried to produce softer dynamics. His tenor would often acquire a pronounced nasality, but all in all this is a role taylor-made for his voice, whose pleasantness and ringing top notes are hard to overlook. Pity that his interpretation was rather blank. Eike Wilm Schulte first seemed well cast as Telramund – his baritone is forceful and firm – but he tired too soon in act II to create the right effect in this role. With his dark, spacious bass, Hans-Peter König was properly cast for King Henry, even if the role is a bit high for him. Finally, Anton Keremidtchiev was a very good Herald.
Götz Friedrich’s 1990 production is beyond salvation. To start with, the sets are appallingly ugly. For one moment, I had the impression that the action was set somewhere in a crumbling bus station in Albania. Then there were dingy costumes – Lohengrin and particularly Telramund were unflatteringly dressed. Then it was clearly that there was no staging direction to speak of – I wonder what exactly the person responsible for “Spielleitung” did other than say “enter from here and exit through there”. All the male singers can hardly be described as natural actors and moved awkwardly on stage. The act I duel was truly embarrassing. Both women were far more gifted in this department, but were left alone to do their thing. Ricarda Merbeth worked hard for intensity and ended on the semaphoric. I felt sorry for Waltraud Meier, who is used to collaborate with famous directors in conceptual stagings. She must be a very serious professional – she never gave up trying to make something of very little. Her attempts to interact with her Telramund on act II seemed to have the effect of frightening the baritone, what served as a good dramatic effect anyway. But it is difficult to do the trick all alone. One very interesting feature if unfaithful to the libretto – and I would be curious to know if this was her idea – was to show a surrendering Ortrud in the last bars of the opera, obliged to recognize the force of Christianity while bowing before the Duke of Brabant.