Posts Tagged ‘Lohengrin’

Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

29 July, 2012

This intriguing production by Hans Neuenfels, now in its third year, concentrates on the people rather than the distant historical setting in which Wagner sets his opera. The stage action starts already during the overture with Lohengrin in an antiseptically white room trying to get out, which he eventually achieves by simply walking backwards through the door. Like the Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin desires a redeeming human love, but being forced to reveal his true origins in Act III he must return from whence he came.

King and subjects, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

Yet he is on a mission to the land of Brabant, and finds it in uproar. The king is weak, unable to walk a straight line without wobbling, and the people are rats — shy creatures unable to do much when faced with forces beyond their control. Ortrud and Telramund’s scheming to capture the crown is displayed in video imagery of rats, and after Lohengrin defeats Telramund, the dialogue between the schemers at the beginning of Act II is set in the context of an overturned coach signifying their crash, with rats coming out of nowhere to take whatever wealth they still possess.

Elsa wounded by the accusations

Elsa, victim of her own naivety, has become reliant on semi-divine intervention to exculpate her for the disappearance of her brother. She is blind to Ortrud’s clever sorcery, unaware that its diabolical power caused her brother to vanish. But Elsa’s great fault is to question her redeemer rather than her accuser, and when she finally compels him to reveal his origins, the lighting for In fernem Land was superb. Lohengrin was warmly lit in centre stage, while Elsa stood front stage-left in a very cold light. After this distressing scene heralding the end of their love, the boat that comes for Lohengrin carries an egg containing an embryo who stands and severs his own umbilical cord. Elsa’s brother has returned and a new era dawns, but Elsa is beyond help.

Ortrud and Elsa

Such are the essentials of this production, and Annette Dasch sang Elsa beautifully, her first entrance showing huge purity of tone, pitch, and presence. Both she and Lohengrin were the same singers as last year, and Klaus Florian Vogt gave an outstanding performance as the title character. Like Elsa he started with great vocal purity and lack of assertiveness, yet quickly took a bolder attitude when addressing the king. This year Wilhelm Schwinghammer sang the king, portraying him as a very weak character, and Samuel Youn made a very fine Herald, just like last year. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan Maclean as Telramund and Ortrud were very strong, both in characterisation and vocal power, but the main plaudits must go to Dasch and Vogt, who were cheered to the rafters, with particularly insistent stamping and cheering for Vogt.

Elsa and Lohengrin

Conducting by Andris Nelsons was super — the overture was terrific and the Act II dialogue between Elsa and Ortrud reached sublime musical heights. There was huge audience appreciation for everyone, except a smattering of boos for the director — but they do like to boo at Bayreuth. This is a clever production, very well revived, and the dramaturge, Henry Arnold has a particularly good essay in the programme, discussing Wagner’s intentions.

For an alternative perspective on this production, see my review from last year.

Performances continue until August 25 — for details click here.

Bayreuth Festival Retrospective, 2011

20 August, 2011

This year the Bayreuth Festival produced five different operas, opening with a new production of Tannhäuser, followed by four revivals: Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tristan, in that order.  I went to the first four, which included Katarina Wagner’s grotesque Meistersinger for which spare tickets were selling at half price, and no wonder. With a weak Walther this year it was even worse than I remembered. Tristan I avoided after the dull production and low quality performance of two years ago, so my sequence ended with Parsifal, which was stunning.

More on that later, but on opening night the Tannhäuser production team was roundly booed. Sebastian Baumgarten portrayed the opera as one vast recycling experiment, yet just behind me in the centre box sat Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet, who represent the main people in control of another huge experiment, namely the Euro. I wonder if they saw the irony. In the Euro experiment, Greece is in the Venusberg, and Elisabeth represents the Euro, but rather than seek redemption in Rome, the Greek government must journey to Berlin and Brussels. In Tannhäuser we know the result. He does not gain absolution for his sins of excess, but there is divine intervention. In the real experiment, Greece has now started its journey, but regardless of what the Euro gods eventually decide, the omnipotent power on high is the bond market. That’s worth remembering because although the higher power absolves Tannhäuser at the end of the opera, there’s a final denouement: both he and Elisabeth die.

What a pity the director of Tannhäuser made no use of this ominous comparison, so that left just two good productions, Lohengrin and Parsifal. In Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin production I liked the rats and video projections, which gave a novel insight into a Wagner opera I care for less than others, but the real punch was from Parsifal. Like many people I’m sceptical of unusual productions, but Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s bold conception was remarkable. It gave an overview of German history from before the First World War until after the Second. The wound from the Treaty of Versailles, the sorcery that Nazism did to a weakened nation, the huge loss of prestige, and finally the cure from paralysis with the death of the old Germany in the person of Titurel. It was an experience not to be missed.

Fortunately Parsifal will reappear next year — see it if you can. It will be shown in the company of TristanLohengrinTannhäuser, and a new production of Fliegende Holländer. As for the Ring, a new production will appear in 2013, the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth.

Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2011

28 July, 2011

The people of Brabant as rats, Elsa in white, wounded with arrows in her back, and Lohengrin during the overture trying to get through white double doors. In 2010 this was the new production that opened the festival — it apparently got a mixed reception, but seeing it for the first time this year I liked it! And so presumably did Angela Merkel who returned as a private citizen to see it again, sitting in the first few rows rather than the main box at the back.

The Wedding, all photos Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

The video projections of rats fighting and metaphorically trying to take over the kingdom were clever, and I loved the opening of Act II with a dead horse and overturned carriage. Telramund and Ortud were evidently trying to abscond with boxes of gold bars that the rats quickly made off with. They have failed in their attempt to take over the kingdom, and the wrecked carriage is representative of their wrecked plans.

Elsa, with Ortrud, Telramund and Lohengrin

As for Lohengrin himself, Wagner writes in his Mitteilung an meine Freunde (Communication to my friends) that the hero is looking for a woman who “ihn unbedingt liebe” (loves him unconditionally). He longs for the one person who can release him from his solitude, quench his yearning — for love, for being loved, for being understood through love (original German “ihn aus seiner Einsamkeit erlösen, seine Sehnsucht stillen konnte — nach Liebe, nach Geliebtsein, nach Verstandensein durch die Liebe“). He fails of course because Elsa cannot resist demanding the name he can’t reveal without returning immediately to the land of the Grail. When the swan comes back for him, it turns into Elsa’s lost younger brother whom Ortrud bewitched and accused her of murdering, and in this production the brother is an embryo held inside an egg-like container. He rises onto his legs, tears his umbilical cord, and stands there like some far eastern holy man. Lohengrin walked slowly to the front of the stage, the lights went out, and the applause erupted.

Elsa and Ortrud

Klaus Florian Vogt was an immensely strong and charismatic Lohengrin, assertive against others, yet showing quieter tender moments to the beautiful Elsa of Annette Dasch. Tómas Tómasson sang strongly as Telramund, and Petra Lang was a powerful presence as Ortrud, singing with huge force when the occasion demanded it. Samuel Youn was in good voice and whacky costume as the Herald, and Georg Zeppenfeld showed suitable weakness as King Henry, but sang with firmness, particularly in Act I when he refers to the sword giving a judgement between Trug und Wahreheit (fraud and truth).

The final tableau

Andris Nelsons conducted with energy and what seemed a faster than usual tempo, though I’ve no objection to that since I find this opera can tend to drag despite the beautiful music. In any event, Hans Neuenfels’ production, with costume and stage designs by Reinhard von der Thannen, gives a forward movement to developments and lightens things with a strong splash of colour. I loved the pink mice, and the hugely colourful lady rats at the wedding ceremony. As the mice came on, followed by the ladies I half expected the orchestra to burst into ballet music for Nutcracker or La fille mal gardée, to say nothing of the allusion to Swan Lake with Elsa and Ortrud in their feathered dresses of white and black.

In the end what stands out is: an intriguing production, fine performances from the whole cast, and that wonderful stage moment with the broken carriage and dead horse at the start of Act II. Super.

Wagner at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a retrospective, February 2010

17 February, 2010

Five Wagner operas in six days — LohengrinRienziDer fliegende HolländerTannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — was quite a marathon, but well worth it, particularly for three of the productions. Lohengrin and Meistersinger, both under the direction of Götz Friedrich were excellent, and Philipp Stölzl’s Rienzi gave us an intriguing representation of Hitler and the Nazis — very appropriate when one recalls that Hitler loved the opera and possessed the original score, which presumably went up in flames in the bunker when he died. Interestingly enough, Wagner had already disassociated himself from this early opera well before he died, which was before Hitler was born. Of the other two operas, the production of Tannhäuser by Kirsten Harms was effective in the first two acts, but disappointing in the third, while the one-act Holländer was given an absurd production by Tatjana Gürbaca. Opera houses that put on such nonsense shoot themselves in the foot, as word gets around and many seats remain unsold.

Some of the singing was outstanding. Anyone who did not attend Tannhäuser missed a superb performance by Stephen Gould, who seems perfectly suited to this role. In November 2011 he will sing it at the Wiener Staatsoper, where he will also perform Siegfried in the last two Ring operas. Mentioning singers who fill a role to perfection, I thought Torsten Kerl performed very well, and was convincingly narcissistic, as the title character in Rienzi. And a similar wonderful pairing between singer and role was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther in Meistersinger. It’s one of his main parts, along with Lohengrin, and I would rather have seen him in that opera than Ben Heppner, whose power seems to have weakened in recent years, though he retains his lyricism. As it was I thought the best performers in Lohengrin were Waltraud Meier and Eike Wilm Schulte, who were wonderfully mendacious as Ortrud and Telramund. King Henry the Fowler was also very strongly sung by Markus Brück, who gave us a superb Beckmesser in Meistersinger, young, smug and appallingly lacking in self-esteem — it was a wonderful act. Holländer is hardly worth mentioning since the singers cannot do their best in such an absurd production, but I found the strongest member of the cast to be Hans-Peter König singing Daland, as he did a year ago at the Royal Opera.

As far as the conducting went, Jacques Lacombe’s rendition of Holländer came over well, and since the production was so awful I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on the music. Sebastian Lang-Lessing did well with Rienzi in the cut-down version that was performed here, and I very much liked Michael Schønwandt’s conducting of Lohengrin. Ulf Schirmer did well with Tannhäuser, but although I found Donald Runnicles’ conducting of Meistersinger to be very sensitive to the singers, I wasn’t sure he had taken enough time to rehearse. Being later in Wagner’s oeuvre than the other operas during the week it is musically more sophisticated and I felt there was some raggedness in parts.

Altogether, however this was a great week of Wagner. I particularly loved the Götz Friedrich productions of Lohengrin and Meistersinger, and found Rienzi stunning after a rather dubious first half. Congratulations to the Deutsche Oper for putting it on in this new Philipp Stölzl production.

Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

10 February, 2010

This Götz Friedrich production, with sets and costumes by Peter Sykora, has a warmth and immediacy that emphasises the human weaknesses and machinations of the story. Friedrich’s excellent staging is well supported by the performers, particularly Waltraud Meier, who plays the evil Ortrud with subtle malice, and Eike Wilm Schulte, who portrays a fiercely tendentious Telramund with a commanding voice — this nasty pair both exhibit great stage presence. King Henry the Fowler was beautifully sung by Markus Brück, and Elsa was well portrayed, with suitable frailty, by Ricarda Merbeth. She sang well and I only wish she’d shown less tension in her face during Act I, as I prefer to see Elsa exhibit sublime confidence in finding a champion against the malicious accusations that she has killed her young brother Gottfried. The hero she awaits, who will defeat Telramund and his sorceress-wife Ortrud, is Lohengrin himself. This was Ben Heppner, who sang out boldly with great lyricism, though his stage presence was mainly notable by its absence.

The orchestra was excellently conducted by Michael Schønwandt, and I loved the horns on stage, and later off-stage. These were glorious instruments without valves, beautifully played by Gerhard Greif, Kurt Kratz, Ulrich Riehl and Joachim Weigert. The staging and the music were both very fine, and the lighting was quite remarkable. The gradual fade-outs on Telramund and Ortrud, and the glow on Elsa, were particularly well done. The bridesmaids and church choristers were nice touches in this production, and as Elsa enters the church at the end of Act II she pauses to look back at Ortrud, a moment that was well lit and dramatically emphasised.

Although Lohengrin is my least favourite Wagner opera — I find Act II overlong, and have a secret admiration for Rossini’s alleged comment that, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time” — this production is wonderful, and perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.

Wagner Week at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, February 2010

31 January, 2010

On February 9th I shall be in Berlin for a week of Wagner operas at the Deutsche Oper. Here is the list, with details of the performers.

Lohengrin: production by Götz Friedrich, conducted by Michael Schønwandt, with Ben Heppner as Lohengrin, Ricarda Merbeth as Elsa, Waltraud Meier as Ortrud, and Eike Wilm Schulte as her husband Telramund. I recall that Shulte sang a very strong Kurwenal in the Metropolitan live relay of Tristan in March 2008.

Rienzi: production by film director Philipp Stölzl, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, who sang Tristan at Glyndebourne in summer 2009. Camilla Nylund will be his sister Irene, Kate Aldrich her lover Adriano, and Ante Jerkunica as Adriano’s father.

Der fliegende Holländer: production by Tatjana Gürbaca, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, with Egil Silins as the Dutchman, Hans-Peter König as Daland, Manuela Uhl as his daughter Senta, and Endrik Wottrich as Erik. Ms Uhl had the misfortune to portray the eponymous role in the dreadful production of Salome by the Deutsche Oper last year, but let’s hope she has the advantage of a sensible production for this opera. Mentioning last year in Berlin, I recall Jacques Lacombe conducting an excellent Ariadne auf Naxos for the Deutsche Oper, and last summer a very fine Tosca for the Royal Opera in London.

Tannhäuser: production by Kirsten Harms, conducted by Ulf Schirmer, with Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser, Nadja Michael as Venus/Elisabeth, and Dietrich Henschel as Wolfram. Both Stephen Gould and Nadja Michael were together at the Royal Opera last January in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, an opera, like Tannhäuser, where a young man is pulled into a vortex of desire by a woman portraying two roles.

Die Meistersinger: production by Götz Friedrich, conducted by Donald Runnicles, with James Johnson as Hans Sachs, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, and Michaela Kaune as Eva. She was the Marschallin in the Deutsche Oper’s Rosenkavalier last year, and I saw both Vogt and Kaune in the Bayreuth Meistersinger this past summer, where he sang brilliantly despite the diabolical production. Beckmesser will be Marcus Brück, with Ulrike Helzel as Magdalena, and Paul Kaufmann as David.

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, April 2009

27 April, 2009

lohengrin-banner[1]

This excellent production by Elijah Moshinsky uses a bare stage with gloriously elaborate movable designs and wonderful costumes by John Napier, subtly lit by Oliver Fenwick. It has deservedly been in the opera house repertoire since 1977 — longer than almost any other production — and the present revival was conducted with great clarity by Semyon Bychkov, amply showing the light and shade of Wagner’s music.

As to the singers, Johan Botha’s Heldentenor voice gave us a superbly sung Lohengrin, and his stage presence showed gravitas but little charisma. Edith Haller was a beautifully voiced Elsa, though she struggled in the final act towards the end of a long evening — this was an uncut version of the opera. They were both very well complemented by the wonderful singing of Petra Lang as the evil Ortrud, Gerd Grochowski (replacing Falk Struckmann) as the fatally weak Telramund, and Kwangchul Youn as King Henry. Both Petra Lang and Gerd Grochowski inhabited their roles in a particularly convincing way, not only while singing but also in their silences.

Of Wagner’s ten operas in the standard repertoire I think of this as my least favourite, but the combination of an excellent production by Elijah Moshinsky, fine conducting from Semyon Bychkov, and terrific singing from the principals and the chorus made this the best Lohengrin I remember seeing.