Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Lohengrin’

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 stars in 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.

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São Paulo has been called the no.1 destination in South America for classical music, mainly for its compelling symphonic orchestra (the OSESP) and its home theatre (the Sala São Paulo). Things, however, are not up to the same levels in the opera house. I saw a complete opera in the Theatro Municipal just once in my life, more than 10 years ago – and it happened to be Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The performance was nothing to be ashamed of, and it was my first encounter with Albert Dohmen, who happened to sing Wolfram then. The present series of performance can boast an even more impressive cast (I’m speaking of the “premium” cast, since I was not able to see more than one evening). And singers are the redeeming feature of today’s experience.

Marion Ammann is an exemplary Elsa in terms of style, musicianship and good taste. Her creamy soprano has its unstable and hooty moments, but it is mostly easy on the ear, especially in soaring mezza voce. She was aptly contrasted with the provocative Ortrud from Marianne Cornetti. Hers was an Italianate approach to the role – keen on legato, powerful in top notes, varied in tone coloring and distinctively mezzo-ish in quality. Her second act was entirely built around seduction, subtlety and intelligence. In proper circumstances, she could have offered something truly memorable. Here let’s say that it was highly commendable that – having to guess the conductor’s beat – she was able to find leeway to develop an interpretation. Tomislav Muzek was a light, firm-toned Lohengrin, with natural tenor quality and ardent phrasing. Extremes of dynamics did not come very easily to him, but the spontaneity was more than compensation. I’ve seen Tomas Tomasson’s Telramund in Bayreuth, unfortunately not in a good day. This time we were luckier – he was in incisive voice and only showed sign of fatigue by the end of act II. He and Marianne Cornetti established a winning partnership that rescued the whole performance of its emptiness. In spite of Luiz-Ottavio Faria’s nobility of tone and volume, his King Henry could not go beyond the lack of focus and wooliness. Carlos Eduardo Marcos’s Herald too had its throaty moments.

I am afraid that there is nothing positive to report other than that. John Neschling conducted a score notorious for its sameness of tempo as squarely as possible. This was made more evident by the blatant imbalance in his orchestra: a piercing brass section saturating a sound picture with strings as good as inexistent. Woodwind were not terribly expressive either. Then there was a colossal problem of synchronicity, most seriously in what involved soloists. By the first 15 minutes it was clear that the performance was scandalously under-rehearsed. Elsa was often ahead the beat, Lohengrin would constantly look hopeless trying to figure out where he was, Ortrud and Telramund mostly conducted themselves (and proved to be more efficient than the maestro in charge, for that matter). Ensembles were often everyone-doing-their-thing. To make things more “interesting”, the chorus was short of disastrous: tenors could not produce mezza voce to save their lives (in this of all operas), sopranos produced some funny sounds and I have never heard the altos as constantly as this evening.

I first thought that Henning Brockhaus’s production was amateurish, but curiously he seems to be a professional stage director. Hmm…  The first scene had the men from the chorus playing billiards, some “dancers” contorting themselves standing on chairs and people acting like zombies. Then Lohengrin appears, the swan is a grey box with feathers stuck on a black fabric. There is a curtain of brass instruments to show that Lohengrin represents a dimension of beauty and transcendence. It is replaced by a curtain of knives for the duel. Characters enter from wrong places, exit through nonsensical spots (Elsa invites Ortrud in, but they take different directions; the grey box is supposed to be the swan, but Gottfried – here a piece of marble – appears in the opposite side of the stage), cast and chorus are required to squat and lie on the floor 80% of the time… Fremdscham is the bottomline here. Wagner deserved better.

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When I left the theatre this evening, I was inclined to start this by saying “be careful what you wish for – I have often written that it was high time the Deutsche Oper replaced Götz Friedrich’s old production – and now I see that they would have done better by keeping the old one”. Well, on my way back home, I’ve changed my mind: first, I eventually remembered that the old production had become something really painful to watch; second, Kasper Holten has many interesting new ideas in his new production. I just wonder why he wasn’t really in the mood for properly staging them. My first impression is that the Deutsche Oper had bought this stating on eBay – one could see where every detail came from and, in an interview in the program, it is suggested that, after a relatively recent staging in Moscow, the director might have used up his imagination for this opera (he, of course, denies it). As it is, Holten finds some very reasonable starting-points for his concept:

a) Although Elsa is very much relieved to be rescued by Lohengrin etc, she has not exactly CHOSEN him. Let’s us say that, if she did not really like him, she would have been sentenced to death. This makes him something of a convenience, glamorous as it is. The same applies for the three forbidden questions.

b) Although Lohengrin says he does not need to justify himself, for “everyone has seen his good deeds”, the fact is that Lohengrin has done nothing but beat in a duel (which he could not loose) someone who was well-intentioned and far from being a bad guy (my contribution to this point: Telramund could have forced Elsa to marry him, for instance – after all, he was the regent and had the whole structure to work up against her). Actually, he makes lots of promises – but that’s it.

c) The only confession Ortrud makes is that she has always known that Gottfried was the swan (nota bene: putting a chain around the boy’s neck is not technically a crime). When she is accused of inventing the whole story about Elsa, she answers “Who lied?!”

From these starting points, Holten proposes something very unusual – who said that Lohengrin is the good guy? Good question. We tend to believe it because of the heavenly music Wagner composed for him – and, well, he says he is the son of Parsifal and Parsifal is a good guy. But there is no one to confirm that information there. Based on that – and on the fact that in times of war, people tend not to make lots of question when someone promises them victory – the production shows Lohengrin as a populist who tricks the people of Brabant in electing them as their leader. More than that: he uses Elsa for his purposes. Aha – more than that – who said it wasn’t him the one who kidnapped Gottfried in the first place?! It sounds quite Richard-III-esque, but interesting it is. I wonder again why it was deemed right to stage such an original approach with: a) Roger Corman-like costumes; b) anodyne sets; c) stock gestures; d) long moments of boredom. For example, why is Ortrud portrayed as a witch with Cruella DeVil-facial expressions who spends a great part of act II worshiping a green neon light? If Lohengrin is really using everybody as it seems to be the premiss here, one could say that, manipulative as Ortrud also is, she has given Elsa some valuable piece of advice. Actually, the most all-round Personregie here goes to Elsa – here she is not a silly-goose, but a woman pushed into a reckless wedding until she realizes that it was not reasonable to be expected from her to accept this situation under those circumstances.

It was most fortunate that this evening’s soprano has enacted this concept so convincingly. Ricarda Merbeth was the last singer to sing Elsa in Götz Friedrich’s production. Then, I had found her soprano big and metallic. This evening the description would rather be acidulous and fluttery – although she did not spoil the fun at all as a singer, she did not add to it in any aspect. When it comes to Petra Lang, I would say that this Ortrud is a great improvement from her performance in Bayreuth last year. If the voice still lacks roundness, it was nonetheless very firm and clear, her low notes were particularly focused, her high notes remain admirably percussive and effortless. Maybe under the influence of Runnicles, she showed herself more inclined to produce smoother phrasing and to extend her acuti only for a couple of seconds (and not for ever, as in Bayreuth). She is a charismatic singer and it is doubly regretful that the director did not seem to know what to make of her.

As originally announced, the tenor in the title role was supposed to be Marco Jentzsch, who mysteriously disappeared two weeks before the opening night to be replaced by… Klaus Florian Vogt. As much as I admire his Lohengrin, I guess I have already got it – and was dying to move on, see new people, you know. That is why I was probably the only person in the theatre not depressed because of his cancellation (due to a sudden illness). Well, considering that his replacement Martin Homrich is moving into the jugendlich Fach… probably this evening, did not have time to rehearse and sang from the corner of the stage to an actor playing his part, I see now that I could have seen and heard Vogt one more time. That said, it was very brave of him to show his Lohengrin so prematurely for the audience in order to save the day. If Gordon Hawkins did not elicit enthusiastic applause, it must be said that he sang the role of Telramund more smoothly than most. The fact remains that his is not the voix du rôle – it lacks impact (although it is certainly voluminous), the sound is on the noble sound and he seems to be regretting deep inside that he is not in a good-guy role. I don’t know how experienced he is as Telramund (at some point, he got lost, for instance), but – again all that said – in terms of pure singing, he did a very decent job in a part in which lots of people get burnt very easily. Albert Dohmen sounded very rusty and sometimes ill-at-ease as the King, but Bastiaan Everink almost stole the show as a very powerful Herald.

Truth be said, this performance wouldn’t have been special but for the excellent contributions from the chorus and the orchestra, under a very efficient conducting from Donald Runnicles. If this performance had been recorded, listening to the CD would tell just half the story. The way the Deutsche Oper’s Musical Director mastered the sound perspectives in the hall is something only a seasoned Wagnerian could do: ideal balance pit/stage, absolute clarity (impressive prelude to act III), an exciting sense of forward movement (particularly telling in act II, scene 1) and truly theatrical accents. The reputation of the Deutsche Oper as a Wagnerian house is – at least from the musical point of view – in safe hands.

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In an interview for Gramophone, Marek Janowski said that his idea for his Wagner’s opera omnia series with the RSB was his dissatisfaction with contemporary German opera directors, who don’t understand the master’s work. Thus, in concert version, his operas could shine at their brightest without any “interference” from the theatrical überall Wahn. Curiously, the conductor did not explain what kind of theatrical direction would be, in his opinion, ideal for Wagner operas. This introduction might seem irrelevant, but it made me remember that one of my eight or nine readers, Stefan, on explaining why he did not stay for the second act of Janowski’s Meistersinger because “the conductor obviously did not care about the drama of the piece”. I wonder what Wagner himself would think of this dichotomy between music and drama in the context of Musikdrama – is it legitimate to say that a performance of a Wagner opera gains in musical values for not being disturbed by being staged? One might said that it depends of the director. I would add then that the advantage of a concert performance depends of the conductor as well.

I have seen staged performances of Wagner operas that were musically uninteresting but theatrically compelling, staged performances who were dull in terms of theatre but musically illuminating – and Wagner operas performed in concert version that were actually “dramatic” and some that were neither dramatic nor musically interesting. In other words, although there is no golden rule here, in view of Maestro Janowski’s opinions, I was ready to be overwhelmed by something revelatory in terms of conducting this evening. I haven’t – Daniel Barenboim “accompanying” either Harry Kupfer’s or Stefan Herheim’s stagings actually offered me something far more overwhelming. I do not mean that this evening’s was a bad performance – it was certainly not – but it hadn’t been special either. If one has in mind that it has been organized with the purpose of being recorded, it was supposed to be memorable – otherwise why release a CD of it, isn’t it? As it was, this was an outstandingly clear reading of the score with rhythmically accurate ensembles. If there is one opera the prelude of which is supposed to set the mood for what lies ahead, this is Lohengrin – not this evening, I am afraid: violins lacked floating quality in their pianissimo playing and the climax was so deliberately built that it actually hang fire. To tell the truth, strings lacked volume throughout, violins sounding particularly thin. Since brass were in healthy shape, this could be often problematic. Act II had a better start, the dark side of the opera apparently has more appeal to the conductor – the Ortrud/Telramund scene displayed superior structural coherence and the orchestra commented with some passion, when not reined in to spare singers in difficulty. The Rundfunkchor Berlin proved to be the trump card of today’s Lohengrin – no wonder that the ensembles were invariably the most exciting moments this evening. Lohengrin’s arrival in act I was particularly praiseworthy, one of the best I have heard either live or in recordings. By the third act, things seemed to gain somewhat in interest – the prelude to act III is one of Janowski’s specialties, but I have heard him conduct it more excitingly with this same orchestra in other occasion (here again strings lacked volume). In all honesty, one cannot blame the conductor alone for the lack of excitement. It is very generous of these singers to perform pro bono and I respect all of them for that, but this was no dream team for this opera – and one could see that Janowski had to make them many concessions that ended on impairing some key dramatic moments. A good example was Ortrud’s last intervention – the orchestra, for once, was ready to give it all, but the conductor had to scale things down and he deserves high praise for being able to keep some excitement there through articulation and accent alone.

Pregnancy seems to become Annette Dasch – although the role of Elsa requires a larger voice than hers, she sang it this evening really better than when I saw her in Bayreuth. Today I found her middle and low register particularly fruity and appealing and her attempts to produce pianissimo more effective. Her interpretation has deepened too and, even if her Elsa has more than a splash of “Gossip Girl”, it is also theatrically alert and attentive to the text. Susanne Resmark too knows everything she should know about Ortrud, but the role is impossibly high for her voice, making her sound hooty, breathy and sometimes off-pitch. I have seen Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin in various occasions and so far this has been his best performance in this role and I am glad that it has been recorded. His strangely ethereal yet forceful tenor fits the “role description” and he sang it particularly mellifluously this evening, while almost avoiding the abrupt ending of phrases that sometimes disfigure his singing. Gerd Grochowski masters the crispy declamation necessary to sing Telramund but, as his Ortrud, finds the role high for his voice, sounding often gray toned and limited in volume in the higher reaches. Together with this evening’s tenor and the chorus, the shining features of this performance are the outstanding Günther Groissböck, an exemplary Wagnerian voice, as King Henry and Markus Brück’s powerful Herald.

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Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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If this evening’s performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Vienna State Opera could be counted as a success, this would be almost entirely Leif Segerstam’s doing. I have not heard from this Finnish conductor for a long while and last time I heard about him it was not really quite thrilling.  This evening, the word “thrilling”, however, is quite well-chosen. I have never heard the Vienna State Opera Orchestra produce sounds in this level of opulence, while retaining its hallmark crystalline pianissimi and clarity. Throughout the opera, the orchestra was placed in the center of events, including in dramatic aspects – rather than producing the atmosphere, it carried the story-telling. The Ortrud/Telramund scene in act II was exemplarily conducted in its motivic clarity and music-dramatic development  and the prelude to act III was one of the most exciting tours-de-force I have ever heard in an opera house.  Although the approach was rather aggressive, the virtuoso quality of the orchestral playing raised it to true distinction. The house chorus sang heartily and at moments one could believe that they would even overshadow an orchestra whose level of loudness was particularly high. It is only a pity that the right soloists have not been found to fit the concept. I am not saying that the casting was uninspired, but the fierce sounds coming from the pit demanded ample-voiced soloists with large personalities to galvanize the proceedings.

For example, Soile Isokoski’s Elsa was particularly touching. Her young-sounding delicate, almost virginal soprano floats rather than flashes. Based on a solid technique, this singer has the rare ability to focus instead of forcing her voice, which sounds invariably pleasant to the ears. Her phrasing is musicianly and sensitive and her sense of pitch is flawless. Her whole method fits the directorial choice of showing Elsa as a blind, meek woman whose fragility is quite touching. The ascent from object of compassion to object of grace is too much for a neglected woman who is no longer able to believe in miracles.  But Segerstam is telling another story – and the delicate colours of Isokoski’s Elsa are often dazzled by the formidable scale of his approach. Waltraud Meier does have the charisma to match the presiding intensity, but the fact is that she was clearly not in good voice. Although she cunningly disguised that in a demi-tintes interpretation, this was simply impossible in the context of this performance. As a result, she was often too small-scale, barely hearable or, when she really had to sing out, such as in Entweihte Götter, that was made with alarming strain. Ain Anger’s King Henry also suffered from too velvety a tonal quality to pierce through the orchestra, his noble-sounding bass failing to produce the necessary impact under these circumstances.

When it comes to Peter Seiffert, one has to acknowledge that heavy repertoire has not spoiled this German’s tenor ability to sing the role that made him famous more or less fifteen years ago. The tone is still appealing, his phrasing is mellifluous when necessary and, if he has to work harder to achieve lightness these days, heroic top notes come more easily to him than 11 years ago as I saw him in this role in Genoa with Antonio Pappano.  All in all, it was a commendable performance, and the fact that he got a bit tired by the very end of the performance is a minor incident in an otherwise satisfying piece of singing.  Wolfgang Koch’s Telramund also seems to have improved since last year in Munich – his high register proved to be better supported this evening, making for a warmer, rounder but also powerful sound in this role’s testing tessitura. The conductor did not make things easy for him, but he faced the challenge and offered an intense, almost wild performance, forcefully sung.

Except from the interesting idea of portraying Elsa as a blind woman, Barrie Kosky’s production is rather blank in its pointless symbolism, ugly sceneries and really poor solutions for key moments, such as the scenes involving the swann and Lohengrin and Telramund’s duel in act I.

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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.

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Let’s be frank – everbody should guess that Lohengrin could represent the process of civilization and Ortrud nature’s underlying instinctive forces. Actually, you don’t have to guess that, the libretto clearly tells you that Ortrud is pagan and Lohengrin is a force of Christianity. Director Richard Jones is probably the only person in the world who did not know that, for he was so enthusiastic about it that he chose to underline it as heavily as he could. So architecture was chosen as a symbol of civilization. Again you don’t have to be a genius to make that one out. When Tamino gets to the supposedly evil Sarastro’s temple, he recognizes from the buildings that some decent people should live there. The point is – making all the plot of Lohengrin turn around the building of a house for Elsa does not make the understanding of the story of Lohengrin deeper, but actually shallower. It makes it twice more complicate the fact that Lohengrin, first shows in jeans and a blue t-shirt develops into some sort of a Quaker leader of a blue t-shirt sect. I cannot deny that following the building of the house is interesting – I often felt distracted from everything else seeing if the roof would fit or the windows being set – but building it is something too difficult for chorus members to perform while singing. So choristers basically did nothing while supernumerary Handy Andies kept doing the hardwork. I wonder if there is someone left in Munich to repair your window during these performances of Lohengrin.

One might ask me how I could be distracted by bricks and cement while listening to Lohengrin. That is explained by Kent Nagano’s entirely uneventful conducting. To start with, his reputation as a “colorist”  here meant that the orchestra was kept at low volume throughout. The problem is that the gain of clarity was minimal and the considerate tempi left people wishing for more SOUND. If I have to make one harsh criticism is that both Richard Jones and Kent Nagano left no space for Ortrud and Telramund in their view of this opera – and God knows every Wagnerian sings Entweihte Götter in the shower! So back to the staging – since the action was transposed to the 50’s or something, Ortrud cannot be “pagan”. Actually, one cannot understand what she opposes to. In Nagano’s 100% gentle approach, their music lacks any trace of violence. The fierce repetition of their themes could barely heard in the famous declamatory passages of act II, scene 1. When the conductor was finally forced to plug in his performance (prelude to act III), the result was so messy that I felt sorry for him.

To make things worse, casting (alas, again…) was plagued by problems. To start with, the star of the show, Jonas Kaufmann, felt ill. Although he had high fever, he agreed to sing until the arrival of his replacement, who was flown in from London. All that said, I found he was an admirable Lohengrin. Although it is unwise to give a final opinion without act III (when he was replaced by an understandably unprepared Ivar Gilhuus), I am sure he should be fine there. From what I could hear, he unites the best from two different approaches to Lohengrin.  He has all the mezza-voce refinements of the young René Kollo and also the dark-hued tone and intensity of a James King. His tenor is not voluminous as some would wish, but he can pierce all right through the orchestra. In any case, if you find Klaus Florian Vogt too ethereal, Kaufmann should be your Lohengrin. And I wonder how better he should be when in good health!

Regardless of how good Kaufmann is, I am afraid that the best performance of the evening was Anja Harteros as Elsa. Even compared to the great sopranos who recorded the role, she goes to my shortlist of the really great Elsas. Her big lyric soprano is always warm, even, solid in its acuti and liquid in its velvety floating mezza voce. Her understanding of the text is exemplary, her imagination is neverending, her good taste is beyond reproach and she looks regal, in spite of the ugly costumes given to her. I know that her Traviatas both here and in New York have deserved warm reviews, but it is clear that her locus are Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch roles.

When it comes to Micaela Schuster’s Ortrud, I am afraid I found it less satisfying than at the Lindenoper. In the Bayerische Staatsoper’s largest auditorium, her voice sounds less rich and the dramatic high notes rather screechy. Worse than that, probably because she was worried about making big sounds, she was often out of steam in the end of phrases, exactly where verbs can be in German. Because of that, many a parola scenica would be lost in inaudibility. Her Telramund, Wolfgang Koch, did fare better in the declamation department, but his is the kind of Heldenbariton whose sound is often tense and raw – and a nobleman like Telramund deserves a bit more tone. King Henry is also a difficult role for Cristof Fischesser’s low-lying bass. Although he sang well, he was too often away from his comfort zone. Finally, Evgeny Nikitin’s herald was softer (and yet spacious) in grain than I am used to hear.

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Stefan Herheim must be the most irritating among living stage directors working for an opera house in the whole world. His production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper unter den Linden has an ambitious agenda – to discuss the relationship between religion, myth and politics through the idea of Lohengrin as a messianic leader who would restore purity inside everyone of us before we are confronted with the fact that an imperfect world cannot be redeemed by perfect solutions. Here Lohengrin does not bring back the Duke of Brabant before he flies away in his giant white feather (apparently, the swann itself does not stop at Bebelplatz): he actually collapses on the ground a few moments later – he was nothing but a fantasy, a human-sized marionette. Accordingly, the “creator” itself,  Richard Wagner is shown as a bouncing marionette during the overture.

Although there is plenty of intelligent ideas going on here (I do not know if I could say the same of Herheim’s Entführung aus dem Serail for the Salzburg Festival), there are way too many of them to start with. Herheim’s staging begins as the cheapest example of Regietheater with soloists and chorus members in casual clothes, carrying string puppets and posters with the words “State”, “Comic”, “German”, “Opera” etc, then develops to something like a mix of Broadway shows Hair and Spamalot until it finally takes off on Act III in a sensitively staged bridal chamber scene, with fine acting from the cast’s Lohengrin and Elsa. I was determined to close my eyes and let myself enjoy the music, but the truth is that – in spite of the high levels of sheer silliness – it does set one’s mind going once you start to consider the many perceptive points about the interrelation of private and public affairs in the libretto. But that’s a virtue of such an acknowledgedly masterly libretto, which not deserves to be made fun of.

If I really had decided to close my eyes and enjoy the music, the balance would definitely be positive. The first chords in the overture revealed such crystalline pianissimo string playing that one could legitimately felt transported to paradise. However, while Daniel Barenboim could extract the last ounce of beauty in lyric passages in grand yet clear orchestra sounds with an expert’s ear for tempi that let musical effects work in the right way, more complex scenes brought about an unsubtle brassy orchestral sound, as in the introduction to act III, for example.While the chorus was unusually accurate in Lohengrin’s arrival and particularly smooth-toned in Gesegnet soll sie schreiten, the orchestra failed to produce either the kaleidoscopic impression in the former or the increasing tension in the later. My memory may betray me, but I have the impression that Barenboim was more substantial and less bombastic when I saw him conduct  this work in the Lindenoper back in 1999.

In what I believe to be her debut in the role of Elsa von Brabant, Dorothea Röschmann not only dispelled my doubts about her venture in jugendlich dramatisch repertoire, but indeed impressed me with her continuous flow of creamy, rich tone and her intelligent and emotional interpretation. Although the voice is still light for the role, her technical control steered her through the perilous exposed moments in ensembles and especialy in the act III duet with Lohengrin. She has mastered the art of projecting Spitzentöne in the hall without forcing her lyric voice, and her ability to produce strong chest notes is of great help in declamatory passages. All I can say is that, although I have immensely enjoyed her Mozart performances, this is the definitely the best I have seen from this very special singer.

Michaela Schuster fulfils the basic vocal requirement for Ortrud, but small miscalculations around the passaggio spoiled some key moments. She relishes the Cruella DeVille approach and handles the text in an unusual yet refreshing sort of evil-and-loving-it manner. Gerd Grochowski’s light but forceful bass-baritone is often drowned by the orchestra, and his very clear articulation of the text helped he out in the last minute. I guess no-one really missed René Pape, who was unable to sing the role of King Henry, since Kwangchul Youn, his replacement, offered an exemplary performance. He was at his most Karl Ridderbusch-ish while offering his own kind of sensitive verbal nuance.

I leave Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin for last. It is difficult to descibe such an extraordinary voice. His high-placed, straight-toned voice is so devoid of the corsé quality which is the hallmark of a tenor that it almost has an almost infantile colour. His ability to produce effortless floating mezza voce is impressive and, at the same time, he can pierce through dense orchestration with very little strain. I could not help thinking that it almost resembled a pop singing style. I say “almost” because a) he did not need a microphone to achieve that and b)  sometimes his phrasing could be more flowing and have less of that sensation of one-note-after-the-other, especially when he had to plunge to the lower end of his range. In any case, if Lohengrin should have an unearthy, angelic feeling about him,  Klaus Florian Vogt is hors concours. He is almost like the tenor answer to Gundula Janowitz’s Elsa – the sound of his voice says everything you need to know about the role and you tend to part with the demand for a collection of interpretative gestures that would only imitate what nature itself has somehow produced.

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