It has been a while since Dresden was in the forefront of the operatic world, in spite of its world-class orchestra and enviable acoustics. Christian Thielemann’s tenure in the Semperoper has already made some serious attempts of changing this, none as glamorous as this year’s Lohengrin, in which both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala made their Wagnerian debuts along some of the most celetrabted Wagnerian singers these days. The expression “golden age” is rarely used to performances after 1980 and one tends to believe that this is just what reviewers write when they are old and nostalgic of their own “golden” days, but the truth is: nothing like watching a cast of A-listers competing for the love of their audience. This is the kind of phenomenon in which the sum is always far greater than its parts, especially when a strong-handed conductor healthily keeps it under tight control.
For instance, Anna Netrebko is not just a great soprano, she is one of the leading starts of the world of opera. One would have imagined a crowd of fans to guarantee thunderous applause – and she surely received it, as much as every other singer on stage this afternoon. In any case, Netrebko’s Elsa is no vanity project. She clearly studied the part with utmost care and made sure that she was singing her own personality into it. When Victoria de los Angeles sang Elisabeth in Bayreuth, purists called it “sentimentalized”; I wonder what they would think of the Russian diva in these Wagnerian shores. Hers was certainly no conventional Elsa: her full, luscious middle and low registers alone made her different from almost anyone else in this role. This Elsa was everything but cold and bloodless. She carefully worked on her pronunciation, on her delivery of the text and on what one would call “German” style. Yet she caressed her lines and coloured her tone very much in bel canto style (and the discrete use of portamento would reinforce that impression), for truly interesting results. It is true that the first scene caught her a bit off her element (and also that she could be once or twice a bit more precise with intonation), but hers developed into a very solid performance, sung with rich and voluminous tone throughout (she was impressively hearable in ensembles), floated beautiful mezza voce and had this intriguingly sensuousness that showed entirely new sides of this role.
Evelyn Herlitzius’s squally singing is not for everyone’s taste, but even those who dislike it must concede that an Ortrud unchallenged by a loud orchestra is a refreshing experience. She did make efforts in terms of subtlety, but her voice does not suggest the chic of a Christa Ludwig or the seduction of a Waltraud Meier. It is rather Ortrud, the witch, and that is not necessarily a drawback. Moreover, she was in good voice, supplying hair-raising powerful acuti without flinching.
Piotr Beczala’s matinée-idol lyric tenor is ideal for the role of Lohengrin. If his top notes lack some power, they are well connected and in keeping with his ardorous phrasing and appealing tonal quality. The farewell to the swan both in act I and III were soft in tone and the long duet with Elsa passionate and sensitive. One must always remember that Mr. Beczala is no newcomer to German repertoire, having sung roles like Tamino and Belmonte. He was well contrasted to Tomasz Konieczny’s steely, powerful Telramund, very much in control of the difficult part, especially in act II, where most baritones are desperate with what they have to sing. Georg Zeppenfeld is an experienced King Heinrich, this evening a bit short of resonance in his high register, but still firm and true. Derek Welton’s Herald, however, had his woolly moments.
Christian Thielemann’s approach to this score is, not surprisingly, very objective, forward-moving, favoring a big yet clear orchestral sound, for truly impressive effects in the prelude to act III. His reaction to the notorious homogenity of tempo in this score is a marked flexibility with his beat, usually for the faster whenever a singer started an “aria” or to mark the changes of mood throughout the opera. The Furtwänglerian Wagnerian would find it lacking depth, and I remember being more moved by Barenboim in this opera, particularly in the opening bars and especially in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, but complaining of such high-level music-making would be totally unjustified. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
I have already written about Christine Mielitz’s 1983 production, but one must register that costumes and sets look fresher than last time and that the Spielleitung has added some efficient touches to the proceedings, notably a woman’s point-of-view of the oppression experienced both by Elsa and Ortrud as key players in a men’s game and how it seemed to produce some sort of connection between them.